As the second-longest-tenured men’s basketball coach in the Big East, Georgetown’s John Thompson III has become exceptionally familiar with the demands of conference competition and managing not only his players but the myriad distractions that come with being in charge of a nationally recognized program.
Meanwhile, Chris Holtmann, Thompson’s counterpart for Saturday’s home game against Butler, had no inclination he would be directing the two-time NCAA championship runner-up until weeks before the start of preseason practice.
The school announced on Oct. 1 that Brandon Miller would be taking a leave of absence as head coach for unspecified medical reasons; the next day, Athletic Director Barry Collier named Holtmann interim coach. The second coaching change in three seasons added more uncertainty to a program that stumbled to a 4-14 record in the inaugural Big East campaign.
But a little more than three months later, Holtmann has the Bulldogs trending toward the NCAA tournament and in early contention for a Big East regular season title. Butler (13-5) and Georgetown (11-5) are among five teams that are 3-2 in the conference, one game behind first-place Villanova.
Holtmann’s players no longer need to wonder if their coach will be back next season, either: Butler made certain of that Jan. 2 by removing the interim designation and announcing Miller would not return. Now, Holtmann can concentrate on immediate tasks as well as allay concerns from possible recruits regarding his future in Indianapolis.
“I think the notion of the interim tag, I mean [Holtmann’s] come in and done a great job of just going about his job,” Thompson said. “I think that’s a label that probably fans and the media focus on more so — and I’m assuming here, I don’t know what goes on in their locker room — but his team has been, ‘Hey, that’s Coach. We’re going to do what Coach says and worry about what happens, if anything happens, when that time comes.’ ”
The former head coach at Gardner-Webb started this season with a flourish, guiding Butler to eight wins in nine games, including a 74-66 victory over then-No. 5 North Carolina in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving break. The Bulldogs collected 29 offensive rebounds in that game, their most in 15 years and the most the Tar Heels have yielded in that same span.
The work on the boards has translated to conference play, with Butler first in rebounding margin (plus-5.9 per game) despite an undersized lineup.
“Well, we tend to miss a lot of shots, so we have a chance to get a lot of rebounds,” Holtmann said with a chuckle. “I’m kidding, obviously, but I do think we have some guys that have a nose for the ball. Their strength lies in pursuing the ball when they’re playing the right way. When we are playing the right way, our guys are pursuing the ball with an aggressiveness that’s really required for us, I think, to be a good offensive team.”
The other team Butler defeated in the Battle 4 Atlantis was the Hoyas, 64-58, in a rare meeting of conference opponents that did not count in the conference standings. Georgetown had advanced to the third-place game in the three-day Bahamas tournament after upsetting then-No. 18 Florida in overtime, 66-65.
Shortly after that trip, the Bulldogs won three more games in a row to ascend to 15th in the Associated Press rankings. They’ve since dropped out of the top 25 but own persuasive NCAA credentials, with the No. 8 strength of schedule and an RPI of 15. The former puts them at No. 1 in the Big East, while the latter puts Butler second, trailing only Villanova.
“The fact that we struggled last year and got beat up in league play, if that didn’t create in our guys a stronger approach and understanding of how hard this is, then what a wasted opportunity that was for us,” Holtmann said. “What we’re doing is a really hard thing. It’s a grind every night, and the biggest thing is to keep on keeping on.”