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The Journal Gazette

March 16, 2017 1:03 AM

NCAA Tournament

Bulldogs' focus on small guard with 'big heart'

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

Butler vs. Winthrop

When: 1:30 p.m. today

Where: BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee

TV: TNT

MILWAUKEE – Leave it to a Butler player to channel a scene from “Hoosiers” on the eve of the NCAA Tournament.

“Ten-foot rim and 94 feet (across the floor),” senior forward Andrew Chrabascz said Wednesday. “Same court.”

The fourth-seeded Bulldogs, who went 23-7 in the regular season against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, are no underdogs, however. They enter the Big Dance with legitimate aspirations of matching their Final Four appearances from 2010 and 2011.

“Growing up an Indiana kid, it’s awesome to be part of the Butler program,” forward Sean McDermott said. “It’s something a lot of kids in the state dream of. Obviously, the NCAA Tournament is a huge deal.”

Butler starts today against No. 13 seed Winthrop, which is dangerous because of Keon Johnson, who averages 22.5 points.

“It’s going to be a fun challenge,” Bulldogs forward Kelan Martin said. “He’s a different (type of) player (that) we haven’t really seen this year. He’s quick in transition, and he just pulls from anywhere. It will be interesting to see what we can bring to the table defensively.”

Coach Chris Holtmann said guarding the lithe Johnson, a 5-foot-7, 160-pound senior, will require rotating defenders for different looks.

“He’s a really, really unique player,” Holtmann said. “He obviously has a really big heart. He’s got a really big game in whatever 5-7, 5-8 body. He’s got a huge, huge game. There’s not many guys really like him in college basketball that have his speed and shooting ability.”

No. 21 Butler (23-8) is coming off an opening-game loss in the Big East Tournament, whereas Winthrop (26-6) has won eight straight and defeated Campbell 76-59 in the Big South championship game.

“Butler is so solid,” Eagles coach Pat Kelsey said. “They’re one of the best in the country at taking care of the ball. They don’t turn it over; they never hurt themselves. They get and take and make high-percentage shots.

“So us bowing our neck and gritting our teeth and guarding for 40 minutes is going to be really important. They make it tough on you.”

This will be the first time Butler has played Winthrop, but Holtmann used to coach in the Big South while he was at Gardner-Webb.

“It’s a good league,” Holtmann said, “and talking to one of the guys in their league this year, throughout the year, they felt like Winthrop is as good a team from the Big South (as there has been) in the last four, five years, and that’s certainly saying something.”

Avery Woodson, who has been the shooting guard lately in Butler’s ever-transient starting lineup, insisted he would not be bothered by a foot injury that may have been a factor in his scoreless performance at the conference tournament. Woodson played only 13 minutes, nine below his average, in the 62-57 loss to Xavier last week.

“Obviously, every game is different,” Woodson said. “We have just tried to play our best whenever we face a challenge.”

cgoff@jg.net