Butler coach Brad Stevens has boyish looks that belie a brainy approach to basketball
Thursday, April 1, 2010
After Butler toppled Kansas State on Saturday to seal a berth in the Final Four, Bulldogs Coach Brad Stevens pumped his fists and leapt into the air to chest-bump his players. He was a picture of everything he is not.
Stevens, a stoic sideline presence with his arms folded or his hand to his chin, has set the tone for the Bulldogs with his steady leadership and unflappable air. And Butler, an extension of his personality, has been similarly unflinching on the biggest stage.
"We believe in him; he believes in us," forward Matt Howard said. "There's just a confidence that runs in all of us."
Stevens has made Butler, a school of about 3,900 undergraduates located in a residential neighborhood north of downtown Indianapolis, the darling of a Final Four to be held just miles from its campus. The Bulldogs, who have won 24 straight games and are made up mostly of locally grown talent, face Michigan State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It all starts with Stevens, who is all of 33 years old.
"One thing that I really appreciate about our players is they believe in one another and they trust the system," Stevens said.
Stevens's rise started 10 years ago when he left his job as a marketing associate at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, to pursue coaching. He started at Butler as an unpaid volunteer in 2000, became an assistant coach in 2001 and was named head coach in 2007.
An Indiana native, he was the all-time scoring leader at Zionsville High and then played basketball at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., from 1995 to 1999.
His third date with his future wife, Tracy, was to a high school basketball game while they were sophomores at DePauw. They traveled more than an hour and a half from the school's campus to see North Central High play at Anderson High's famous Wigwam arena.
"I should have known I was in trouble," Tracy Stevens said.
During the NCAA tournament, Stevens has been sleeping only about five hours each night so he can stay up watching film and studying statistics.
"He's calm and collected, but he's fiercely competitive," Tracy Stevens said.
"Although he's calm and collected, he's always thinking about how he can beat you."
With his cerebral approach, Stevens, who studied economics in college, showed his strength as a tactician in the West Region.
The Bulldogs' aggressive man-to-man defense held both Syracuse and Kansas State to fewer than 60 points. Syracuse guard Andy Rautins compared Butler's defense to West Virginia's rugged approach. "They're pretty aggressive and physical," Rautins said of the Bulldogs.
Butler forced the Orange to turn over the ball 18 times, scoring 23 points off those possessions. Guard Ronald Nored blanketed Rautins, who had five turnovers, and swingman Willie Veasley played tough defense against Wesley Johnson, the Big East player of the year.
Against Kansas State, Butler tried to trap the Wildcats' guards on ball screens and also looked to force Kansas State's big men to take jump shots off the blocks, freeing up the interior space that allowed the Bulldogs to grab 12 more rebounds than the Wildcats.
"Defensively, they just try to hound everybody, try to stay in the lane, pack it in so there's nowhere to drive," Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen said. "Then they just sent five to the glass every time, did a good job rebounding."
Some Bulldogs fans in Salt Lake City expressed worry that Stevens could leave Butler for a higher-paying job at a more prominent program. Stevens, the two-time Horizon League coach of the year, signed a contract extension last April that would keep him at Butler through 2016. Butler, a private university, did not make public the financial terms of the deal.
As for people who label his program a mid-major, Stevens said he did not mind it, but also said he didn't see much of a difference between his players and those at more highly regarded programs. "I've never really thought of it as a gap," he said.
In Indianapolis this weekend, Stevens will join a trio of coaches who are either already in the Hall of Fame or seem likely to be enshrined one day -- Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Bob Huggins of West Virginia and Tom Izzo of Michigan State.
Just like his team, Butler's boyish-looking coach will be the newcomer in the Final Four.
But it is fitting symmetry for a group of players and a coach who are reflections of one another.