Having lost 14 games in its Big East debut last winter and endured two head coaching changes in a span of 16 months, Butler entered the season at somewhat of a crossroads.
Interim coach Chris Holtmann faced pressure to provide stability at a time of crisis and to show that last season's woes were an aberration and not the new reality for a proud program.
A 74-66 victory over fifth-ranked North Carolina on Wednesday doesn't mean that Butler is back to the level it achieved at the height of the Brad Stevens era, but it is a big step toward assuaging concerns about the future of the program. The Bulldogs toppled the Tar Heels in a blue-collar fashion reminiscent of some of the memorable upsets previous Butler teams have pulled off.
Defense and rebounding were again Butler's hallmarks as the Bulldogs out-worked the taller, more athletic Tar Heels on the offensive glass, blanketed All-American candidate Marcus Paige and yielded only 38.7 percent shooting from the field. Between gobbling up 29 offensive boards and forcing 19 turnovers, Butler had so many more possessions than North Carolina that it was able to overcome Kellen Dunham's nightmarish 3 of 17 shooting and win anyway.
Much of the offense Butler did generate came from a former walk-on guard and an unheralded freshman. Alex Barlow scored 17 points and hit four threes despite expending much of his energy defending Paige, while freshman forward Kelan Martin validated his strong start to the season against subpar competition by putting up 17 points and six rebounds against one of the nation's most storied programs.
Butler's victory improves its record to 4-0 under Holtmann, the assistant coach who took over the program the day before the start of practice last month when second-year coach Brandon Miller went on medical leave. The Bulldogs will have a chance for more marquee wins too this week as they ensured themselves a date with either Oklahoma or UCLA in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals on Thursday.
By upsetting North Carolina, Butler also sustained a sizzling start to the season for the Big East, which is a remarkable 37-2 overall including victories over the Tar Heels, Michigan, VCU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Florida State. Rebuilding Marquette is the only Big East team to have lost a game so far this season.
The Tar Heels joined the list of Big East victims because they failed to match Butler's effort or concentration.
Time and time again, they were beaten to loose balls. Time and time again, they made lazy passes or didn't value the ball. And time and time again, they appeared to expect to win the game on sheer talent alone rather than through out-working their opponent.
North Carolina fell behind by as many as 14 points in the second half before its sense of urgency kicked in and it finally began matching Butler's intensity. Paige scored four of his five field goals in the final four minutes but it was too little too late as the Tar Heels never got any closer than three points and never had a possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
This was North Carolina's second holiday tournament loss to Butler as the Tar Heels also dropped a Maui Invitational semifinal to the Bulldogs in Stevens' final season. Big as that win was for Butler, this one was far more significant.
Only a few weeks ago, it wasn't clear if Butler had the talent to compete in the Big East night in and night out or the coaching stability to recruit new players capable of doing so. Now the Bulldogs own one of the new season's biggest upsets and find themselves back on more solid footing.
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