It has been a turbulent few years for the Butler basketball program. Once the bullies of the Horizon League, Butler moved to the Atlantic 10 for a single season before the collapse and rebirth of the Big East landed the Bulldogs in one of the best conferences in Division I.
But that hasn't been the only change. Butler has also been through several coaching changes over this same period of time. Brad Stevens left two years ago to lead the Boston Celtics and was replaced by assistant Brandon Miller. After a difficult first season, Miller took a medical leave of absence last October, and was replaced on an interim basis by assistant Chris Holtmann, formerly the head coach of Gardner-Webb.
Holtmann had decent teams at Gardner-Webb, improving every year, and was well-regarded. But after three seasons as head coach he decided to move on to become an assistant coach for a major conference program. He took a position on Miller's staff at Butler.
When Miller took his leave (the specific reasons have never been made public), Holtmann inherited the Butler machine. It was a machine that had suffered through a sub-par year (a Roosevelt Jones injury hadn't helped), but it was a machine nevertheless. It has since been announced that Miller will not return as Butler head coach, and Holtmann has been given the job full time going forward.
This season, Butler has returned to form. The Bulldogs are currently 22-10, and finished 12-6 in the tough Big East. Butler's conference tournament ended in its first game, with a 67-61 overtime loss to Xavier.
I actually caught Butler in person a few weeks ago, when they lost 73-56 at Xavier. I don't know how much I can use what I saw in that game to guide me here; to be frank the Bulldogs were absolutely awful the day I watched them live. Kellen Dunham struggled with foul trouble, and was visibly frustrated by a defense that would not let him get clean looks at the basket. It was perhaps his worst game of the season. Meanwhile, Roosevelt Jones struggled to finish his drives into the paint, as he and the rest of the Bulldogs were clearly bothered by Xavier's enormous center Matt Stainbrook.
The Butler Offense
The key player for the Butler offense is junior Kellen Dunham. Dunham is the answer to the question: what would it look like if Phil Forte was 6-6? Dunham is a devastating three point shooter who has connected on 42 percent of his 176 three pointers, but is good enough off the bounce to attack the rim and draw trips to the free throw line, where he is an 84 percent free throw shooter over his career. While Butler doesn't run all that much, Dunham is particularly dangerous in transition, where he is capable of getting to the rack or spotting up from three.
What Texas does defensively against Dunham is likely to be the most important factor in predicting the outcome of this game. Dunham warrants the Phil Forte treatment, where his defender has no other responsibilities other than containing the Butler star.
Holtmann's primary offensive creator is 6-4 junior point guard Roosevelt Jones. For those not familiar with Jones' game, it is very strange. The nearly 230 Jones is a power guard, if such a term exists. And if I can compare Dunham's shot to Phil Forte's, I can think of a former Oklahoma State player with whom to compare Jones' shooting touch -- Doug Gottlieb.
Much like Gottleib, Jones absolutely will not shoot from the perimeter. There can't be many D-I point guards who play over 30 minutes a game who have not attempted a single three point shot this season; I fully expect Jones is about the only player in the nation who falls into this particular group. On his career, he is 0-3 from three point range. That is just staggering.
The strangeness of Jones' game goes beyond his total lack of interest in long range shots. Despite his lack of an outside game, he is able to drive to the basket against frequently sagging defenders in the same way that a bowling ball is able to travel through pins. An amazing two thirds of Jones' field goal attempts take place at the rim, a rate that is higher than Texas center Cameron Ridley. As a result of this, Jones gets fouled a lot -- too bad he is a career 55 percent free throw shooter.
The Butler offense frequently puts Jones in ball screens, where he is best described as a downhill runner. If he isn't able to bully his way to the rack, he is a capable playmaker, finding the sharp shooting Dunham, or Butler's other sharpshooter, 5-11 senior Alex Barlow. Half of Jones' assists come on made threes, and Jones attacking the paint and then kicking out to an open shooter is some of Butler's best offense.
Jones, like the rest of the Bulldogs, is careful with the basketball. Butler may not always find a good shot on offense, but they don't turn the ball over very often.
For Texas, the key to guarding Jones will be to try to make him finish around the rim. Jones is a decent finisher, but he (like everyone else) is likely to struggle finishing inside against Texas' enormous front line.
Rick Barnes should also think carefully about who defends Jones. Jones is going to put fouls on people, so rotating defenders will be a must. Also important is to keep Isaiah Taylor away from him. Jones would likely physically overwhelm Taylor anyway, and the Longhorns need Taylor on the floor as much as possible.
Butler also has a pair of good big guys. 6-9 senior Kameron Woods is the sort of player that it seems like Butler always has. He is exceptional on the glass, is always in the right spot defensively, and can score a little. Woods has to be accounted for on the offensive glass, and is adept at finishing inside when a teammate finds him in position to score. His partner on the front court is 6-7 sophomore Andrew Chrabascz. Chrabascz has a decent back to the basket game, and is far more likely that Woods to create his own shot working from the block. Charbascz is also a good passer, adept at finding teammates behind the line for three point shots.
Butler will rotate several other players into the lineup, including 6-6 freshman Kelan Martin, but the Bulldogs lean pretty heavily on their top five guys. If they find themselves in foul trouble, the lack of depth will become an issue.
The Butler Defense
The Bulldogs have been exceptional on defense this season, currently ranking tenth nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense ratings. Like all of their recent predecessors in Indianapolis, Holtmann's squad is physical on defense, and does exceptionally well on the defensive glass. Great rebounding is one of the foundations of Butler's success.
Butler doesn't have a lot of size, but they make up for it with shear nastiness, and as a result are one of the very best rebounding teams in the nation. The Bulldogs are ranked seventh nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to recover less than 25 percent of their misses. The battle on the boards is likely to be an important aspect of this game. Butler's great rebounding will be matched up against a Texas squad that rebounds 38 percent of its own misses, the 11th highest rate in D-I.
Butler opponents have not shot well from the perimeter this year, a characteristic that has been true about virtually every Butler team for the last decade. They are outstanding at contesting shots, and don't often lose track of their man.
Outside of rebounding, the Bulldog defense does nothing exceptional, but is above average at everything. Butler lacks a rim protecting big man, but every player guards his position. Barlow in particular is a real pest defensively.
This game projects as a fairly even match up. Texas will need a plan to account for Dunham, and will need to rotate different defenders onto the physical Jones. On offense, Texas will have to find a way to score against a difficult Butler defense, and will have to battle on the glass with one of the best rebounding teams in the country.
Expect a slow, low scoring game. Butler really takes its time on offense, and both teams tend to defend in a way that slows opposing offenses down significantly.
If it is a tight game that comes down to free throw shooting, it is likely to become an advantage for Texas. While the Longhorns are solid from the free throw line, outside of Dunham and Barlow Butler is not. And in end game situations it can be a problem when your primary ball handler isn't a good free throw shooter, as is the case with Jones and the Bulldogs.
If Jones is getting into the paint and finding Dunham and Barlow for clean perimeter looks, it will be a frustrating afternoon for Texas. but if Dunham is held in check, and Jones is forced to try to finish around the rim against the Texas big men, I like the Longhorns' chances.