Butler head coach Chris Holtmann’s defensive philosophy has been the hallmark of a his young coaching career. His final team at Gardner-Webb finished a respectable No. 116 nationally in defensive efficiency, and his first Butler team after succeeding Brad Stevens ranked eighth.
In 2015-’16, however, Butler flipped the script. Four Bulldogs averaged double-figures to pace the nation’s 15th-most efficient offensive attack — an offense that averaged a shade below 80 points per game, more than Oklahoma, Kentucky or Oregon.
The Bulldogs lose leading scorer and All-Big East honorable mention selection Kellen Dunham (16.2 points per game) and swingman Roosevelt Jones (13.8), but the frontcourt nucleus of Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz set the table for what should be another balanced and efficient Butler offense.
Martin and Chrabascz combined to average more than 26 points per game in 2015-’16, with Martin in particular evolving into a force over the course of Big East play. When Butler slogged through a 2-5 start in conference action, falling from No. 9 in the AP Poll to unranked and very much in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, Martin’s performance off the bench kept the Bulldogs afloat.
Martin had a stretch of three straight Big East games recording a double-double in January. In February, the Bulldog offense caught fire collectively. Martin delivered with games of 35 points against Georgetown; 23-and-10 against Seton Hall; 21 against Creighton; and 19 against eventual national champion Villanova.
No longer a spark off the bench, Martin figures to be the starting centerpiece of a Butler lineup rife with returning faces and incoming talent, all in a balanced package.
Chrabascz can score, while frontcourt mate Tyler Wideman can contribute in a pinch. He shot nearly 59 percent from the floor a season ago, including a perfect 6-for-6 in the First Round NCAA Tournament defeat of Texas Tech.
Six-foot-10 center Nate Fowler should gain an expanded role. Holtmann told the News-Sentinel he’s “excited about [the sophomore’s] development and improvement.”
The Butler backcourt is new-look, but not lacking for experience — nor in potential to put up points as needed.
In his first year of eligibility with the Bulldogs, N.C. State transfer Tyler Lewis averaged less than six points per game, his services more vested in setting the table for teammates than creating his own scoring opportunities. However, two of his highest outputs of the year came against Temple and Purdue, as well as a double-figure effort in the Tournament win over Texas Tech.
His ability to spark up on the offensive end against quality competition should compensate for the scoring load lost on the perimeter with Dunham’s departure. The bulk of that load should fall on another senior, Kethan Savage.
The George Washington transfer serves as Butler’s biggest offensive X-factor, a double-digit scorer each of his final two seasons with the Colonials.
Savage told The Indianapolis Star in 2015 that Butler offered “exactly what I’m looking for. I want to play as a combo guard and get up and down a little bit.”
Last season’s offensive outpouring from the Bulldogs certainly showed their ability to get up and down. However, Butler’s real offensive strength and scoring balance lies in the Bulldogs’ ability to execute halfcourt sets.
That ability to score both in transition and in the half court is crucial against Big East competition that can physically bully like Xavier or force low-percentage shot attempts, in the case of Villanova.
Can Butler do it — “it” meaning “win the Big East?” That will be a tall order.
What’s not in question at all: The Bulldogs will make Villanova and Xavier earn everything they achieve.