January 23, 2008

Nation's third-youngest coach making quick impact at Butler

Jan. 21, 2008


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Brad Stevens looks like just another Butler player. He's tall, slender, has short hair and a teenager's face.

Instead of jogging onto the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse in a blue or white uniform, however, Stevens arrives wearing a spotless suit and a conservative tie. Only then do people realize the 31-year-old Stevens actually coaches the Bulldogs.

"Some people still call him Lil' Brad in Zionsville," point guard Mike Green joked, referring to Stevens' hometown in suburban Indianapolis.

Well, Lil' Brad has grown up and hit it big.

A former Indiana high school star who played college ball at DePauw, Stvens became the nation's third-youngest coach in April when Todd Lickliter departed for Iowa.

Truth is, Stevens has changed little at Butler. Like his predecessors Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Lickliter, Stevens relies on the same deliberate offense, harassing defense and careful ball-handlers who have created havoc for big-name opponents for years.

The results haven't changed much, either. Stevens has matched the Bulldogs' best start in school history at 17-2 and reached No. 12 in the Top 25 before dropping to No. 15 this week after a loss at Cleveland State. Butler has been ranked all but one week this season and if the Bulldogs keep winning, they could even surpass the school's highest ranking ever (No. 10 in February) before season's end.

Among Stevens' early credits are a Great Alaska Shootout championship, beating Bob Knight and five schools from the nation's traditional power conferences - Michigan and Ohio State of the Big Ten; Florida State and Virginia Tech of the ACC; and Texas Tech of the Big 12. And the Bulldogs have already strung together two eight-game winning streaks despite playing only 6-of-18 games at home.

The lone flaws were a 43-42 loss at Wright State, the defending Horizon League tournament champion which beat Butler twice on its home court last season, and last week's 56-52 setback at Cleveland State, which is unbeaten in conference play. Butler is 6-2 in the Horizon.

At first glance, it appears the kid coach can do almost nothing wrong. Stevens disagrees.

"Sure, I've made mistakes and sometimes guys still make you look good," he said, cracking a rare smile. "It's not a perfect game on the floor, and it's not a perfect game off the floor, so you try to limit your mistakes. I've learned and watched and have always been good with the intricacies of the game."

Those were precisely the traits that convinced Collier, now the Butler athletic director, to take a chance on the fresh-faced Stevens, who turned 31 in October.

With expectations soaring after last season's NCAA regional semifinals appearance, a nucleus of five returning seniors and a reputation as one of the nation's top mid-major programs over the past decade, Collier could have chased someone with a bigger name, more experience or a stronger resume.

That's never been the Butler way.

Like Lickliter and Matta, Stevens joined the Bulldogs program as director of basketball operations, working his way through the ranks. He did scheduling, recruited players, instructed them, watched film with them and developed a rapport that drew the attention of Collier, the former Nebraska coach.

"I don't know that he can play Nintendo," Collier joked. "But he impressed me with his poise and intelligence and communication skills. He's a gifted speaker, and I liked his interaction with players in practice and the way he responded in the heat of the moment."

The combination has helped Stevens make winning look easy.

He's young enough to bond with players, old enough to know he can't be their best friend, smart enough to correct their imperfections and just unconventional enough to pull a motivational ploy out of ... a trash can?

"The funniest thing I remember was against Ohio State, we were 1-of-16 on 3-pointers at halftime," Green said. "So he balled up a bunch of little papers and made us shoot them into a trash can. Everybody laughed, and it was a good thing because we were down at the time."

Butler responded by erasing a 10-point halftime deficit and wound up routing Matta's Buckeyes 65-46.

It could have been so much tougher.

Stevens started his professional career as a marketing associate with Eli Lilly, an Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company, before taking a volunteer coaching position at Carmel High School, just north of Indianapolis.

In 2000-01, he accepted the basketball operations job at Butler and became a full-fledged assistant one year later.

Then he worked in virtual anonymity under Lickliter as the Bulldogs reached the NCAA regional semis twice.

Now the question is how quickly can Stevens become a household name?

"He's halfway through his first season, so I think history will bear that out," Collier said. "What counts to me is that he has a sense of what's most important and that's mentoring players and the model of a student-athlete."

Players see it another way.

"It's probably a lot easier to take advice from someone you think has been through it all because it's easier to see yourself in his shoes," said shooting guard A.J. Graves, the MVP of last season's Preseason NIT.

This year's Bulldogs were projected to be even better than last year's team, which gave two-time national champion Florida its closest game in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs lost 65-57.

Rather than feel pressure, though, Stevens focused on finding the right mix between a team that opened the season with five senior starters and nine relatively untested freshman and sophomores.

As with everything else, Stevens has found a way to make it work, even if he appears better suited to taking on his players in a 3-point contest than teaching them the nuances of the game.

"I don't know (if being young) is an advantage, but I hope so," he said. "I think we relate well to the kids, and I think Todd related really well to the kids. But I've only been away from the game as a player about nine years, so I know what they're going through and I think they understand that."