How Butler became one of college basketball’s biggest surprises

Coming off a 22-11 season, Butler lost five of its top 11 players, including arguably its top two in Kellen Dunham and mismatch nightmare Roosevelt Jones.

So heading into the season, Butler coach Chris Holtmann admittedly wasn’t sure what to expect from his 2016-2017 group. But through their non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs have passed early season tests, boasting three top 25 wins and sitting at 11-1 and No. 13 in the polls heading into Big East play.

“If I said, ‘Naw, I expected this,’ you would say you’re full of crap,” Holtmann said. “I am [surprised]. I think we also recognize that league play is a different animal, but to say we expected to go 11-1, given our schedule, with this many new guys, I’d say I’m surprised.”

And the schedule certainly hasn’t been easy.

After winning their first eight games — which included wins over Arizona, Northwestern and Utah — the Bulldogs fell at Indiana State. But the Bulldogs responded with resilience, knocking off Cincinnati and top-10-ranked Indiana the very next week.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“I think we’ve learned a lot about our group here,” Holtmann said. “It’s a relatively new group. … We are really going to learn a lot about our group as we get into league play.”

What’s been the ingredient for early-season success? Holtmann points to a variety of things, but offensive efficiency sits at the top of his list. According to Kenpom, Butler ranks No. 14 in the country in effective field-goal percentage, No. 25 in three-point percentage and in the top 10 in turnover percentage.

“This year we’ve had moments where different guys stepped up,” Holtmann told FOX Sports. “We continue to take care of the ball at a high level, and I think that’s a been a trademark at Butler for a number of years.”

“Last year we had less guys on the floor that could make threes,” he added. “Now we have more guys that make threes, and that makes you harder to guard.”

Through 12 games, six guys on Butler’s roster are shooting above 40 percent from three and the team as a whole is shooting 39.9 percent from long distance.

Junior forward Kelan Martin leads the way with 30 three-point field goals made. Martin, who averages 18.8 points a game, has been asked to do more for this Butler team and he’s responded in a positive way.

Chris Holtmann (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Dylan Buell

“He’s had some really good moments in some really important games,” Holtmann said. “The key for him is when teams really adjust to giving him more and more attention, he’s going to have to not force the issue and impact the game in other ways.”

“He’s a guy when he plays without thinking too much is really at his best,” he added. “He scores more off of just playing rather than action we run for him. He’s just better when he’s playing basketball.”

While Butler’s offense has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs, Holtmann said the Bulldogs’ defense and rebounding are areas that they’ll need to improve if they are going to carry their strong start into conference play. Butler was picked to finish sixth in the conference in the preseason coaches poll.

“Our rebounding is a major concern and our defense has to continue to improve,” he said. “We haven’t been awful in that area, but we need some growth and we haven’t been very good at rebounding.”

Butler starts its Big East slate at St. John’s on Thursday (FS1, 7 p.m. ET). Then the Bulldogs have a pair of home games against Providence and No. 1 Villanova (FS1, Jan. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET).

“We’ve been tested in some of those moments, but it’s really coming in league play,” he said. “We all know what’s coming. It’s just an absolute grind every night. How we respond in those moments (is) critical.”

NEWS & NOTES

Myles Davis (Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

— Xavier’s Myles Davis was suspended indefinitely back in early September. Since then there’s been acknowledgement by the Musketeers coaching staff that he’s expected back, but when is what’s in question. Chris Mack was asked on Tuesday during the Big East conference call if Davis would play on Wednesday against Providence. Mack said he would be out for that game.

— Phil Booth has missed Villanova’s last nine games due to a nagging knee injury. Jay Wright was asked on this week’s Big East conference call about Phil Booth’s status and when he would make a decision regarding the possibility of redshirting the talented guard.

“We don’t have an exact time yet for that decision,” Wright said. “This time period coming back, we are going to restart the process, which is strength training and leg work to see if he can be pain-free. If we get past that, (then we) get him on the court and see if he can be pain-free on the court. We are early in the process with him and kind of restarting it with him now that we are back.”

— Fresh off a victory over archrival Kentucky, Louisville moved up to No. 6 in the AP poll and sits at 11-1. While the win over the Wildcats was significant, Rick Pitino will learn more about his team over the next eight days, as it’ll face Virginia at home, play against Indiana in Indianapolis and travel to Notre Dame. The Cards already have a pair of top 25 wins and have a chance for three more in a short span.

UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports/Jayne Kamin-Oncea

— There are only six teams (Gonzaga, UCLA, USC, Creighton, Villanova, Baylor) still undefeated in college basketball. Four of these teams have particularly tough games on the horizon. UCLA, which ranks No. 2 in the AP Poll, goes to Oregon on Wednesday. On Friday, USC plays at Oregon (FS1, 10 p.m. ET). Then on Saturday, there will be a heavyweight tilt in the Big East, as Villanova goes to Creighton (FS1, 12 p.m. ET).

— Five-star recruit Hamidou Diallo is in the midst of an official visit spree. Diallo visited Connecticut just before Christmas and started a trip to Kentucky late on Monday. The significance of the timing is that Diallo could hypothetically enroll at a college in the next week or so and head to school for the second semester. To go with UConn and UK, Arizona is also involved. Although Diallo could technically play, sources say there is a strong possibility of him picking a school, working out with the team and sitting out this semester.

— SMU transfer and former four-star recruit Harry Froling has already taken a visit to Oregon State and is scheduled to see Dayton on Jan. 5. Froling averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds through the first 10 games of the season.

— Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe, who was the No. 45 recruit in the 2016 recruiting class, is looking closely at three schools (Georgetown, Kansas and Seattle). Cunliffe has scheduled a visit to Georgetown for Dec. 30. He’ll then visit Kansas starting on Jan. 2. Through 10 games this season, Cunliffe averaged 9.5 points, while shooting 40.5 percent from three, and 4.8 rebounds.

— South Florida transfer Jahmal McMurray has scheduled a pair of college visits. McMurray will start a visit with St. John’s on Wednesday. He’ll then see Virginia Tech on Friday. McMurray played only three games with the Bulls this season, but averaged 20.3 points and connected on 10 of his 20 three-point attempts. Baylor, Texas, WKU, Arizona State and Iona have all reached out.