Butler men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann was prepared for a lot of different situations to occur Thursday afternoon as he guided his Bulldogs to a 76-64 victory over Winthrop to open the 2017 NCAA Tournament at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. However, one thing did end up catching him off guard.
Following the game, he was asked to comment on the dismissal by Indiana University of its men’s basketball coach, Tom Crean, which had happened a little more than an hour prior to Butler’s tipoff with the Eagles, and Holtmann wasn’t prepared to address the topic, but he managed to anyway in a postgame press conference.
“Did that happen,” Holtmann asked when the topic was brought up. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
Holtmann gathered his thoughts though, and began to address not just Crean, but the firing of his former boss by Illinois, John Groce, whom Holtmann served as an assistant to at Ohio University.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom and how his team plays,” Holtmann said. “I had one of my closest friends lose a job (Groce) not too long ago at Illinois and listen, we all get into this (profession) knowing the deal. Do I disagree with those decisions? Absolutely. Absolutely I do.”
Groce was relieved of his duties after five seasons and finishing 95-75 overall, but just 37-53 within the Big 10 Conference.
Crean spent nine years at Indiana and went 166-135 overall and 71-91 within the Big Ten. His teams advanced to the Sweet 16 three times.
“My bias,” Holtmann repeated, “do I disagree with the decision at Illinois? Absolutely. (Illinois officials) don’t care, but I know how hard (Groce) works and I know how committed he was to his players, and I believe he was really close to turning the corner.
“We know what we bargain for in this whole deal and everybody wants to be (in the NCAA Tournament) now, and when you’re not here, people get upset.”
Lewis gets offensive
The Butler offense was very efficient in Thursday’s victory and that was in large part due to the play of fifth-year point guard Tyler Lewis.
He continually found opportunities to not only pass to open teammates (he totaled eight assists), but also to get to the rim himself.
Lewis finished with 3 of 5 shooting and would have scored in double figures (he had nine points) with a better day at the free throw line (he missed half of his six attempts).
“(Coach Holtmann) is always on me about my pace and controlling the pace out there on the court,” Lewis said. “That’s what I wanted to do and there were a couple of seams out there and I just split the gaps a couple times. (Winthrop) gave me a lane to the basket and I was able to make a couple of layups.”
The eight assists were a game high for both teams and it was the seventh time this season that Lewis passed out at least seven assists.
“He was dishing the ball out and did a great job finding teammates,” Butler junior forward Kelan Martin said of Lewis. “He found his shot and got to the basket a lot and made plays and found his confidence again.
“That’s what we love from Tyler.”
Thursday’s game was the 36th NCAA Tournament game for the Butler program and the Bulldogs have never lost as the higher seed (they were a four seed to Winthrop’s 13) in nine games.
“I was proud of our guy’s effort today,” Holtmann said. “I was really proud of their effort. I think they had great regard and respect for a Winthrop team that we knew was very good and capable, and I liked their attention to detail for the most part in the game.
“I thought we did some good things against a quality team.”
Kamar kontrols Keon
Winthrop’s most potent scorer (guard Keon Johnson) entered the game averaging nearly 23 points per game, but the Butler defense, notably freshman guard Kamar Baldwin, kept the diminutive (he’s 5-foot-7) scorer mostly in check.
Johnson missed 12 of his 19 shots and finished with 17 points.
“It was really important for the game,” Holtmann said of the defense on Johnson. “He’s so dynamic with the ball. I thought Kamar worked extremely hard to make it difficult for him. He got loose a little bit there in that stretch in the second half, but I thought (Baldwin) was really critical.”
Big East preparation
Having spent an entire season in the Big East gave Butler an inherent advantage from a physicality standpoint, according to Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
“This is a Big East team,” Kelsey said of the Bulldogs. “I played and coached at Xavier, but my family is all Xavier fans, so I watch a lot of Big East basketball and there are some blood baths when you watch some of those games.”
The Bulldogs continually worked their offense from the post back out to the perimeter and as a result, shot 30 free throws to the Eagles’ 10.
“The Big East is a strong, physical brand of basketball,” Kelsey said. “They set the tone from a physicality standpoint. I don’t think we really met the physical challenge the way we needed to.”