HOUSTON - Brad Stevens is Clark Kent. He is mild-mannered. He is intelligent. He clearly has superpowers. He just does not need to take off his suit to prove it.
Stevens burst upon the NCAA scene in 2008 in the Birmingham, Ala., subregional. Butler dominated a first-round game and took a very talented Tennessee side to overtime in the second round before losing. That was the last game at Butler for the tough point guard Mike Green and shooter A.J. Graves. It was the NCAA warning from Stevens.
Stevens is everything the modern coach is not – circumspect, relaxed, plugged into his players without being overbearing or dictatorial. You could see something special.
Not consecutive national championship games special, but special.
Now, it is consecutive title games, Duke last year, Connecticut this year. The common theme is Butler and Stevens. And the coach would also tell you Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant are part of it, as they certainly are.
After Butler beat Virginia Commonwealth in Saturday’s first national semifinal at Reliant Stadium, CBS wanted to talk to Stevens and his star players. The coach brought his whole team with him to face the cameras. The message was clear.
Butler can’t be called an aberration because it was in the title game last year. Still, it was hard to expect much from the Bulldogs when they got crushed in their opener at Louisville and stood at 14-9 following a loss at hapless Youngstown State; Butler has not lost since.
Connecticut did not look like a Final Four team when the regular season ended. The Huskies went from the second Tuesday in March at Madison Square Garden, needing to win two games just to get to the Big East tournament quarterfinals, to the conference title to the first Monday in April during a 10-game winning streak for the ages.
UConn is 16-0 this season against non-Big East teams. Butler is not a Big East team. It just plays like one.
One could make this into a sports morality play, but that would not be fair to all the players. Schools and coaching staffs make decisions on how their programs operate.
UConn is facing NCAA sanctions because of how it operated at some point. Butler is in Indianapolis where the NCAA is headquartered.
One school assembles talent and turns it over to a Hall of Fame coach.
“One thing I’ll guarantee you, I know who I am,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “I know what I’ve done in 39 years of coaching. You don’t have to tell me, you don’t have to write it, but I know who I am. Quite frankly, I’m pretty comfortable with who I am.
“Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you. But I know who I am and I’m comfortable with what I’ve done.”
And there is “the Butler Way.”
It is, Stevens said, about adhering to standards, “not trying to worry about anything else. It’s hard to do and easy to talk about.”
Butler is living proof that it can be done. If it were easy, Butler would not be unique.
This is, by the way, more than a feel-good story. There will be three players with likely NBA futures on the court tonight. Two, Howard and Mack, will be playing for Butler. Kemba Walker will be playing for UConn. So will freshman Jeremy Lamb, who may have a chance someday.
“There’s a reason why he’s standing in all these tournaments, the reason why he’s playing and continues to play and play,” Stevens said of his senior Howard. “He wins everything in practice. He wins everything all the way throughout the year. It’s ’cause of his motor. He just has a nonstop will to succeed for his team and that is it. There is nothing else that matters to him.”
And, Stevens said, “It’s going to translate to any level. I really believe that.”
Walker has been ridiculous all season for UConn, but especially absurd since the Big East tournament began. He has become a force of nature. Nobody can guard him. You just have to hope he misses or starts to make bad decisions when he tires, if he tires.
“I think very few us of us are able to transmit how we feel to others,” Calhoun said. “I think Kemba does it two ways. Obviously, his physical abilities on the court, but I think his incredible passion for us to be successful off the court.”
Calhoun has an appreciation for what Butler is doing.
“If you had told me two years ago that that could happen, or even a year ago, that Butler would be back in the Final Four this year, I would say, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ because I’m a great believer in somewhere along the (way the) regular season does have great meaning to it,” Calhoun said. “And the fact of who you play every single day, not the out-of-league games, but who you play every day prepares you. But they have an unusual brand of kids.”
NCAA TOURNAMENT FINAL
Butler (28-9) vs. Connecticut (31-9), 6 p.m., Reliant Stadium, Houston, Ch. 7
FAST FACTS: This is the highest combined number of losses (18) in title-game history. Only three NCAA champions have had more than nine losses (11 for Kansas in 1988 and 10 each for N.C. State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985). Arizona had nine in 1997. UConn is trying to become the fifth No. 3 seed to win the title and the first since Florida in 2006. Butler is trying to become the second No. 8 to win it; Villanova in ’85 is the lone No. 8 to have won the crown. UConn’s Jim Calhoun, 68, would be the oldest coach to win a title. Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34, would be the second-youngest, behind only Indiana’s Branch McCracken, who was 31 when the Hoosiers won in 1940.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Butler won the Southeast Regional with victories over No. 9 ODU, 60-58; over No. 1 Pittsburgh, 71-70; over No. 4 Wisconsin, 61-54; and over No. 2 Florida, 74-71 (OT), in the region, and over No. 11 VCU, 70-62, in the national semifinals. UConn won the West Regional as the No. 3 seed. The Huskies defeated No. 14 Bucknell, 81-52; No. 6 Cincinnati, 69-58; No. 2 San Diego State, 74-67; and No. 5 Arizona, 65-63; then No. 4 Kentucky, 56-55, in the national semifinals.
Key stat: UConn averages 13.8 offensive rebounds a game but gives up 13.2. Butler averages 11.1 offensive rebounds per game and allows 9.0.
The Buzz: Senior guard Kemba Walker carried UConn for most of the season, but freshman swingman Jeremy Lamb has emerged as a reliable second scorer. Still, if Walker struggles, UConn is in trouble on offense. Butler has counted on guard Shelvin Mack and forward Matt Howard. Expect to see Butler put Ronald Nored on Walker; the Bulldogs likely will use three or four guys on Walker, but expect Nored to get the bulk of the work. He is an excellent on-ball defender who has strength and quickness. Lamb’s size is going to be a matchup problem for Butler. He is smooth and can get into the lane, and he should be able to shoot over the Butler defenders. Offensive rebounding is going to be big. UConn does a great job on the offensive boards, but the Huskies also give up an alarming number of offensive rebounds and that will hurt against Butler. Freshman reserve forward Khyle Marshall has been a monster on the offensive boards, with 22 in five games. He had seven against a big Florida frontline, and that type of outing would be huge against UConn. Butler is better from 3-point range (35.5 percent to 33.3). UConn is better from the line (76.9 percent to 72.9), and the Huskies’ three main perimeter guys – Walker, Lamb and freshman Shabazz Napier – each shoot at least 76.6 from the line. UConn doesn’t get enough credit for its defense; it held foes under 40 percent shooting from the field in nine of its past 20 games. Butler’s rebounding has been big in the tourney; the Bulldogs have outrebounded four of their five foes (all but Pitt).
Key individuals: Butler has to feel comfortable that Mack and Howard are going to get their points, much like UConn has to feel comfortable that Walker and Lamb are going to get theirs. So which team is going to get the biggest boost from a third option? Butler’s usually is center Andrew Smith, who averages 8.6 points per game, and UConn’s usually is center Alex Oriakhi, who averages 9.6. Smith has scored just seven points, on 2-for-7 shooting, but has 15 rebounds in the past two games, and has scored 33 points in the tourney; Oriakhi has a combined 15 points and 16 boards in the past two games and also has scored 33 points in the tourney. Butler’s third offensive option in this duel is more likely to be senior guard Shawn Vanzant. He can hit the 3-pointer, and his defense also will be important for the Bulldogs.