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How Butler continues to thrive without Brad Stevens

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Chris Holtmann’s style isn’t all that different than Stevens’, and now the results aren’t, either.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Villanova
Butler coach Chris Holtmann and forward Kelan Martin.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not common for college basketball coaches to leave head coaching jobs to become assistants, but that’s what Chris Holtmann did after the 2012-13 season. Holtmann had been in charge at Gardner-Webb since 2010, and after turning in a strong third season leading the Runnin’ Bulldogs, he decided to leave. Just not for a head job.

Holtmann became an assistant at Butler, where the Bulldogs were in a state of transition. They were in their first year in the Big East after one in the Atlantic 10 and 11 in the Horizon League. More importantly, Butler was beginning its post-Brad Stevens era. The wunderkind coach who’d led BU on two Cinderella runs to the national championship game had left for the Boston Celtics, and Butler had to move on.

Butler won at least 22 games in each of Stevens’ six seasons and made five NCAA tournaments. When he left, the Bulldogs elevated assistant Brandon Miller to the top job. Holtmann joined Miller’s staff, and the two worked together during a 14-win season in 2013-14. Just before the start of the next season, Miller left the job for medical reasons. Holtmann was made Butler’s interim head coach.

The school took the “interim” tag off Holtmann halfway through the season. Butler went 23-11 (12-6 in the Big East) and came within one shot of getting back to the Sweet 16. Butler fell in the second round again last year, and the Bulldogs broke through on the opening weekend this year. After wins against Winthrop and Middle Tennessee, they’ll play North Carolina in a South regional semifinal on Friday (7:09 p.m. ET, CBS, March Madness Live).

Holtmann has coached Butler a lot like Stevens did.

Holtmann has a style that works for him and that worked for Butler before his arrival. The Bulldogs move deliberately on offense, consistently sitting near the bottom of Division I in pace. They rarely turn the ball over and they make shots. On defense, they’re stingy defending the three-pointer. These were qualities of Stevens’ Butler teams, especially the best ones. Holtmann has not rocked the boat.

Stevens’ players are all gone now, but Butler kept finding players who fit and developed them over time. Leading scorer and rebounder Kelan Martin is a junior who’s grown into a central offensive role over the last two years. Forward Andrew Chrabascz has transformed over a four-year career. Every major contributor on this year’s team except one is at least a sophomore, and all of them have made year-over-year strides.

Butler’s made some shrewd roster moves around the edges to help the cause. Playmaking guard Tyler Lewis transferred from NC State before Holtmann took over, and he’s become an important bench player down the stretch. Guard Kethan Savage is a George Washington transfer who’s replaced Lewis in the starting five and allows Holtmann to play a bit bigger. (Lewis is 5’11, and Savage is 6’3.)

Butler is set up to keep being good, no matter how this year ends.

The Bulldogs will lose a lot after this season, to be sure. Chrabascz, Lewis, and Savage are all out of eligibility. Martin doesn’t seem like he’d jump early to the NBA, but you never know. Butler’s No. 2, No. 5, and No. 7 scorers, at least, will leave.

But by now, Butler’s become a destination. The Bulldogs aren’t going to recruit like a Kentucky or a Duke, but their talent acquisition is getting better all the time. They landed the best signing class in program history before this season, and they’re slated to do it again before next. Being in the Big East, not the Horizon League, hasn’t hurt.

A hallmark of Stevens’ program was the growth of his players over time. Holtmann’s Butler is doing that, too, and it’s landing better talent to start with. Mix all of that together, and the Bulldogs should keep being good for a long time — whether they can swing the upset against North Carolina or not.