If you picked Butler to go to the Final Four this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium, you are either a righteously foolhardy Butler student or you picked your teams based on which mascot would win in a fight.
A Miner (UTEP), a Racer (Murray State) and an Orange (Syracuse) would not present much of a problem for a Bulldog, unless the Miner had a shovel, or the Racer happened to be driving a car...or if the Orange was poisoned.
Regardless of how badly the Bulldog win messed up your office bracket pool, Butler's success is the reason people romanticize this tournament — and indeed the sport, especially in Indiana.
Experts would have you believe that Kansas State was depleted from a double-overtime win against Xavier, and their fatigue in the high altitude of Salt Lake City played to the advantage of the Bulldogs. Unbeknownst to these experts, Butler was playing in the exact same altitude as their opponents. And if ten minutes of extra basketball was really that crushing on the Wildcats' spirits two days later, they didn't really deserve to win anyway.
The other 31 games Butler won this year weren't against teams coming off double-overtime wins, so it stands to reason to assume that there was something more to their win over Kansas State, and that there is much more to look forward to this weekend.
A perfect coach
In retrospect, the upward trend of Butler's success since the beginning of the Brad Stevens era should have made their victories over top-seeded Syracuse and second-seeded Kansas State a little more foreseeable, if not predictable.
I spoke with Stevens on the phone about three years ago, before his first season as Head Coach began. At the time, no one knew who he was and I had only seen him in photos and via ambiguous press releases from the university. He looked younger than his players and I was hoping for some captivating sound-bites from this presumably brash young gun-slinger.
But despite his age and inexperience, he was warm, bright, modest, professional — and a very boring interview.
Stevens says all the right things and is confidently composed with all of his words. He does not speak from the heart to the press and he doesn't yell on the sidelines.
It makes him the most irritatingly perfect coach Butler could ask for.
In that interview before his first season as coach, I continually tried to goad him into making a bold Final Four prediction. It was A.J. Graves and Mike Green's senior years, and they were coming off a run to the Sweet 16.Stevens didn't bite, but he was wise in his optimism for the future.
"I can't imagine any disadvantages," Stevens said of his youth, age 31 at that time; infancy in terms of Division I basketball head coaches. He was the second youngest coach in college basketball. "I know what Butler's all about, I know the students...you can coach players at the highest level who are ambitious in the classroom, and in the past 11 years we've had as much success as anyone in the state. They have a passion for basketball at this school."
Don't ask him this, though
There is one question from reporters that makes Stevens visibly annoyed: when someone (I did it, too) comes to their first Butler post-game press conference and inevitably asks him how he feels about being the underdog, or how the team stays competitive as a mid-major school. The seasoned reporters in the room cringe at the inevitable answer coming. Even Bryant Gumble did it during the half-time show of the Michigan State game, though Stevens had a better poker face in front of a live national audience.
Stevens answers this question time and time again, as he will continue to have to all week long, as he and Butler gain their first serious national exposure. He calmly explains, with a pronounced tone of firmness, that Butler has no recruiting disadvantage, and he does not see his team as underdogs. Unlike many of the cliché answers he uses to avoid evoking controversy, this one is not lip-service.
Butler has won at least 26 games four years in a row, and has every reason to expect to win each night out, regardless of their opponent.
It is not a coincidence that Butler has been winning while playing six Academic All-Americans in the last four years. This year, Matt Howard was named to the first team of ESPN The Magazine's academic all-stars for his 3.77 grade point average, with a major in Finance.
Gordon Hayward was selected to the third team, with a 3.31 GPA in Computer Engineering.
Stevens' formula for success is to recruit players who succeed academically. He believes that success transitions naturally to the court. Stevens doesn't care for players who have no interest in their education or work ethic. His approach boasts indisputable results.
In his second season as coach, Butler was pre-ranked as fifth in the Horizon League, having only one returning starter. Yet they won 26 games, cracked the "Top 25" national rankings, and were victors of the Horizon League regular season championship.
After a season like 2008-2009, with no seniors and one returning starter, Butler's accomplishments in 2009-2010 should come as no surprise; Stevens has had five out of five returning starters at his disposal all season long.
Youth, as Stevens suggested, is not a disadvantage. Only one coach in NCAA Division I Men's Basketball history reached 50 wins faster than Stevens: Bill Guthridge of North Carolina.
There are only two seniors on this team, and only one of them is a regular starter. It is early to start looking forward to next year, but Brad Stevens is building a program that already had a premier reputation among mid-major schools; they are the class of the Horizon League year after year, and are at last recognized as not only one of the elite programs in Indiana, but the entire country.
Michigan State is the only Big Ten team that Butler has never faced. The Spartan fans travel well with the team, and with a student body of almost 50,000 — more than ten times that of Butler — the home court advantage will be somewhat diminished.
This is one of those rare situations where fair weather fansare not only accepted, but encouraged.For it to be a true home court advantage Butler will not just need their own students, alumni, and casual fans — they will need a city-wide mandate.
There has already been an outpouring of support, but whether or not those supporters will be moved to the point of actually buying tickets remains to be seen. The novelty of a team playing down the street from its campus in the Final Four makes for a great story, but its impact will be unknown until about 5:45 p.m. on Saturday evening. There's plenty of room left on the Bulldog bandwagon; welcome aboard, one and all.
Despite their inherent differences, Butler and MSU have very similar styles of play. They guard the perimeter, and punish anyone that comes into the lane. On offense they set screens, swing the ball around, and look for jump shots. They both have a lot of depth; three different players have led Butler in scoring during the tournament. They are not the most exciting teams to watch to a casual observer, but if you pay attention to the point guards and the coaches and the sidelines, there will be a chess match going on each trip down the floor.
Indianapolis is one of only a handful of towns in the country that will happily trade a night of alley-oops and reverse dunks in exchange for a game of busy, fast-paced defense and solid team offense with a lot of quick chest passes.
There are three irrefutable keys to success for Butler, which have led to their best season in school history. While ownership of these stats Saturday night will not guarantee victory, it will certainly keep it close.
When hitting more free throws than their opponent, they are 26-1.
When out-rebounding their opponent, they are 22-1.
When committing fewer turnovers than their opponent, they are 21-2.
Yes, these are obvious cause-and-effect factors, but it is not just that Butler wins when these things happen that is interesting — it is how often they happen that is truly amazing. Butler out-rebounded their opponents 23 times this year. Win or lose this weekend, that ability to dominate the glass will figure in any success they might have.
Even more surprising about a team that rebounds as well as Butler: their biggest starter is 6'8." Throughout the tournament the knock on Butler has been that they don't have the size or athleticism to compete with the big-state schools. But the Bulldogs' fundamental ability to pack the lane with rebounders and box-out scorers equalizes this perceived disadvantage.
You could be 13 feet tall and have an eight-foot vertical leap and not get a single rebound if you can't get within five feet of the rim, and Matt Howard is as good as anyone in the tournament at filling that space.
Typically, Howard's three-inch vertical leap is irrelevant because of his uncanny ability to scratch and claw his way into position at both ends of the court. He is a true power forward; one of the last of his kind in mainstream basketball.
Unfortunately, MSU has a big tank in the middle as well.
Draymond Green plays strong and reckless, and he has a huge rear-end that will be difficult for Howard to knock around. Whoever wins that battle — or at least whoever doesn't foul out — will likely decide the winner.
Insert your Hector and Achilles references here, Spartan fans.
If Butler is able to survive MSU, they would match up very well with either West Virginia or Duke. If West Virginia upsets Duke and plays Butler, I'll be far more concerned about Bob Huggins driving into a sandwich delivery boy downtown than with the game's outcome; I don't see West Virginia being able to deal with Butler's team defense, depth and coaching. Unless Bob Huggins is coaching a pie-eating contest -- then he'd be unstoppable.
Butler in 40 Seconds:
-There have only been two other schools to go to the Final Four in their hometown: UCLA and Louisville. It has not happened in over 30 years.
-Butler has the exact same starting lineup they had on opening day this season....and last season.
-Only one coach in the history of Men's Division I Basketball has more wins in his first two seasons than Stevens: Bill Guthridge of North Carolina.
-They are the only team in this tournament to have beaten both a number one and two seed.
-The win over Syracuse set a school and Horizon League Conference record for wins in a single season (31). The pervious record was 30 wins. It was set in 2007-2008...Brad Stevens' first year as head coach.
-The Bulldogs have won at least 26 games in four consecutive seasons.
-Butler has won 24 games in a row—the best active streak in the nation. They have not lost in 2010. Their previous best win streak was 15, in 1999-2000.
-Three different players have led Butler in scoring during the NCAA Tournament.
-Butler had committed just 23 turnovers (7.7 pg) in its three NCAA tournament games before Kansas State. In that game they committed 20, and won anyway.
-Butler held Syracuse to a season-low 59 points. The Bulldogs, who led the Horizon League in team scoring defense (59.7), have held 10 of their last 11 foes below 60 points, including all three NCAA Tournament opponents. Butler is 18-0 this season when holding its opponent below 60 points.
-Butler is 4-3 against teams ranked in the "Top 25" this season.
-Butler is the first No. 5 seed to reach the Elite Eight since Michigan State did it in 2005.
-Junior Matt Howard, a finance major with a 3.77 grade point average, was named first team on the 2009-10 ESPN The Magazine University Division Academic All-America squad, while sophomore Gordon Hayward, a computer engineering major with a 3.31 GPA, was picked third team.
-Butler has led all Division I schools in Indiana in victories in each of the last four seasons. The Bulldogs were 4-0 against Indiana foes this season.