Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Butler University and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Former volunteer Stevens now coaches a contender

October 31, 2009

Nine years ago, Brad Stevens showed up on Butler University’s basketball doorstep.

Now he owns the house. Or fieldhouse, as it were.

From hopeful hanger-on to assistant to head coach, it’s been a rapid rise for Stevens, the personable, just-turned-33-year-old from Zionsville who, after compiling a mere 56-10 record (and two NCAA tournament berths) in his first two years as the Boss Bulldog, now has a team capable of a postseason destination as close as downtown Indy.

Might as well go on record: There’s no reason to exclude Butler—despite its “mid-major” designation—from the short list of teams capable of reaching the Final Four next April in Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Got to keep the big picture in mind,” Stevens said last week, moments after dismissing his team from one of its customary 6 a.m. practices in Hinkle Fieldhouse. “And that’s that the end of the season is a long, long, long way away from today.”

True. And the only thing missing from Stevens’ levelheaded outlook is a flat-top haircut. The guy never looks further ahead than the next play.

That said, the rest of us can jabber about all that Butler potential. Remember, this is a team that has everyone back from last year’s 26-6 Horizon League champion.

The nation has noticed. Butler is popping up in all the preseason rankings, some in the top 15.

“It’s nice to be recognized, good for our program,” Stevens said. “But our guys understand they can’t get wrapped up in external expectations.”

Their fans can, though. Season-ticket sales are 30 percent ahead of last year. Admission to Hinkle could become the hottest hoops ticket in town, especially with non-conference visits from Davidson College (Nov. 14), Ohio State University (Dec. 12) and Xavier University (Dec. 19).

Butler also has neutral court matchups with the University of Minnesota and Georgetown University.

“Our schedule,” Stevens said, “will be honest with us.”

But honestly, what’s not to like about these Bulldogs. They’re mostly home-grown (10 players from Indiana) and they play the way—the so-called Butler Way—the game is supposed to be played, which is smart, fundamentally sound and relentlessly tough.

Connersville junior Matt Howard—a modern-day combination of Butler greats Ken Pennington, Jeff Blue and Ed Schilling—is the preseason conference player of the year. One of 10 children, Howard plays that way.

“Unselfish,” Stevens said. “Even if he were the 15th guy on our team, he’d be just as valuable. There’s not one of our guys who doesn’t look up to him.”

Brownsburg sophomore Gordon Hayward, who’s grown to 6 feet 9 inches, 220 pounds, has—dare I say it?—a bit of Larry Bird in him.

With Willie Veasley, Shelvin Mack, Avery Jukes, Zach Hahn, Ronald Nored, Shawn Vanzant and Garrett Butcher, the ’Dogs have depth galore. Two red-shirt freshmen—Emerson Kampen and Chase Stigall (the latter the latest from the New Castle pipeline)—join the mix, as does 6-foot-11-inch, 240-pound true freshman Andrew Smith from Covenant Christian.

But before we get too carried away, back to Coach Level Head.

“If you look at three possessions that would have gone for us in each of our six losses last year, we could have gone 32-0,” Stevens said. “But if you look at three possessions going against us in our 26 wins, we could have gone 13-19. It’s a fine line between mediocre, good and great.”

Yet, often, that’s where coaching comes in as a difference-maker. Athletic Director Barry Collier has moved to shield Stevens from the “majors” who might entice him to leave, extending his contract through the 2015-2016 season.

Not bad for a guy who left a promising marketing career at Eli Lilly and Co. to pursue his dream, persuading then-head-coach Thad Matta to let him come aboard as a volunteer.

“I wanted to coach at a place where we would have great student-athletes who could compete at the national level and achieve great things,” Stevens said. “That’s what I have.”

So let’s see if Butler’s journey can end with a five-mile trip downtown. Wouldn’t that be something?•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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