PITTSBURGH – On paper, Notre Dame is the better basketball team – by far. But the Bulldogs know all about post-season success with five victories in 2010 and again in 2011 en route to national championship tilts against Duke and Connecticut respectively.
• Game 36: No. 6 Butler (23-10) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (30-5)
• Place: CONSOL Energy Center; Pittsburgh, Pa.
• Time: 9:40 p.m. ET
• Conference: Big East
• Location: Indianapolis, Ind.
• Nickname: Bulldogs
• 2013-14 record: 14-17 (4-14 in Big East)
ROUND OF 32/SWEET 16
Notre Dame has not won a game to advance to the Sweet 16 since 2003 – Mike Brey’s third year at Notre Dame – when the Irish knocked off UW-Milwaukee and Illinois. With the victory over Northeastern Thursday, Brey and the Irish have now gotten to the Round of 32 seven times in 15 seasons.
The Bulldogs, however, have etched their names in post-season history with the brilliant run under head coach Brad Stevens a few years back. Stevens took Butler to five NCAA tournament appearances in six seasons, including trips to the national title game against Duke in 2010 and Connecticut in 2011 while leading the Bulldogs to a sparkling 166-49 mark (.772) in six campaigns in Indianapolis.
Butler University is located in Indianapolis, Ind., with an enrollment of more than 4,100 students with a gender breakdown of 39 percent male and 61 percent female.
Back-to-back national title runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011 elevated the profile of the Butler basketball program, which helped lead them out of the Horizon League and into the Big East.
In Butler’s first year in the newly-structured Big East under Brandon Miller – and without injured Roosevelt Jones – the Bulldogs finished 14-17 overall and 4-14 in conference play.
Enter Chris Holtmann with the return of Jones, which helped lift the Bulldogs to the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament with a 12-6 conference mark. Butler lost to No. 6 seed Xavier, 67-61, in its first game of the Big East tournament. The Bulldogs made just 10-of-19 free throws in the loss to the Musketeers.
No. 6 seed Butler dictated the tempo in its 56-48 second-round NCAA tournament victory over No. 11 seed Texas Thursday. The Bulldogs limited the Longhorns to just 34.0 percent shooting from the field (17-of-50) and a mere 31.6 percent from three-point range (6-of-19).
Chris Holtmann, 43, was the head coach at Gardner-Webb from 2010-13 before leaving for Butler to serve as Brandon Miller’s assistant coach. When Miller asked for and was granted a medical leave of absence, Holtmann was named the interim head coach. The interim tag was removed as the Big East season began in January, 2015. He led the Bulldogs to a second-place finish behind Villanova with a 22-10 overall record and a 12-6 mark in league play, the same record as Georgetown.
A former NAIA All-American at Taylor University in Indiana, Holtmann served as an assistant coach for 13 years before taking charge at Gardner-Webb, where he had a 44-54 overall record, including a 21-13 mark in his third and final season in Boiling Springs, N.C.
NCAA TOURNAMENT EXPERIENCE
Notre Dame is making its fifth NCAA tournament appearance in the last six seasons and seventh in the last nine, although a comparative study of the two programs in recent years shows a wide disparity in Butler’s favor.
Notre Dame’s victory over Northeastern Thursday afternoon was just its third NCAA tournament conquest in the last 12 seasons while Butler made spectacular runs to the national championship game against Duke and Connecticut in 2010-11.
Butler won 10 NCAA tournament games in two seasons while the Irish have won 10 since 1987. Butler has 18 NCAA tournament victories in its last nine trips while the Irish have just six in the same number of NCAA tournament appearances.
Butler has four players with previous NCAA tournament experience – seniors Kameron Woods and Alex Barlow, and juniors Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones. For the Irish, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant and Zach Auguste played in the NCAA tournament prior to Thursday’s game against Northeastern.
BREY ON BUTLER
“We have a lot of respect for the Butler program, residing in our state and watching their development and the great job Chris has done. It’s two teams that are very similar in that last year, we both went into a new league, minus a real good player, and got our butts kicked. We got our players back, we got a feel for each of our leagues, and we’ve had good years. I think it’s a great match-up.
“It is contrasting styles. I’m really impressed with how physical they are. We’re going to have to be ready to meet that test in the paint. We’ve got to try to get some stops and run. It’s hard to play against their set defense the whole night because they’re so good in their half-court defense.
“Their pattern and their movement (offensively) is similar to Northeastern’s. It’s longer possessions and they’re grinding you with continuous ball screens. We had a little bit of a simulation of that style against Northeastern, and I hope that helps us.”
HOLTMANN ON NOTRE DAME
“They’re a terrific team and have had a terrific season. We have so much respect for them. Obviously, they’re incredible offensively. They’re the best offensive team we will have played this year. Coach Brey’s program is going to be a great challenge for us. It certainly has kept us up throughout most of the night trying to find a way to prepare for them.
“We have to take certain things away. Transition is critical for us, and I know it will be critical for them to try to get some transition scores. All that is tied into your offense and how well you play offensively to keep them out of transition.
“They do a great job of not just shooting and making threes, but also of getting paint scores off of their movement and action. They make you guard the entire floor with guys that can shoot it. They space you out. They make you guard the entire width of the floor.”
Notre Dame and Butler both played North Carolina and Providence this season, combining for a 4-2 mark. The Irish defeated North Carolina twice – 75-70 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 5 and 90-82 last Saturday night in the ACC tournament championship in Greensboro. Butler knocked off North Carolina in late-November in the Bahamas, 74-66.Notre Dame and Butler both lost to Providence, although the Bulldogs split the season series. The Irish fell to the Friars in Connecticut by a point, 75-74, in late-November; the Bulldogs dropped a 66-62 decision to Providence in Indianapolis the first week of January. Butler won at Providence, 68-64, to close the regular season.
KEY BUTLER PERSONNEL
Kellen Dunham, a 6-foot-6, 185-pound junior, leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.7 points per game while shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range (73-of-176) and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line (132-of-154). He’s scored in double-figures in all but three games this season, including 20 points on Thursday against Texas on 5-of-14 shooting from the field (2-of-7 from three).
Dunham and backcourt mate Alex Barlow – a 5-foot-11, 187-pound senior and former walk-on – are very productive from the free-throw line. Barlow, who averages 9.2 points per game and has converted 56-of-144 three-pointers, has made 83.6 percent of his free throws (although with a much smaller sample size at 51-of-61).
Beyond those two, the rest of the Bulldogs are shooting 60.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Bruising swingman Roosevelt Jones – who suffered a left knee injury against Texas and whose status for the Notre Dame game is in question – is Butler’s No. 2 scorer (12.4) and rebounder (5.2). In the role of “point forward,” he leads the Bulldogs with 122 assists. Although he can explode offensively – he scored 28 points at Georgetown – his role is more of a glue guy. He missed the 2013-14 season with a wrist injury, and not coincidentally, the Bulldogs missed the NCAA tournament.
Kameron Woods, a willowy 6-foot-9, 200-pound senior, is nothing short of a spectacular rebounder. He’s averaging 7.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. He has snagged double-digit rebounds in 16 of 34 games this season. He leads the team in offensive rebounds (96) and blocked shots with a modest 29.
Another glue guy for the Bulldogs is Andrew Chrabascz, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who is listed at 205 pounds, which may have been his weight as a sophomore in high school. He’s bulked up considerably since then. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, but went off for 30 points at Marquette.
Butler only goes seven deep with 6-foot-8, 245-pound freshman Tyler Wideman logging just seven minutes against Texas Thursday, and Kelan Martin, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound freshman who scores at a 7.3 clip. Martin tossed in seven points in 15 minutes of action versus Texas when Jones was hobbled with the knee injury.
NOTRE DAME-BUTLER PREVIEW
Mike Brey has gone to calling his team “the night stalkers” for the quality late-night work they did in Greensboro, coupled with tonight’s after-hours clash with the Bulldogs in Pittsburgh.
We’ll see if the Irish can continue their winning ways against a Butler program that believes it has a formula for success in NCAA tournament play after spectacular runs in 2010 and 2011 under head coach Brad Stevens, who eventually moved on to the NBA with the Boston Celtics.
Brandon Miller was on the job for just one season before Chris Holtmann – who wasn’t around for the momentous NCAA tournament runs – took over prior to the start of the 2014-15 season.
Granted, the Big East isn’t what it used to be with the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame all in the ACC. It still seems a bit unusual that the former Horizon League power – Butler – is now a member of the Big East. And yet after a dip in 2013-14, the Bulldogs were the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament last week.
This remains a program that knows how to win and a program that knows how to dictate the tempo/pace of a basketball game. Holtmann has said the Bulldogs want most games played in a phone booth or a box. In other words, a more controlled environment in which half-court offense and defense rule over a wide-open, fast-break transition game.
When the Irish got out in transition against Northeastern Thursday in their opening-game of the NCAA tournament, the Huskies had no answers. The same would be true in the Notre Dame-Butler match-up if the Irish can control the pace. If Notre Dame guards Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson are in up-tempo mode, the Irish will win by double-digits.
But teams like Northeastern and Butler thrive on dictating tempo, and Notre Dame has shown in the past that seizing tempo can be a little tricky.
The health of Butler’s Roosevelt Jones will be key. When he missed the 2013-14 season with a wrist injury, the season went south on the Bulldogs. A similar thing could happen against the Irish if Jones isn’t at or near 100 percent after tweaking his knee against Texas. Jones holds Butler together, and his absence likely would doom the Bulldogs. His presence could hurt as well if the Irish get in transition and a hobbled Jones can’t keep up with the pace.
Look for Irish stopper Steve Vasturia to be assigned to sharp-shooting Butler guard Kellen Dunham. Vasturia’s length should be a factor. The biggest mismatch of all – on paper – is McDonald’s All-American guard Demetrius Jackson versus former walk-on Alex Barlow at the point. Jackson should have a decided advantage on Barlow on both ends of the floor. Likewise, Dunham should have great difficulty keeping up with speedy Jerian Grant on Notre Dame’s offensive end.
Pat Connaughton – coming off a one-rebound performance against Northeastern – has a tough assignment against rebounding magnet Kameron Woods. The tandem of Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson likely will draw the assignment against steady Andrew Chrabascz. Auguste is playing at a very high level, averaging 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in the last five.
Both teams only go seven or sometimes eight deep, so that should be a wash. Notre Dame would like to put someone other than Dunham and Barlow at the free-throw line. Those two are outstanding shooters from the charity stripe; the rest of the team converts at a sub-par 60 percent.
This is a golden opportunity for the Irish to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 seasons. You don’t get many chances like this, particularly with Grant and Connaughton headed out the door after this season.
If the Irish can make this a transition game, it should be a double-digit result. If not, it will be a 40-minute struggle. Reality lies somewhere in between.
• Pointspread: Notre Dame by 4 ½
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 71, Butler 65
• Season record: 23-12 straight up; 14-13 vs. points