INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Butler is heading back to the NCAA Tournament with a new resume and an old mantra.
The Bulldogs are still out to prove the doubters wrong.
America’s favorite underdogs have undergone a major overhaul since playing in the 2010 and 2011 national championship games. They’ve played in three different conferences, had three different head coaches, endured a major offseason overhaul last summer and even seen the renovation of the revered and beloved Hinkle Fieldhouse.
It’s been a wild ride for those who have stuck around.
“I can’t think off the top of my head of any team that played in three conferences in three years, maybe Louisville. So it’s definitely been unique,” senior point guard Alex Barlow said. “Having three coaches is just as unique.”
For Barlow, the experience has also been educational. The Ohio native chose this small Indianapolis school to learn how to coach from one of the best — Brad Stevens.
Instead, Barlow and his teammates spent the last 20 months getting a crash course of how to overcome life’s surprising adventures.
Stevens left in July 2013 to take the Boston Celtics job. A few days later, former Butler star Brandon Miller, one of Stevens’ assistants, was promoted to head coach.
One month after the coaching change, starting guard Roosevelt Jones sustained a season-ending wrist injury while the Bulldogs were on a summer trip to Australia. From November 2013 through April 2014, five players transferred from Butler and two more transferred into the school.
In July, 24-year-old Andrew Smith, who had played in both of Butler’s national championship game appearances, went into cardiac arrest. He had already been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The good news is that Smith appears to be on the mend.
Then, just before practice began in October, players were told Miller had taken an indefinite leave of absence for still unknown medical reasons.
Suddenly, Chris Holtmann, who had given up Gardner-Webb’s head coaching job after a 21-win season to become one of Miller’s assistants, was running a program that seemed doomed. In January, Butler pulled the interim tag off Holtmann’s title and signed him to a multi-year contract.
Players say they have not heard from Miller since he left, and Holtmann said he has only had limited contact with his former boss.
“By no means would I say this has been easy,” Holtmann said. “But I really identified with this place and the coaches here and how they do things. It’s not unlike what I tried to do at Gardner-Webb for three years. But it’s not like I was going to come in and say, ‘This is the way we’re doing it and if you don’t like it …’ There was no ultimatum.”
Holtmann did change his ways, though.
He started by toning the down the in-your-face coaching style he relied on in previous stops, then worked on changing attitudes.
The Kentucky native with a psychology degree from nearby Taylor University began by dispelling the notion that the Bulldogs (22-10) were too small and too inexperienced to compete in the big-bodied Big East (after stints in the Horizon and Atlantic-10).
He also showed the Bulldogs a video of their poor body language from last season’s games.
The combination made a clear impression.
“Last year, we were immature and at times we struggled with adversity,” Barlow said. “I don’t think we realized how bad it looked. We’ve kind of eliminated that, and it’s made a difference.”
Butler reverted to its old style, relying on a staunch defense, a deliberate offense, a big advantage on the glass and a group of gritty guys unafraid to make mistakes and committed to proving the doubters wrong. They started winning again, too.
The Bulldogs this season set a school record with five wins over ranked teams and defied the preseason projections by finishing second in the Big East.
On Thursday, the Bulldogs will make their seventh NCAA tourney appearance in nine years when they face 11th-seeded Texas in Pittsburgh.
A win could set up a Saturday showdown against third-seeded Notre Dame for a trip to Sweet 16. Four wins, as unthinkable at it might seem, would send Butler back to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Final Four just down the road from campus. Could it happen? It did five years ago.
“It’s kind of like the history Butler has,” Jones said. “Whenever someone starts counting us out, that’s when we start rising up.”
And it would be a fitting finish to the four-year players who have celebrated so many triumphs and overcome so much tumult just to get back to the tourney.
“It’s been a whirlwind, it’s been probably different than any of us expected,” Barlow said. “But we knew the low expectations people had for us this year and the high expectations we had for ourselves. We wanted to go out and prove people wrong.”
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