— Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan has been coaching basketball more than a quarter of a century and has more than 600 wins. His teams have become a model of consistency, perhaps not as well known nationally for that characteristic as Duke or Kansas or Michigan State, but very much an equal.
Any young coach getting into the business – and wanting to do things the right way – should study the methods of Bo Ryan and Wisconsin. It’s not the only way, but it is a program built on respect and something to aspire to.
So just imagine how Butler coach Brad Stevens must have felt Monday when he heard what Ryan had to say about the Bulldogs’ program. Back in Madison to begin preparation for Wisconsin’s Sweet 16 showdown with Butler on Thursday, Ryan called Butler “a great program.”
He wasn’t done.
“Butler is about basketball,” Ryan said.
That sounds simple enough. But you don’t hear something like that every day from an opposing coach.
In many ways, it simply reinforces what we’ve all been thinking.
Ryan’s words reflect directly on Stevens, the 34-year-old wonder boy who has taken Butler from the small clubs of the Horizon Conference to the big stage at the Final Four – and not lost a beat. After the second and third rounds of the 2011 NCAA tournament, many fans would agree that the Bulldogs are turning out the hits and producing their magic style of music once again.
Butler now qualifies as the official NCAA Thrill Ride. Butler’s past seven tournament games have all been decided by seven points or less. Since defeating Kansas State 63-56 to reach the 2010 Final Four, the Bulldogs have defeated Michigan State 52-50, lost to Duke 61-59 in a classic national championship game, and won their first two games in 2011, beating Old Dominion (60-58) and Pittsburgh (71-70).
After the Pitt victory, a game that defined the wackiness of the NCAA’s first week, a reporter asked about Butler’s run but didn’t include a 77-59 blowout over UTEP in the opening round last season. The reporter was talking about the law of averages in close games. But Stevens wanted full credit for seven NCAA victories in the past two years – and you really can’t blame him.
“Please don’t take one away,” Stevens said. “I think we’ve got seven. But I will say this: I think it’s fortunate to have the ball last. Like I said, we’re not better than Old Dominion. We’re not better than Pittsburgh. We just had the ball last.”
The Bulldogs had the ball last against Duke in the championship game last season. After a week of comparisons to Hickory High and Jimmy Chitwood from "Hoosiers," Butler almost delivered the greatest moment in college basketball history when Gordon Hayward barely missed a 45-foot buzzer beater.
“I remember it as clear as day,” Stevens told Tim Layden for his magnificent account “A Fling and a Prayer” in the March 21 issue of "Sports Illustrated." “I had time to think: This is a movie. This is a fairy tale. The ball is going in, and that’s how it’s going to end.”
Fairy tale would have been the only way to describe it. But the shot missed. It didn’t signal the end of Butler’s program, just the end of a season. But everyone knew it would be a hard act to follow.
Yet, the Bulldogs are back, capturing our imagination again. Butler wasn’t supposed to be in the Sweet 16 this season. But here they are, alive and kicking, surviving and advancing, and two wins away from a repeat appearance in the Final Four.
Matt Howard’s tip-in at the buzzer, an example of Butler’s ability to improvise when a play goes terribly wrong, moved the Bulldogs past Old Dominion in the second round of the Southeast Regional.
Then Howard made a free throw with 0.8 seconds remaining to cap that wild, notorious final sequence in the game against Pitt. Butler’s Shelvin Mack broke the Butler mold with his inexplicable foul of Gilbert Brown, but Howard was there to save the day when Pittsburgh committed a foul even more unthinkable.
Who are these guys?
“We’re a basketball team with some pride that wants to go out and compete at the high level,” Stevens said last week, before Butler’s first game of this tournament. “And these guys have given us a chance to do that again.”
Stevens doesn’t get much more worked up than that during a press conference. But we do know that the man doesn’t mind showing exuberance around his players. If you were watching after Butler upset No. 1 seed Pitt on Saturday, you saw Stevens exhibit some serious hops as he entered the locker room.
Who is this guy who seems to push all the right buttons?
“If Cool Hand Luke, Brad Stevens, is the future of college basketball, we're in good hands,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said last weekend, during his appearance as an analyst on CBS.
“He does a great job, and our coaching staff does a great job, of getting us ready to play each game, and not just the ones that may seem important to the outside,” Howard said. “And, second, I think he manages the game really well and understands the strategy within the game. When you put those two together, you’re going to have a pretty good coach. And as players, you feel like you got a great chance to win every time.”
Stevens teaches his players to focus on the task ahead, meeting it head on, and doing the best of their ability. But he understands his players also find their underdog status to be a source of motivation.
“I do think they do know how to use the remote and also how to access the Internet,” Stevens said. “I think certainly they see when people pick against them all those other things. I think that’s part of being a competitor, having some pride, and those type of things.”
Stevens says he didn’t talk to his players about living up to the expectations from last season. Instead, he talks about living up to the standards of Butler’s program.
“The standards of our program are what I would consider the highest of expectations,” he said. “Human nature may not have allowed or may have made it more difficult to live up to those, but I thought our guys did a great job.”
The Cinderella tag was yanked off the Butler uniforms a long time ago. The Bulldogs are right there with the big guys. Stevens continues to prove himself in a variety of situations. Don’t forget this team lost three straight Horizon games (two in overtime). It was Feb. 3 and the team's overall record was 14-9.
But that was 11 games ago.
Eleven victories ago – to be exact.
“We had lost a couple of close games, but weren’t far away from being a good team,” Stevens said. “We had a lot of individual talks because it wasn’t about expectations. It was about doing tough things together and staying the course together and understanding that this is part of the whole athletic experience that ultimately makes you better when you leave.”
Two more victories and Butler will be headed to the Final Four in Houston. The battle with expectations is long over. For the Bulldogs, the road ahead means believing in Stevens, believing in the program, and trusting all the things that have carried them this far.
“There’s pressure no matter what situation you’re in, if you let that get into your head,” Howard said. “But if you’re focused and prepared in the right way, then all that and pressure goes out the door I think.”