There is no question that Butler has become a national power over the past decade, having reached two national title games while thriving under its third head coach in that span.
Joining the Big East was a huge jump forward for the Bulldogs, and their success has translated into postseason play and opportunities.
However, so have struggles against the elite in the conference. Since joining the Big East in 2013, Butler is now 3-19 against Villanova, Xavier, Providence, and Georgetown after the Friars finished off the season sweep Tuesday night, 71-68.
The trend is consistent for Butler: 15 of the 22 games in that 3-19 subgroup have been decided by single digits. Butler is close, but not enough to regularly defeat the upper echelon of the conference.
Let’s take a step back before saying more: This is a huge improvement for the Bulldogs. They appeared to be way out of their depth in their first Big East season, going 4-14. Since then, Butler has owned all but those four top conference teams, showing that they belong. All that’s left is the next step: turning close losses into close wins versus the best opponents in the conference.
Chris Holtmann has been huge for the program, leading it back to the NCAA tournament after Brandon Miller’s bad season threatened to undo all the positives Brad Stevens set in motion. Holtmann took over as the interim when Miller went on leave and did exactly what he did at Gardner-Webb. Since taking over the lead role for the Bulldogs, Holtmann is 33-12. However, Holtmann has struggled to put away the big boys in close games.
Holtmann’s track record shows that Butler will get there under his leadership; it is simply not there — almost, but not quite.
This season, for the most part, has been the Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham show, without much offensive help at times. Jones has been a do-everything star in his career, and that has held true this season: He is averaging 14.2 points, 4.6 assists, and 6.9 rebounds per game. Dunham is the player Butler goes to when it needs a big outside shot: He averages 16.1 points per game on 40.6-percent shooting, 37.2 beyond the arc.
The issue has been finding help for the duo when opponents take them away, or when Jones and Dunham run into an off night.
The current source of alarm for Butler is the 2-4 conference record through Wednesday. The Bulldogs are fourth from the bottom in the conference. The good news is that all four losses have come to Providence, Xavier, and Villanova – the top three in the conference. All five of Butler’s losses are to top-20 teams this season.
Additionally, six of the next eight games are against Creighton, DePaul, Marquette, St. John’s, and Seton Hall. These are teams the Bulldogs have feasted on over the years and are mostly bottom-tier members of the Big East.
While they have been losing to quality teams, the Bulldogs face a new level of urgency over the coming weeks. Losses to good teams are one thing; losses to bad teams will damage the resume and exact a cost in March. They need to right the ship and beat the teams they need to, or their seeding come the NCAA Tournament will place them in a situation they have historically failed to handle well, ever since Brad Stevens left: facing an elite opponent.