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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 16 Butler Bulldogs

Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

Somewhat overshadowed by in-state powers like Indiana, Notre Dame — and even Purdue at times — Butler continues to do it the “Butler Way.” That is to say, the Bulldogs stay under the radar and play the game the right way with a focus on fundamentals and shooting. All the while sneaking up on people when they don’t expect it.

Coming off a horrible indoctrination to the Big East in 2013-14 (where they went 14-17, 4-14 in the Big East), the Bulldogs righted the ship and returned to their winning ways last season, as they went 23-11 (12-6 in the Big East). The Bulldogs showed the mettle that made them a darling in the early part of the decade when they went to back-to-back title games in 2010 and 2011.

With Chris Holtmann taking over after Brandon Miller suddenly stepped down last fall, Holtmann battened down the hatch and got the team to play up to expectations with Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones standing out as all-Big East performers. Considering Dunham and Jones are back, there is hope that the Bulldogs could be in for even bigger and better things this season, as there is probably no better one-two punch in the Big East than Dunham and Jones.

After losing to the aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish in overtime in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs will aim for more this year, while also having Big East Goliath Villanova in their crosshairs.

As Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star points out, this is the time when Butler is dangerous, as people play more attention to the other schools of the state. However, no one should be sleeping on the Bulldogs this season.

Key Departures: Alex Barlow (guard) and Kameron Woods (forward)

Suffice to say, the departures of Barlow and Woods will not be easy to digest. Both were major role players for the Bulldogs and it will be the little things they did that will be hard to replace. Both were also extremely dependable on the defensive side of the ball.

While not the most overly-athletic point guard, Barlow made up for it basketball smarts. He was quick on his feet and always hustled. Barlow proved to be a steady force, and his reliability will be missed.

As for Woods, well, his presence will be sorely missed as he was an absolute beast on the boards. He led the Big East in rebounding, averaging 9.9 caroms per game. Woods was such a dependable force on the boards because he possessed one of the more impressive wingspans. That void on the boards will be felt this season, as the team’s leading rebounder is actually Jones (5.2 per game). It would nice for Holtmann to get more rebounding from his bigs, particularly 6’7”, 236-pound junior Andrew Chrabascz (11.2 rebounds per game and 3.6 rebounds per game last season).

Key Additions: Tyler Lewis (N.C. State transfer), Jordan Gathers (St. Bonaventure transfer) Sean McDermott and Nate Fowler.

Essentially taking the place of Barlow will be N.C. State transfer Tyler Lewis. While he probably is not as good defensively as Barlow, he actually will present an upgrade at point on offense. With Lewis being squeezed out at N.C. State, when the Wolfpack gave Cat Barber more minutes, he felt the need to start over somewhere new. He could be in line for a huge season, as he perfectly complements Dunham and Jones.

Lewis is your classic pass-first point guard. He has that knack for finding the open man. Like Barlow, he won’t wow you, but he knows how to play the game the right way. With natural scorers aplenty surrounding him, Lewis should fit in like a glove in Holtmann’s offense.

Also expected to make a contribution is St. Bonaventure grad transfer Jordan Gathers. Gathers is a nice jack-of-all-trades type guard who can contribute nicely across the board. He’ll give Holtmann yet another experienced guard he can lean on for minutes.

There is a chance that Fowler (a 6’10”, 250-pound freshmen center), who missed most of his senior season due to injury, could get some minutes in the post while trying to replace the void left by the departure of Woods. But by and large, expect him and McDermott (a 6’6”, 182-pound freshman wing) to be just secondary players this year for the Bulldogs, as Holtmann leans on his upperclassmen.

Schedule Analysis

Up first for Butler is a cupcake at home against Citadel on November 14. After that, it is off to Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where the Bulldogs will play Missouri State in the first round and then face off against a solid opponent in either Temple or Minnesota next. On the other side of the bracket is Utah, Miami, Mississippi State and Texas Tech. I’ve got Butler playing Miami in the championship. But either way, playing in this tournament will boost the RPI, as they are certain to face stiff competition on the trip.

After a cupcake opponent back stateside (SIU-Edwardsville) on November 28, the Bulldogs will be in for a grueling affair when they match up with the always physical Cincinnati Bearcats on the road on December 2. No easy task there…

The Bulldogs will then be home for three straight games (Indiana State, VWI and Tennessee). The game against Tennessee on December 12 should be entertaining as Butler lost to Tennessee last year. They will be out for revenge. Remember, though, the Vols will be coached by Rick Barnes now.

After a week off, expect Butler to be amped to play in-state rivals Purdue (and their imposing front line of of A. J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and stud freshman Caleb Swanigan) in the Crossroads Classic on December 19. It should be a contrast in styles, as Butler is all about its backcourt, while Purdue is obviously all about their intimidating frontcourt.

Butler will end the non-conference schedule with two more gimmies in games at home against Southern Utah (December 22) and IUPUI (December 28).

The Big East campaign will begin with the Bulldogs hosting Kris Dunn and the Providence Friars on December 31 in an afternoon contest. After that, they will participate in the Big East’s annual all-day post-New Year’s Eve marathon, while playing at Xavier on January 2. This year the Big East will hold its marathon affair on January 2 since they didn’t want to interfere with the College Football Playoff set for New Year’s Eve.

Considering the Big East has a balanced schedule with each team playing home-and-home, you know what you should get when it comes to the conference schedule. Contests circled as crucial are the games against Villanova (Jan 10 at home, February 20 on the road), Georgetown (February 2 at home, February 27 on the road) and Xavier (January 2 on the road, February 13 at home). Those teams figure to be Butler’s main challengers in the Big East.

Preview and Prediction

With a core of seniors in Dunham, Jones, Gathers and Austin Etherington, along with experienced juniors in Chrabascz and Lewis, Holtmann has himself a fine batch of players who have been around the block.

Building off the momentum off last year that re-introduced them as a national presence, Butler could be a team that yet again goes on another deep run in March. As long as Dunham and Jones keep scoring, Chrabascz takes it up a notch in the post and Lewis provides a stabilizing force at point, there is no telling how big Butler’s ceiling could be.

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