INDIANAPOLIS – Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens knows when his team turned the corner this season. It was the same time that Bulldogs guard Shelvin Mack began to improve his level of play.
Stevens can't explain why Mack plays better later in the season. He just knows that he does.
“Shelvin's always been better after Feb. 1,” Stevens said. “You can look through his career. It's been that way ever since he's been here.”
On Feb. 3, Butler lost to perennially-weak Youngstown State (62-60), which was the fourth defeat in five games for Butler. The Bulldogs were just 6-5 in the Horizon League at the time and no one outside of the most ardent Butler supporters envisioned a postseason for this team, let alone a special postseason. Since that loss, Butler hasn't lost again. Its win streak has reached 11 games, and that strong play has carried the Bulldogs to their fourth Sweet 16 in nine seasons.
“Now he was really good at times throughout the course of the year,” Stevens said of Mack. “But clearly, after Feb. 1, he's been at a different level.”
The junior guard was definitely at a different level Saturday. Mack torched Pittsburgh for a game-high 30 points (7 of 12 from three-point range) as Butler knocked off the No. 1-seed Panthers 71-70.
“Pitt didn't really have a presence on the ball,” Mack said after the game. “So I took that into consideration.”
Mack went from hero to goat in one moment, as his foul of Pittsburgh's Gilbert Brown with 1.4 seconds remaining allowed the Panthers to have a chance at victory.
“I put myself in a bad situation,” Mack said. “I realized that was the mistake of my life.”
But not to worry. If there is still time on the clock, Butler has demonstrated an uncanny ability to pull out miracles, as it did against both Old Dominion and Pittsburgh with last-second points.
Though Mack will forever be remembered for that moment of recklessness, it is far more likely that he will be held in high regard for his exploits that began the moment he walked onto the Butler campus.
Stevens recognized immediately the caliber of player that he had recruited, and Mack started all 32 games of his freshman season. In fact, he has started 103 of his 104 games at Butler. The lone exception was this season's final home game in which the five seniors took the floor for the tip.
He has improved his scoring average from 11.9 points per game as a first-year player to 15.6 this season. His improved play has caught the attention of NBA scouts, who have frequented Butler games all season. After Gordon Hayward left the Bulldogs following his sophomore season last spring, the notion that a Butler player can turn pro early isn't beyond belief any longer.
“The NBA crosses my mind every once in a while,” Mack said. “But I really don't think about that much. I could get hurt today and it could be all over. I try to live in the moment and just get better each day.”
In particular, with Wisconsin looming on the horizon, Mack is focused more so on the Badgers than the Bucks – or bucks for that matter.
“We've got a big game coming up,” Mack said. “It wouldn't be fair to my teammates if I was thinking about things like that. I'm just thinking about coming out and winning.”