Monday, March 29, 2010

March Goodness

Kid Coach (Brad Stevens of Butler University) was not born when Whinin' Jim Boeheim (of Syracuse University) started his coaching career in 1969. However, Kid Coach gave Whinin' Jim a schoolin' in the Sweet 16 game of the 2010 West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. After the game, the teams lined up for the obligatory handshake. At the head of the line were the two head coaches. Whinin' Jim barely shook Kid Coach's hand and said nothing. Not "nice game." Not "kiss my foot." Whinin' Jim will be a jerk until the last day he whines from the Syracuse sideline. Kid Coach has more class in his nether parts than Whinin' Jim can ever summon forth on his best day. If this is the (fair & balanced) Butler Way, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Butler’s Coach: Competitiveness Wrapped In Calm
By Billy Witz

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It did not take Tracy Stevens long to discover how important basketball was to her husband, Brad. On their third date, as sophomores at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, he took her to a high school basketball game more than an hour and a half away.

“Anderson versus North Central, at the Wigwam,” she said, displaying an Indiana native’s proper reverence for Anderson’s renowned arena. “I should have known I was in trouble.”

Tracy Stevens said this while standing at the edge of the court late Saturday afternoon, after being summoned by her husband from the stands with their two children, 4-year-old Brady and 10-month-old Kinsley. Tracy Stevens wore a West Regional championship baseball cap and a smile, both products of Butler’s 63-56 victory over Kansas State.

A big story in the Final Four will be Butler, the small Indianapolis university that reached the Final Four in its hometown, trying to put a real-life spin on the script from the movie “Hoosiers.”

At the center of it will be Brad Stevens, the coach. But Stevens is no modern-day Norman Dale, the character played by Gene Hackman, a crusty basketball sage in search of redemption. Nor is he Bob Knight, the bombastic red-sweatered icon of Indiana basketball.

Stevens, 33, is in many ways the embodiment of his team — baby-faced, smart, unknown to all but the basketball cognoscenti and, until now, frequently underestimated.

Indeed, when he took off for a flying chest bump with the freshman walk-on Emerson Kampen after the game, Stevens got surprisingly high in the air.

Ten years ago, Stevens, a native of suburban Indianapolis, took another leap. He walked away from a job as a marketing representative at the medicine manufacturer Eli Lilly to pursue a college coaching career at one of its lowest rungs — the director of basketball operations at Butler. He did not become a head coach until three years ago and still looks young enough to be mistaken for a player.

Yet throughout the tournament, the visage of Stevens on the sideline is one of composure. He mostly stands with his arms folded, observing, and when he is moved to action, it is often polite applause — for a job well done or as a pick-me-up.

“He’s calm and collected, but he’s fiercely competitive,” Tracy Stevens said. “He’s always thinking about how he can beat you.”

Brad Stevens is a believer in statistical analysis, which after heavily influencing baseball is making its way into basketball. At home, he pores over statistics almost as much as he does film in preparing game plans. He refers to the 6-foot-3 forward Willie Veasley as his team’s Shane Battier, the Houston Rockets player whose role as a facilitator is not often reflected in box scores but has made him a darling of the statistical set.

The result is a team that is not gifted athletically and starts only two players taller than 6-3 but that could outrebound Kansas State by 12. And force Syracuse into 18 turnovers. And hold each regional opponent to a season-low point total, neither reaching 60 points.

“Yeah, definitely,” Kansas State forward Curtis Kelly said when asked if the Wildcats had underestimated Butler. “I didn’t think they were that good, especially defensively. But they disrupted our offense with their pressure.”

Two things have been noticeable about Butler in the N.C.A.A. tournament — the Bulldogs are very well prepared for their opponents, and they do not rattle easily.

In each game, there were key wrinkles in the Bulldogs’ game plan — how they tried to force Syracuse’s Andy Rautins to dribble to his right, for example, or the way they changed the positioning of their screens against Kansas State.

When center Matt Howard was in foul trouble early against Kansas State, Andrew Smith, a husky freshman who had not played in a tournament game, performed as if he had prepared all season for the moment, playing a near-flawless 12 minutes, a season high.

“We know everything we need to about our opponents, all their tendencies are broken down,” the sophomore guard Ronald Nored said. “I honestly believe every time we go on the court, we’re the most prepared team in the country.”

That preparation translates into confidence, and it is what the Bulldogs, who have won 24 consecutive games, credit for their success when the game is in the balance.

They are 10-1 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and have come from behind in the second half of all four tournament games. They trailed Murray State, Syracuse and Kansas State in the final five minutes, yet did not wilt.

“I really love their resolve and their toughness,” said Barry Collier, the Butler athletic director and a former coach there. “There’s a level of toughness that defines this team, and I really appreciate it.”

Amid the celebration on the court Saturday, the silver-haired Collier, who also played at Butler, wrapped his arms around Stevens like a father would a son and told him, “Awesome.”

It was Collier who promoted Stevens to head coach when Todd Lickliter left for Iowa. Stevens interviewed for the job the day after Lickliter left and was called back the next day for a second interview.

When he was offered a contract, Tracy, a labor and employment lawyer, looked it over.

The contract, whose terms Butler, a private university, does not divulge, was extended last year through 2016. “It’s somewhere between seven years and lifetime,” Collier said.

That commitment may be tested in the weeks to come. Stevens will surely be a target of bigger programs, just as the coaches were who preceded him — Collier (Nebraska), Thad Matta (Xavier and then Ohio State) and Lickliter (Iowa).

Stevens has been coy when the subject of his future comes up. There may be jobs in which he is more likely to return to the Final Four or make more money, but Butler is home.

And that is one other thing that should not be underestimated. Ω

[Billy Witz now writes for "The Quad," The NY Fishwrap's College Sports Blog.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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