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COLUMN

Stevens stays cool as Butler's season heats up

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Coach has Bulldogs thriving in pressure-packed games

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 1:15 am

INDIANAPOLIS – Butler University men's basketball players try to emulate coach Brad Stevens. It's doubtful they'll ever quite match his transcendent calm.

“Somebody told me after I made the game-winning shot (against Gonzaga), he just walked off to shake hands, 'on to the next game,' ” sophomore forward Roosevelt Jones said. “We try to take after him.”

Stevens is unshakable on the sidelines. He yells, sometimes. He changes expressions, occasionally. He never turns into a jumping, emotional reactionary coach. Maybe it's his analytic background in finance. The reason isn't as important as the result.

Stevens' composure personifies Butler.

It's why the Bulldogs can win games that appear lost, most notably against then-No.1 Indiana in December and then-No.8 Gonzaga last Saturday. It's why they're now 16-2 and ranked No.9 in the Associated Press poll.

There's “The Butler Way,” an outlook about doing things right, working hard and playing as a team that has been around since the early days of the program. There's now “The Stevens Way,” which is the epitome of cool.

“He's calm while 10,000 fans are going crazy,” freshman guard Kellen Dunham said. “That's a huge thing for us to maintain our composure.”

Stevens, 36, claims this wasn't always so, that he was different as a younger assistant coach. Back then, he implies he would have reacted visibly to moments like the final 3.5 seconds against Gonzaga, when Jones stole the in-bounds pass, blitzed to the other end of the court, launched a prayer and ignited a Hinkle Fieldhouse student mosh pit.

“It's almost sad I'm not as fun of a fan as I used to be,” Stevens said. “I've gotten to where I don't look at wins and losses the same as (the media) or fans do.”

Stevens' approach works. Butler went to consecutive national-championship games, a fact that still seems hard to believe. The Bulldogs are ranked behind IU (No.7), but have a case for being the best team in Indiana.

The idea that thriving in March Madness-type games in the regular season pays off later is a valid one.

A day after the ESPN national telecast of Butler's thrilling win over Gonzaga – complete with Dick Vitale hyperventilating during the swarming of the court – Butler players had moved on to planning for tonight's game at La Salle. Stevens said he didn't feel like his players were “tearing the wallpaper off the wall” in the locker room after the win over Gonzaga.

“We got written about how great we are because a shot went down that we hit running, off one foot, from 15 feet,” Stevens said. “If that shot doesn't go in, does that make us any worse or any better? No.

“I'll let everybody else exaggerate the wins and losses and I'll try to keep us moving in the right direction,” Stevens said. “I've been through that enough to know that it's a long season and if you get too emotional any time, you're bound to lose your focus.”

Stevens' style works because he's calm but not detached. In private, he develops the type of relationships necessary to pull the best out of his players. He'll get in his players' faces occasionally, senior center Andrew Smith said, but the even-keel approach remains at the forefront.

Stevens' style works, as evidenced by the numbers. In his sixth season as Butler's head coach, his record is 155-42 (.787). Butler has won at least 22 games each season, with one 30-win and one 33-win season.

Last season was the first year Butler didn't make the NCAA Tournament under Stevens. He reevaluated, made adjustments, added some new players and now a run at 30 wins seems plausible again.

Dunham said he feels Stevens recruits players who are inherently composed under pressure, and those players fit the coach's style.

Remaining calm in the storm is expected. Make that required.

“It's easier than you think,” Smith said. “When you're in the game and playing, it's not too bad. When you're in the game, you're focused on what's going on. Against IU, I fouled out and watching from the bench was pretty tough. The guys on the bench get more excited than everyone else until the game is over.”

Asked where the calm comes from, Smith didn't hesitate. “That comes from our coach,” he said.

Stevens doesn't believe he has a Top 10 team yet. He called the Butler's move into the Top 10 an “indictment on the polls.” Those sort of comments keep his players from getting carried away.

“We really don't feel pressure in big-time situations because we're used to it,” Jones said. “You just have to stay focused and calm and play through the whole game. It helps out a lot that Coach Stevens lets you play your game and won't get mad if you do something wrong. He lets you play free and that keeps everyone confident.”

Stevens says he's not the fan he used to be, enjoying the emotions of the moment from a more detached viewpoint.

Butler fans are cool with Stevens' style. They're more than happy to handle the jumping up and down. They're getting plenty of practice.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.