KYLE BEERY | SPORTS EDITOR
University of Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton made the play of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend when he denied Kellen Dunham’s last-second three-point attempt.
Sure, Butler University’s basketball season came to an emotional end Saturday when the Bulldogs lost to Notre Dame 67-64 in the round of 32, but they came a long way from where they were at the beginning of the season.
Butler was coming off its first losing season since the 2004-2005 season and a 4-14 inaugural season in the Big East Conference. The Bulldogs were picked to finish tied for seventh place in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
And to make matters worse, just a year after the face of Butler basketball left to coach in the NBA, the Bulldogs again found themselves with a new coach.
Chris Holtmann was named interim head coach in mid-October in place of Brandon Miller, who announced he was taking a medical leave of absence. There were a lot of questions surrounding the program, but they would soon be answered.
As soon as four games in, as a matter of fact. Butler knocked off then No. 5-ranked University of North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis, settling the nerves of many Bulldogs fans.
And if they were still skeptical of Holtmann, Butler administration showed the world they disagreed when they removed the interim tag on Jan. 2.
The Bulldogs won at St. John’s University the next day, and went 14-3 to finish the regular season after that point.
There was reason for skepticism at the beginning of the season, but was there really any surprise that Butler had as good of a season it did?
No, it didn’t surprise me, to be honest. And I don’t think the players expected anything different.
If there is anything we have all learned about Butler basketball over the last decade or so, it is that you can’t ever count them out. Whether that means in a specific game or, in this case, when faced with adversity in a daunting conference under a new coach.
My preseason prediction was that they’d finish (about fifth) in the conference and make the Big Dance as a low single-digit seed. So you could even call me a doubter, even though many expected much worse.
The fact that Butler was a shot away from its third Sweet 16 in six years is enough for me to predict that the Bulldogs will be back in a similar place next season, if not still playing even later into March.
Seniors Alex Barlow and Kameron Woods will be leaving the program, which is going to be very difficult to replace. Together, they combined for 16.7 points per game and 13.9 rebounds per game. Aside from numbers, Barlow will be especially tough to replace because he’s such a scrappy, intelligent player — both on and off the court, as he was named Big East Scholar Athlete of the Year for the second consecutive season.
But one reason I think Holtmann’s squad will continue to improve its status in the Big East is in part due to some of the performances I saw throughout the year from guys such as Andrew Chrabascz (30 points, eight rebounds at Marquette University), Kellen Dunham (scored more than 20 points on nine occasions) and even freshmen Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman (combined 9.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG).
And of course, another big reason is the addition of Tyler Lewis, a transfer point guard from North Carolina State University. He should be able to step into Barlow’s void and run the offense well — he’s had a year in the system and, furthermore, has spent a year getting to know the offenses of the Big East on the scout team. That could improve his defense, something Barlow was so well known for.
The Bulldogs have a pair of incoming freshmen set to don the Butler uniform for the first time this summer. Nate Fowler is a 6-foot-10, three-star recruit that hails from Cincinnati and attended Moeller High School — Barlow’s alma mater. Fowler was injured in December and missed the remainder of his senior season, but should be back to 100 percent by the time summer workouts roll around.
Sean McDermott is the other incoming freshman. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Pendleton Heights — also Kellen Dunham’s high school — averaged 16 points per game during his senior season.
So, as bitter a pill as it is to swallow, the loss to the Irish means the end of a season and the end of an era with Barlow and Woods, but it also signifies that this Holtmann guy is the real deal. And competing with the ACC Champions that closely is likely an indicator that big things are to come out of the Bulldogs in the near future.