Chris Holtmann wasn’t officially the guy until after he secured the biggest win of his early coaching career.
He was Butler’s interim head coach at the start of the 2014-15 season and took his team to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving weekend. Their first opponent: No. 5 North Carolina.
“To be honest,” former Butler guard Alex Barlow said, “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Barlow said he wondered if the moment of Holtmann’s first truly big game as head coach would get to him.
It did not.
Butler shocked the Tar Heels, 74-66. The Bulldogs shot only 30.6 percent from the field and turned the ball over 19 times, but they grabbed 29 offensive rebounds and allowed just eight fastbreak points.
That win put Butler on course for a 23-11 season and an NCAA Tournament bid, following a 14-17 season the year prior. It also was a main factor in Holtmann’s promotion from interim to full-time head coach. He then quickly entered the conversation of college basketball’s best up-and-coming coaches.
“We got out there, and it was just like we were playing Chattanooga,” Barlow said. “It had no different feel. And at that moment, I’m like, we got ourselves a really good coach.”
Holtmann had bested future hall-of-famer Roy Williams in his first season as a head coach at a major program.
He has a similar opportunity Saturday when Ohio State battles the fifth-ranked Tar Heels in New Orleans.
At 10-3 with wins against Wisconsin and Michigan, the Buckeyes have been somewhat of a surprise in college basketball in the first year of the Holtmann regime. Picked to finish in the bottom third of the Big Ten by several media outlets, Ohio State is now in a similar position to that Butler team three years ago. An upset win against the Tar Heels can vault the Buckeyes into the national picture and significantly boost their NCAA Tournament resume before January.
“We’re going to really talk to our guys about just staying in the moment and staying really focused on doing what you know is expected to do and then cut loose and play aggressively,” Holtmann said. “I don’t have any, at least I haven’t had any kind of Knute Rockne speeches in my bag.”
He didn’t have that moment in 2014 either.
There wasn’t one or two main factors to why Butler won that day. Barlow and Kellen Dunham — another Butler guard on that team — said it had to do with Holtmann simply convincing them they were the better team.
“He believed in us from the start,” Dunham said. “He’s like, ‘Guys, I’m serious. I look around the country and I’d go with you guys every day of the week. I’m not going to trade any one of you guys for anybody.’
“For a coach to say that, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s like, man, I want to go dive on the floor for this guy.”
Holtmann had three days to prep his players before they played North Carolina in the Bahamas for the first game of the 12-team tournament. Normally, a player might expect a coach to have a higher level of intensity in the practices leading up to that caliber of a showdown. It was quite the opposite.
Dunham said Holtmann was pretty much the same the whole week as he was preparing for other games. He tried to drown out the hype the media put on the game and laid out the tendencies of each player on the scouting report, humanizing would-be lottery picks in future NBA drafts. The only difference, Barlow said, was how much they practiced on transition defense and rebounding.
“If you would have told me we shot as poorly as we did, would we have won the game? I would’ve been surprised,” he said. “But we got so many extra possessions, we had a lot of 3s and we did a great job with all of our defensive keys.”
Butler trailed by just three at halftime and executed its offense well, despite a low shooting percentage. Barlow, who had 11 points at halftime, said he remembered Holtmann entering the locker room and delivering the same message, instilling the same confidence he had all week with the players — they were going to win that game.
Barlow hit two 3s to open the half for his game-high 17 points and Butler didn’t turn back. With stellar play on the boards and getting back in transition — something echoed by Ohio State forwards Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop Thursday — Butler made a statement it could beat any team.
The same statement Ohio State hopes to make Saturday.
Butler led by as much as much as 14 with eight minutes left. North Carolina ended up cutting its deficit to three with 37 seconds remaining.
At any point where Holtmann’s inexperience in big games would show, this had to be the moment. The double-digit lead had shrunk to one possession. However, Barlow said Holtmann didn’t show an ounce of nervousness, which reminded him of former Butler head coach Brad Stevens, now the Boston Celtics head coach.
“I think coach Holtmann’s kind of like that in the fact that he was always like, ‘Guys, we’re going to win this game,” Barlow said.
Dunham said he gets frustrated thinking about how poorly he shot in that game — 3-for-17 — but remembers that game as one that put the Bulldogs on a track to the NCAA Tournament and as a turning point in the team’s trust in Holtmann as the guy moving forward.
“It instilled a lot of confidence that we could beat just about anybody in the country if we buy into what coach Holtmann’s saying,” he said.
Ohio State has surpassed early expectations. That Butler team did the same. The only difference is Holtmann hasn’t had that signature win against a ranked opponent with the Buckeyes just yet. The same opponent can provide Holtmann with another career-defining victory in his first season at another major program.
“Whether or not they can beat North Carolina this weekend, I don’t know … But what I do know is those guys will believe they can beat them because of coach Holtmann, because of the assistant coaches there with them,” Barlow said. “Coach Holtmann has gotten those guys to buy in. He’s gotten them to believe they’re better than what they were supposed to be. And when you have that type of confidence, you can beat anybody on any given night.”
This won’t be Holtmann’s only chance in his inaugural season to secure a win against a top team. However, the opportunity presented to him against the Tar Heels comes with the territory of knowing how to complete the task.
“It was one of your coaching moments that you reflect back on and you’ll never forget because when you’re coaching a new group and you just got the position and you’ve been named interim and you’re kind of on a day-to-day contract,” Holtmann said Thursday when asked about the 2014 game. “To have a moment like that for us as a group and as a team after what we had been through was pretty special given the caliber of program that we were playing.”