INDIANAPOLIS - Monday was a day for work, for sure, for the Butler men’s basketball team. However, there was an unmistakable air of relaxation prior to the Bulldogs’ practice at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The Butler players and coaches met with the assembled media and spoke reverently about their upcoming opponent, No. 6-ranked North Carolina (29-7). However, the tension which accompanies the postseason wasn’t palpable on this off day, as it will be nearing the end of the week.
Butler (25-8) will face the Tar Heels Friday at 7:09 p.m. (CBS, WLYV 1450 AM) in Memphis in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It definitely is a special time in our lives,” Butler fifth-year senior guard Tyler Lewis said of this postseason. “It was our goal to advance in the tournament and we want to keep advancing.”
Nothing would be sweeter for Lewis than to not just advance, but to do so against North Carolina.
The Statesville, N.C. native is going to play against his favorite team from his childhood, but certainly not one since he became an adult.
Lewis spent his first two seasons of college playing a long 3-pointer away from the Chapel Hill campus at state and league (Atlantic Coast Conference) rival North Carolina State.
“Once I saw they were on the same side of the bracket,” Lewis said, “I thought it was special that I might have a chance to play against Carolina in the Sweet 16.”
The Tar Heels won’t have positive memories of dealing with either Butler or Lewis.
The Bulldogs have beaten North Carolina each of the past two times that the two teams played (74-66 in 2014 and 82-71 in 2012), while Lewis played well (six assists and just one turnover) in a one-point loss to the Tar Heels the last time that he faced them (2014).
“I’m looking forward to it,” Lewis said. “Actually (playing tough teams) is really fun. In the NCAA Tournament, once you get to the second weekend, you’re going to have to play against great teams. In order to get past those, you’re going to have to beat them.”
Lewis will play a pivotal role in how the Bulldogs go about beating North Carolina.
The Tar Heels have length and athleticism and they use those at both ends of the court.
Defensively, North Carolina will look to pressure Butler, and offensively, the Tar Heels really like to get out in transition and run, so Lewis managing the tempo of the game when he is running the Bulldogs’ offense will be critical to his team’s success.
“We’re going to be who we are,” third-year Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ll try to be aggressive in transition. We’re not going to go into the game and say ‘Hey, let’s slow it down.’ I think we understand what a quality possession offensively looks like.”
The Bulldogs played with that understanding in their first two tournament victories last weekend. In wins over Winthrop (76-64) and Middle Tennessee State (74-65), Butler controlled the pace of the game and made right at 50 percent of its shots, while dishing out 31 assists and turning it over just 22 times.
“If you have too many poor offensive possessions against (North Carolina),” Holtmann explained, “they turn that into points quickly.
“We’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to be attacking, but I also think that we have to understand what a quality possession looks like.”
It has been several years since Lewis lived in Carolina or played against his home state team, but he hasn’t lost touch with the Tar Heels. He admits to watching them a lot on TV and he knows “a lot about their team” even prior to the Bulldog coaches preparing the scouting reports.
“We’re looking forward to competing with Carolina and hopefully move on,” Lewis said.