It is part of the deal when you’re Butler. If you go to two national title games in three years and become one of the college basketball programs in the country, you become a target, a signature game on someone’s schedule. It also comes with the territory when you’re tied for first place in that new league — the Atlantic 10 — and have wins over Indiana, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
And on Saturday, the No. 14 Bulldogs held off a spirited comeback by GW in front of a frenzied crowd at sold-out Smith Center to score a 59-56 win, merely their latest with the bull’s-eye on their backs.
Stevens is fine with all that.
“At this point, our guys are used to playing in games like this,” he said before the game. “We’ve never taken the approach, even after the two championship games, that a season is about winning games in March. They understand that you have to win games like this and keep getting better. That’s how you win those games when March rolls around.”
Three years after coming within inches of what would have been the most memorable national title game upset since Texas Western beat Kentucky in 1966, Stevens, now all of 36, still looks very much like what he was not so long ago — a junior executive headed up the corporate ladder at Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
Except for the fact that he’s wearing a sweatsuit instead of a three-piece suit.
“Coaching was an experiment for me when I started out,” he said. “When I got the job at [Eli] Lilly, I was a junior in college and an economics major. I had grown up 20 miles north of Indianapolis and probably had 10 friends whose dads worked at Lilly and were doing very well in those days. A job there seemed like a great fit for an econ major.
“But I was a basketball junkie. Always. The day I started on the job at Lilly after my senior year, I had spent the previous month working basketball camps at Butler.”
Stevens had been a very good Division III guard at DePauw University in Indiana and had actually tried his hand at coaching while working at Lilly the summer between his junior and senior years — working with third- and fourth-graders. The following summer, the people running the program promoted him to coach the high school juniors.
“I really did like it,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was any good at it but I knew I liked it.”
Still, the job at Lilly was there, and Stevens started in August 1999. Nine months later, he quit. The coaching bug had taken hold.