The difference a year can make


Photo by Mike Andrews

Chris Holtmann said last season’s 14-17 campaign that ended with the Bulldogs sitting in the Big East cellar left the team with one prevailing thought.

That can’t happen again.

What a difference a year makes. Just one year ago, Bulldogs fans were not even hopeful for an NIT bid, let alone an invitation to the “Big Dance.” Yet as millions tuned into this Sunday’s selection show, Butler knew it was going dancing. The only question was where, and who it’s first partner would be.

What’s been the difference between last year and this one, during which the team tripled its win total in conference play?

A positive attitude goes a long way.

Senior guard Alex Barlow said head coach Chris Holtmann and his staff have been preaching positivity from day one, and it has made a difference.

“I think at times last year, we let negative things affect us and it spiraled,” the former walk-on said Monday afternoon at practice. “This year, we’ve done a much better job of that. The coaches have made it a big emphasis and they’ve been on us about it. Sometimes we’re not happy with how much they’re on us about it, but in the end, it’s been good for us.”

The team was picked to finish tied for seventh in the Big East season. Evidently, they didn’t get the memo. Just ask Barlow.

“I think we knew we were a tournament team,” he said. “Us players and the coaches, we expected to be where we are. Maybe the outside public didn’t.”

How they did it can best be found in the details. The nitty-gritty. Things that matter to Butler teams.

The Bulldogs struggled mightily in close games last year. They lost all seven games that were decided by six points or less, including a 1-point loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

This year, Butler has won 6 of its 11 games that have been decided by two possessions or fewer. All of those games took place during Big East play.

Holtmann said the outcome of close games goes a long way towards affecting team morale. The difference between this year and last year has come down to a lot of small details, but the difference has been anything but minute.

“In the guts of the season, we won a lot of close games,” he said. “That gives some momentum to your guys, with a feeling like, ‘We can do this.’ That was critical. A lot of those went the other way last year for us.”

Butler also stepped up to the challenge when the spotlight shined brightest this season. The Bulldogs were 0-9 against Top-50 RPI teams last season. This year, they improved to 6-8.

Don’t think Butler forgot about last season. They didn’t forget. They used it as motivation.

“Last year we had a team that could’ve been better than we were,” Barlow said. “We had a lot of plays go against us, a lot of small things we didn’t do well that cost us. This year, we’ve found ways to win games where last year we lost them.”

Holtmann said last year’s struggles provided plenty of learning opportunities. And now, Butler appreciates what it has. But don’t mistake appreciation for contentment.

“If you don’t experience any of those lean times, you don’t have as great of an appreciation,” he said. “I know our guys feel really rewarded with this year, but they’re also hungry to do more.”

Just ask Indiana native Kellen Dunham. This is Indiana. This is Butler. This is March. And this year, the Bulldogs are back where they belong.

“It’s win or go home now,” he said. “No more messing around.”