Observations: Butler coach Chris Holtmann pushes right buttons

Butler coach Chris Holtmann is proving that the Bulldogs have different ways to skin a cat.

Twelve months ago Holtmann was an interim coach and just trying to keep his job.

Now he’s starting to separate himself as an elite coach in the sport.

How has that all happened?

Patience, confidence, and the ability to play different ways based upon your team’s chemical makeup and personnel.

A year ago Butler was a grind it out team that won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 because it was physical, tough, and hard nosed. The Bulldogs won six conference games by five points or less because they wouldn’t submit when things mattered most.

But they also did their work in the mud and only averaged 69.0 points last season.

Things are completely different now.

Thanks to the addition of NC State transfer Tyler Lewis (3.7 assists per game) at point guard and the evolution of sophomore Kelan Martin (14.0 points per game) as a bonafide college scorer, Butler is now an offensive team that exploits mismatches at will.

There was no better example of that than Saturday’s win over Purdue — the Boilermakers’ first loss of the season.

Holtmann knew he had no way to combat Purdue’s size inside so instead he opted to space out the Boilermakers’ and make one of their big men step out away from the basket defensively.

The two players the Bulldogs used at power forward — Martin and Andrew Chrabascz — only were a combined 1-6 from 3-point range, but just the threat of them being able to operate on the perimeter allowed the middle of the defense to open up other scoring opportunities.

This allowed the Butler to pick up a huge victory and improve to 9-1 overall.

The Bulldogs are averaging 90.0 points this season.

This is the week everyone will find out about Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield

How do you hide a first-team All-American?

That’s a really hard thing to figure out.

Those who follow college basketball know that Hield has been an effective scorer throughout his four years at Oklahoma (8-0), but the early talk about this program so far this season has been more about the Sooners’ potential as a team and not about Hield’s dynamic ability to put the ball in the basket.

While guys like Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Grayson Allen, and Skal Labissiere have all gotten their share of ink for one reason or another in the first six weeks of the season, Hield has not gotten the type of attention he rightfully deserves considering the level he’s currently playing at.

That will change after this week.

After a barrage of games on Tuesday most of the college basketball world will take a brief sabbatical for the holidays, but Oklahoma will be part of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii and that will give Hield the type of forum he needs to explode like a volcano (no pun intended) as his team will often be playing stand alone games.

The 6-foot-4 guard isn’t just scoring the ball — he’s scoring the ball efficiently.

Hield is averaging 23.5 points while shooting 54.5 percent, 50.0 percent from 3-point range, and 87.5 percent from the foul line — all career-highs.

He’s scored a combined 63 points in his last two games.

The Sooners will open the tournament on Tuesday night against Washington State.

The SEC is up for grabs

We all heard the stigma throughout the offseason that this league was going to be back among the nation’s elite thanks to the hiring of a few big name coaches (Ben Howland, Avery Johnson, Rick Barnes) and the signings of several high-level recruits (Ben Simmons, Malik Newman).

We all also thought that the conference would again go through Kentucky especially since Billy Donovan is now coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of Florida.

All of those notions now look to be in question.

Here are the facts: the SEC is up for grabs.

Kentucky wears “Kentucky” across its chest, but right now it’s not coming close to resembling some of the elite teams that John Calipari has had in Lexington since he arrived in 2010. This team is going to struggle at times in conference play — especially on the road.

What does that all mean?

The door is open for teams like Vanderbilt, Texas A&M , and even South Carolina to make a run at the top of the league standings.

Butler Bulldogs (USATSI)
Butler point guard Tyler Lewis has settled in after transferring from NC State. (USATSI)

This and That

Skal Labissiere is averaging just 4.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in his last five games for Kentucky. The 7-foot freshman is also just 6-of-19 during that span. The Wildcats don’t need Labissiere to play like an All-American, but they need him to produce if they hope to win the SEC and go on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. It will be interesting to see how Labissiere responds on Saturday against Louisville at Rupp Arena.

Young post players should watch film of Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis. The 6-10 freshman is a five-man who knows he’s a five-man and doesn’t try to be something he’s not. Davis is a perfect 11-of-11 from the field in his last two games and is averaging 11.7 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Aggies, who are 9-2 overall following Saturday’s rout of Baylor.

You can’t measure Devon Hall’s importance for Virginia by looking at the box score. The 6-5 guard only averages 5.1 points in 19.5 minutes, but his presence allows London Perrantes to slide off the ball and for this team that’s extremely important. The Cavaliers have looked like a different team early on when Perrantes is scoring in double-figures and a big reason for that is because of Hall’s presence at the point of attack.

It’s not even Christmas yet and San Diego State has already lost games to Arkansas-Little Rock, Grand Canyon, and San Diego. The common theme in all three of those games? The Aztecs failed to score more than 48 points in each of those defeats. Steve Fisher’s team is 7-5 overall and next host Kansas on Tuesday night. Tip off is at 11 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

The untold story at Utah this season is the jump that Kyle Kuzma has made. The 6-9 sophomore is averaging 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds after tallying 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds a year ago as a freshman. The lanky forward had 21 points and eight rebounds in Saturday’s win over Duke and has usurped Brekkott Chapman as this team’s best option at power forward.

The biggest thing I took away from Arizona’s win over UNLV on Saturday? Sean Miller decided to play Kadeem Allen for 34 total minutes and that means he’s getting more comfortable with the idea of him as his point guard. The 6-3 Allen had 15 points and five assists in the 12-point win and continues to progress for Wildcats, who are currently 11-1 overall.

Villanova took 26 3-point shots and 27 two-point shots in Saturday’s loss at Virginia. The Wildcats are a really good team, but they don’t have guys on the perimeter who can get to the front of the rim like we’ve seen in the past. It will be interesting to see how well this team gets into the paint as the season progresses.

The light is starting to go on for South Carolina’s P.J. Dozier. The 6-7 freshman has scored in double-figures in four of his last five games and is beginning to resemble the Top-30 player he was in high school. Frank Martin’s squad is currently 10-0 and next faces St. John’s on Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun. Tip off is at 9 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

Big 12 teams shouldn’t envy their trips to Lubbock, Texas and Manhattan, Kansas this season. Texas Tech and Kansas State have quietly gotten off a combined 16-3 start. You think Tubby Smith and Bruce Weber can coach a little bit?

Ohio State lost at home this season to both UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. On Saturday it dominated Kentucky from tip to finish at the Barclays Center. This is college basketball folks.

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