Latrobe grad Austin Butler works his way into starting lineup for Holy Cross basketball
A streaking Austin Butler gathered a pass from midcourt and, without hesitation or a dribble, he converted a layup and drew a foul.
With a packed Hart Center crowd celebrating winter homecoming at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., Butler clenched his fists, yelled and, before he could think, traded high-fives with a couple fans.
Butler's basket came just before halftime of the Crusaders' 85-74 victory against Lafayette in a Patriot League game Jan. 27. It sparked a career game for the 2017 Latrobe grad and reigning Tribune-Review Player of the Year and Athlete of the Year. He finished with 28 points and earned the Martin J. O'Malley Award, presented annually to the most outstanding player of the winter homecoming game.
Butler, a 6-foot-5 freshman guard, started the season as a reserve, but his energy, enthusiasm, hustle and hard work quickly earned him minutes in key situations. In fewer than 10 games, Butler earned his first start, and he hasn't left the Crusaders' top five since.
"It was different. I was never used to coming off the bench, but it didn't matter because I knew I needed to be ready for every opportunity that I got," Butler said. "I know nothing is ever given to you. Whenever I got my chance, I was ready, and I went out and do what I've always done."
What Butler does is score points in bunches — he scored all 12 of his points during a 20-6 run in the second half of a 63-57 win against Loyola (Md.) on Jan. 9 — and play with excitement.
He's the first guy to help a teammate off the floor, the first to jump off the bench after a big play and the first to offer congratulations. His ability and energy drew the ire of rival student sections while at Latrobe, where Butler averaged 30 points as a senior and scored 1,905 career points, but it's winning over coaches, teammates and fans at Holy Cross, one of the few Division I programs that recruited Butler.
Butler, who is averaging 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and leads Holy Cross with 33 3-pointers, also is resilient, possibly a byproduct of dealing with hostile WPIAL student sections.
"He's shown his resiliency time and again," Latrobe boys basketball coach Brad Wetzel said. "He really got the business from every team we faced, and I think that's helped him deal with the ebb and flow of collegiate athletics."
The game before his 28-point outburst, Butler failed to score and had three turnovers in 15 minutes in a 60-57 win against America on Jan. 22.
Performances like that seem to strengthen Butler's resolve. When he has a rough night, as many Division I freshmen do, he puts on his headphones and hits the gym. It doesn't matter if it's 3 a.m.
"After the American game, that was a rough night. I had to keep plugging away," Butler said. "Sometimes I need to get up shots without thinking, get my reps up."
Butler has scored in double figures in 10 of the past 15 games for Holy Cross (8-15, 5-7), which has won four of six with a roster that features six freshmen.
Winning with freshmen isn't easy. It's even tougher when those freshmen are tasked with mastering the offense of coach Bill Carmody.
Well-respected in coaching circles, Carmody led Princeton to wins over Florida State, Texas, Georgetown and N.C. State and two NCAA Tournament appearances from 1996-2000. He then guided Northwestern from 2000-13. During his tenure, the Wildcats had their first 20-win season, and he was the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2003-04. Sports Illustrated once called Carmody the best offensive coach in college basketball.
"It's not an easy offense to get adjusted to, but we're starting to do what we need to do and what coach expects us to do," Butler said. "He's a very intelligent, smart guy, and he's very offensive-minded. It's not easy, but he expects the best from us. He wants us to be perfect, and he wants us to be able to take criticism. We feel very fortunate to have him as our coach."
Mike Kovak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @MKovak_Trib.