NCAABB, Butler Bulldogs

Butler basketball: as good as it gets?

8/7/10 in NCAABB

There is an opened letter on Brad Stevens' desk, resting there almost too casually, too conveniently. It just happens that a congratulatory note from Tom Coughlin, coach of the Super Bowl 42 champion New York Giants, is at arm's reach when a visitor stops by to talk about Butler in the post-Final Four era . So what other fantastic story is hanging about? That President Obama called the team to congratulate the Bulldogs for — it might hurt to say this, but it's true — losing?

Well, yeah, that happened. It all happened.

The experience was more real than reality TV, and unlike The Bachelorette, no one seems to want it to end. Thousands bewitched by the magic of the Bulldogs' run to the 2010 NCAA championship game want to touch it personally, make it tangible, make it endure, so they write or e-mail or even wander into historic Hinkle Fieldhouse for an unannounced visit.

Today, Rick from Salt Lake City meanders down a hallway looking at pictures and plaques and memorabilia that adorn the basketball office suite and detail the program's improbable rise from standard mid-major to national treasure. Who is Rick? Just a fan. Not an alum, not a booster, not a parent . Just someone thirsting for a personal connection to a miraculous moment that lasted as long as a hopeful 55-foot heave hung in the air. Stevens says hello and thanks him for his interest.

"It's been a little different," Stevens says, direct yet understated as always.

Different?

Stevens recently was at Wrigley Field throwing out the first pitch before a Cubs-Marlins game and then standing in for the late Harry Caray to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The chair of Butler's music school subsequently sent Stevens an e-mail that read: "Nice pitch, and by that I mean intonation. No speed on the fastball."

Different?

Reserve guard Zach Hahn, not all that distinguishable from legions of other buzz-cut collegians , has been approached by strangers while dining with his girlfriend, strolling through a theme park, even sitting in the barber's chair.

"I'm just a 6-1 white kid," Hahn says. "You can tell people paid attention."

Different?

While attending country star Brad Paisley's concert at the Verizon Wireless Music Center near Indianapolis, Butler defensive demon Ronald Nored drew such intense attention from other members of the audience they could have checked him for ticks.

"As much as that happens," Nored says, "I still expect when I walk out the door that no one will know who I am."

This is Butler basketball today: a cultural phenomenon. So what will it become in the future? Does Butler transform into another Gonzaga, building on its NCAA Tournament renown and becoming a feared national power? Or does it follow George Mason, still formidable in the Colonial Athletic Association but no threat to the game's established order? Or is there another option?

For Butler to build on its success will require passing marks in several subjects — almost as many as the number of opponents the program conquered on its way to the memorable night in April when the Bulldogs lost to Duke but triumphed anyway.

Course No. 1: Performance

On a wall inside the Butler locker room is a sign listing the core values of the basketball program. The players remember there are seven of them, though some struggle to recall each item.

"It's basically putting others before yourself and being a great teammate," Hahn says. "It's just more important that we make it our lifestyle and not that we know the words."

Butler's players embrace this philosophy better than they memorize it — it's at the core of the way they play, the way they are recruited and the way their program is run. That is true even for the best of them, and the best of them surely was forward Gordon Hayward, who , following his sophomore season, was taken No. 9 overall by the Utah Jazz. He will become the program's first NBA player since 1953.

Stevens says the team's greatest asset last season was its defensive versatility — the ability of so many Bulldogs to guard different positions and players. This was facilitated by Hayward as well as departed seniors Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes. In the coming year, the strength of the team might be its frontcourt size.

Though talented and reasonably productive, 6-11 Andrew Smith didn't get much of a chance to show off his skills as a freshman. Stevens says he thinks about how to employ Smith and 6-8 senior Matt Howard together "all the time."

Had Hayward remained, Butler would have been looking at a top five national ranking and title projections. Now the debate is whether it can attract top 25 respect and perhaps make a Sweet 16 run — whether it can be, well, Butler. Though they must find some means of replacing Hayward's production, the Bulldogs did not reach the title game last season because of their offensive potency. They were great because it was nearly impossible to score 60 on them and facing them was just no fun.

"The biggest thing about Butler, and people don't pick up on it, is how physical they were," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta, a Butler alum and former Bulldogs coach who gave Stevens his first job in college hoops 10 years ago.

With Nored and Shelvin Mack continuing to punish opposing guards, that physical style doesn't figure to change. Not much about the way Butler operates usually does.

"My first couple years at Green Bay, I was just so impressed with how hard they played," says Tod Kowalczyk, now the coach at Toledo. "We would make highlight tapes for our players of Butler doing all the little things. I remember our players being upset with me: Why are you showing us Butler guys? I think eventually they got the point."

Course No. 2: Scheduling

Stevens is sitting in his favorite lunch place not far from campus, the Broad Ripple Tavern, where he hid out frequently between the three weekends Butler spent in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. He holds his own in the conversation despite dining on a chicken Caesar salad and a bowl of chili he frets might contain a dash too much Tabasco. "They must not worry about me in the offseason," he says.

They might worry about him, though, when they see the schedule Butler will play next winter. The Bulldogs will be the opponents when Louisville opens its new arena in November. They will travel to Xavier. They owe Siena a visit as a result of last year's BracketBusters matchup. They'll compete in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii and deal with Baylor, Florida State, Mississippi State and others. Oh, and there's a title game rematch against Duke.

"When TV gets involved, that's when you get the opportunities," Stevens says. "We called everybody for my first seven years and couldn't get called back."

Butler's NCAA success has made it a commodity. Having your school's number in those Rolodexes can become the difference between waking up Selection Sunday wondering about seeding or worrying about being picked.

Of course, a team also has to win. Last year's Bulldogs played an ambitious schedule and dropped three of their first nine — but also beat No. 15 Ohio State in that stretch. Stevens admits to losing sleep but learned it's important to continue focusing on improving, which eventually generates results.

"The rest of college basketball has seen you have to play quality teams in order to be talked about for the postseason," says coach Chris Mack of Xavier, which like Butler fights for respect outside the protected circle of BCS conference members. "But you can't play 15 Dukes and North Carolinas and get your heads kicked in and think you're going to make the tournament."

Course No. 3: Recruiting

When first promoted into a position in which he recruited players as an assistant under Todd Lickliter, Stevens attended the old ABCD Camp for elite high school players. "I learned real quickly that if anybody was going to see me, I better wear a light-blue Carolina shirt with 'Butler' on it," he says.

So even though he's now one of the sport's coaching stars, Stevens wasn't planning to spend much time among John Calipari, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams when the future McDonald's All Americans were playing during the July evaluation period. "We want to evaluate the people we can get," he says.

After Gonzaga made its breakthrough with three consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 from 1999-2001, the Zags eventually were able to attract higher-profile players also coveted by BCS conference programs: forward Austin Daye, guard Matt Bouldin and big man Josh Heytvelt, for instance.

Despite its increased name recognition, Butler's approach doesn't figure to change much. Stevens wants prospects "that think it's a special deal to be offered by Butler and not just something they throw in their back pocket."

In the past four years, the team hasn't signed a single player rated as a four-star prospect or better by Scout.com — though Nored, Hahn, Mack, Howard and Hayward, the core of the Final Four team, all arrived during that period.

As Stevens sees it, he doesn't have to alter his recruiting approach to sign elite prospects.

"We think we've been recruiting those," he says. "No one else called them that. That's our deal. For us, Gordon Hayward was a top 50 kid. Shelvin Mack, the more you learned about him and saw him, was a top 50 kid. That will continue to be our process."

The Bulldogs traditionally have drawn their players from the immediate area: Indiana's loaded high schools, Cincinnati, across the border into Illinois or Kentucky. When a player comes from a distance, it's usually someone with a strong connection to the area: Nored went to high school in Alabama, but his extended family was mostly in Indianapolis.

The Bulldogs' unparalleled television exposure throughout the tournament, though, surely had to broaden the school's appeal to "Butler types" who happen not to have grown up around Indiana. Right?

"I don't know," Stevens says.

A math whiz who majored in economics while playing Division III basketball at DePauw University, he does not favor conjecture or opinion. Asking him a question that cannot be answered with a fact or a plan generally elicits a response such as this: "I'll be able to tell you that more in four years."

Course No. 4: Branding

Gonzaga's journey from landlocked mid-major to household icon was not accidental, but it's not as though it was specifically planned.

"We just started with a simple plan to keep growing every aspect of the program: recruiting, a new arena, the amount of money coming in and how we travel," Zags coach Mark Few says. "And we're still in that mode."

Though Gonzaga hasn't reached a Final Four, it is now considered one of the game's heavyweights. But for Butler, duplicating that progress is unlikely because the Zags' emergence developed from an unusual recipe.

It helped to be in the West, with fewer Division I schools but still plenty of basketball players. The Pac-10's decision to arrange a TV contract with Fox rather than ESPN created a PST vacuum for the Zags to fill.

"Each situation's different," Stevens says. He's not really concerned with trying to be the next Gonzaga. His goal is to take full advantage of the unique opportunity engendered by last season's success.

He and his players have had to be careful about which of the hundreds of opportunities to proselytize about the Butler Way can be accepted without distracting them from the business of fielding another terrific team. But they've been busy.

Perhaps more than anything, Stevens hopes all this can send Butler into its next Horizon League season without having to agonize that every loss to Cleveland State or Wright State might be viewed as calamitous by the NCAA selection committee.

"I think the hardest thing for a non-BCS school right now is to be held to a standard of having to play perfectly in January and February," Stevens says. "I don't like it. I hope it changes — that every run the George Masons and everyone else makes, that helps to change that."

In the months since Butler's shot at a championship missed by inches — the shot that forever would have been known as Hayward's Heave had it landed — Stevens has watched a replay of the 61-59 Duke loss just once. He knows he'll go through it again when the Bulldogs play Duke next season because that's how a coach prepares, but for now he'd rather not relive it.

His only viewing came in the early hours of April 6, not long after he returned home from Lucas Oil Stadium.

"I finished at about 5 a.m., and then I went to sleep," Stevens says. "I just kind of wanted to be done with it."

He knows that's impossible, though. That game will be with him as long as he lives. And it's more good than bad, by far.

Mike DeCourcy is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at decourcy@sportingnews.com.

This story first appeared in the August 2, 2010 edition of Sporting News magazine. If you are not receiving the magazine, subscribe today, or pick up a copy, available at most Barnes & Noble, Borders and Hudson Retail outlets.

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