Butler’s Holtmann knows a bit about Winthrop from his Big South days

Butler coach Chris Holtmann faced Winthrop when he was coach at Gardner-Webb.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE — With its highest NCAA Tournament seed ever, Butler begins its hopeful march to the Final Four in Milwaukee, where the No. 4 seed Bulldogs will face 13th-seeded Winthrop on Thursday in a South Region first-round contest at the Bradley Center.

Butler (23-8) finished second in a deep Big East Conference this season. The Bulldogs had won four in a row and five of six before dropping their final two contests, including a 62-57 decision to Xavier in the Big East tournament quarterfinal.

But the committee was still impressed enough with Butler’s resume — which included three losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100 but a pair of victories over Big East champ and overall No. 1 seed Villanova — to award a No. 4 seed. While the Bulldogs missed out on a chance to play in Indianapolis, Milwaukee is still a short drive from central Indiana and an opportunity to start the tournament — Butler’s ninth in the last 11 seasons — on a high note.

“It just reminds me of how grateful we are to be part of a program to play in this thing,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “And hopefully, we can extend this season.”

Junior Kelan Martin led the Bulldogs with 16.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while senior Tyler Lewis dished out 3.9 assists.

Though the two haven’t played, Winthrop will be slightly familiar for Butler. Eagles coach Pat Kelsey is a former Xavier player and assistant, while Holtmann spent time in the Big South as a coach at Gardner-Webb.

“In some ways, it’ll feel almost like playing them again,” Holtmann said.

Winthrop (26-6) is back in the tourney for the first time since 2010, and is 17-2 since the calendar flipped to 2017. Both of the Eagles’ losses during that stretch came in overtime and of their six defeats this season, two came on the road against teams that also landed in the 68-team NCAA field — Florida State and Dayton.

As a result, Winthrop was seeded 13th, the program’s highest seed since drawing an 11 in 2007.

“I went into the locker room to address our guys and they’re ready to get started preparing,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. “The jubilation was the other day when we won the championship and cut the nets down. They’re a hungry bunch and ready to get to work.”

Five-foot-seven senior guard Keon Johnson anchors Winthrop’s attack. The Big South Player of the Year and tournament MVP averaged 22.5 points this season with 99 3-pointers. He forms a formidable scoring tandem with 6-foot-8 Australian Xavier Cooks, who averaged 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

“That’s the exciting part about this tournament,” Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz said. “You get to play the best teams in the country right now.”

The Bulldogs already have one victory at the Bradley Center under their belt this season; they beat Marquette 68-65 there Feb. 7.

The winner will face the winner of the Minnesota-Middle Tennessee contest Saturday afternoon.