INDIANAPOLIS -- If there has been a common refrain from second-year Butler men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann following virtually every game -- win or lose -- it is this: We have to get a lot better.
Holtmann is right. His team is pretty good, but without question it does have to improve if it wants to finish in the top half of the Big East, which is a much better league than it was during the past two seasons following a revamping of sorts.
The 18th-ranked Bulldogs (13-4, 2-3 Big East) will travel to 16th-ranked Providence (15-3, 3-2) today at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (FS1).
What the Big East has turned out to be in 2015-16 is a really deep and tough league to win on any given night, for any team. That is why Butler has won some and lost some through the early portion of league play. But in its final 13 games in the league this year, Butler has to find a way to win at least seven of them in order to feel fairly secure about receiving an NCAA Tournament bid.
"Our guys recognize that we need to play better," Holtmann said following a recent win against St. John's. "But you never want to take for granted a win, much less a Big East win."
In the three seasons of the "new" Big East, the recruiting has gotten better, the coaching always has been good, and the players have gotten better. This is a league where players stay four years and develop, so each night is a challenge to succeed as a team battles 22- and 23-year-olds.
"This is definitely the best it's been," Villanova coach Jay Wright said recently. "The depth is the best. I think we have eight teams right now playing well enough to be NCAA Tournament teams. Now, we all know how things break out. You don't know how many are going to make it. But there are eight teams right now playing good enough basketball."
If that were the case, and history shows that "eight teams" will NOT make the NCAA Tournament from this league, then seventh-place Butler would be in a good spot. But in 2014, this league sent just four teams and got six a year ago, so in either case, Butler is on the bubble of where it wants to be and needs to be.
In the non-conference portion of this season, a lot of attention was paid to the Bulldogs and their propensity to score the ball -- and with good reason. However, reality set in just 40 minutes into league play, as the Friars limited Butler to 41 percent shooting in an eight-point home loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which included the Bulldogs making just 17 percent of their 3-point shots.
That trend has continued as Butler ranks in the bottom half of the league in shooting from near (7th in field goal percentage) and far (tied for 9th in 3-pointers made). But it is at the other end of the floor (defensively) in which the Bulldogs have lagged the most.
"We continue to have a long way to go on that end," Holtmann said. "We've known it from day one, our margin for error on the defensive end is microscopic."
A year ago, Butler started three guys that are still in the lineup (Andrew Chrabascz, Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham), but it graduated two of its top three rebounders and best defenders (Kameron Woods and Alex Barlow). The absence of those two players has been noticeable to say the least, as Butler is outrebounded by four per game thus far in league play.
"We lost two terrific defenders," Holtmann said. "We're going to have to defend better as a team than we ever have. We lost our two best rebounders (Jones actually outrebounded Barlow in league play by a mere .6 per game). If we don't have full commitment on that end, in this league, we'll struggle in both of those areas. That is the bottom line."
Holtmann has sent that message to his team, and it showed quickly Saturday against the Red Storm.
Less than three minutes into the game, a Butler shot went up and Chrabascz failed to pursue it in the manner that Holtmann thought necessary and he was immediately pulled from the game.
"I was upset that the ball went up on the glass and we had zero guys going to the offensive glass," Holtmann said.
Following the Providence game, Butler's schedule doesn't get any easier, and it won't in this league. The Bulldogs will visit Creighton (13-6, 4-2) on Saturday.
Even Wright, whose Wildcats (16-2, 6-0) sit atop the league, recognizes the arduous path through this league.
"In this league, it's just next game, man," Wright said. "Every game is tough."
This article was written by Tom Davis from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.