Butler could do it again – if everyone comes back

Butler wants the sequel to be better than the original.

All it needs is the same cast and a new ending.

Less than 15 hours after losing Monday night’s NCAA title game,
the Bulldogs were back in Hinkle Fieldhouse and already pondering
another made-for-TV script next season – if they can keep Gordon
Hayward and coach Brad Stevens.

“We’ve got to have the same mindset,” Matt Howard said. “You
can’t let things get to your head. You can’t not work anymore.
You’ve just got to keep doing the things that you have been. Our
system works well. That’s been proven over the last couple
games.”

Or the entire remarkable season.

From Christmas to Easter, Butler (33-5) didn’t lose a game. It
was America’s only league champ to finish with a perfect conference
record and had a 25-game winning streak. The Bulldogs took down
Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State and came within a bounce
of taking out Duke in the closest title game in two decades.

Most people never gave the undersized guys from the
4,200-student school a chance. Many didn’t even know Butler was
located 5.6 miles from the Final Four venue until they actually
made it to Lucas Oil Stadium.

Things will never be the same in this old-school program, and
people are already asking the obvious question: Can Butler do it
again?

“You could have great teams and never do this again,” Stevens
said. “It’s as much about taking advantage of opportunities in
40-minute games as anything else. You know, there’s going to be a
lot of 25- and 30-win teams that never play for a national
championship.”

But the Bulldogs have one advantage the big boys don’t –
continuity.

If Hayward returns, the Bulldogs will have four of their
starting five back. And with only a couple of BCS jobs open, the
Bulldogs just might keep their 33-year-old coach, too.

Hayward, this season’s Horizon League player of the year, has
been moving rapidly up NBA draft boards. Some projections have him
going in the first 15 picks, a major accomplishment for a school
that has never produced an NBA player.

With millions of dollars at stake, the 6-foot-9 forward with the
point guard skills doesn’t have to look any further than West
Lafayette to understand the risk of returning. Purdue forward
Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in February and missed the rest of the
season, an injury that may have kept the Boilermakers out of the
Final Four.

Hummel will spend months recuperating, hoping he can be his old
self sometime next season.

Hayward also genuinely enjoys being around these teammates and
his twin sister, Heather, who plays tennis for the Bulldogs. He
also has some unfinished business. A return could put Hayward in
the discussion for national player of the year, make him a top-five
pick and, perhaps, end with a national title.

It’s a lot to ponder.

“I haven’t thought about it yet, I still haven’t talked to my
dad,” Hayward said. “I don’t know even what the time table will
be.”

Stevens’ decision will be watched just as closely.

Oregon is expected to throw a multimillion dollar offer at him
soon, the Clemson job opened Tuesday when Oliver Purnell left for
DePaul, and Wake Forest began looking for a new coach after parting
with Dino Gaudio on Wednesday. All of those jobs would presumably
pay Stevens more than the $750,000 total package he had with the
Bulldogs this season.

Clearly, one of the nation’s youngest coaches is about to become
a hot commodity – something that is becoming awfully familiar on
the Butler campus.

Barry Collier, who laid the foundation for its resurgence in the
1990s, left for Nebraska in 2000 after getting the Bulldogs to a
third NCAA tournament in four years. He resigned after six seasons
in Lincoln to become Butler’s athletic director.

Thad Matta, Collier’s successor, lasted one season before taking
over at Xavier and later going to Ohio State. Todd Lickliter,
Matta’s successor, left for Iowa after taking Butler to its second
regional semifinal appearance in six seasons, but was fired last
month after going 38-58.

And now, just one year after Stevens signed an extension through
2015-16, he could be in line for another new deal with another pay
raise. Fans are lobbying him to stay on radio talk shows, and some
are trying to raise money through Internet sets to help keep him in
Indy.

“I’m confident we’ll do everything we can to keep him,”
Collier said. “I know there are many things that come into play
besides money. It’s difficult to quantify fit, but Brad is a great
fit here and we’ll do everything we can to keep him.”

Collier declined to say whether any schools had sought
permission to speak with Stevens, and the Bulldogs coach said he
wouldn’t interview with any school until talking to Collier.

“I’m going to sit down with Barry before anyone else,” Stevens
said.

If Hayward and Stevens both return, the Bulldogs would only lose
two key contributors off this year’s squad: starting forward Willie
Veasley and backup center Avery Jukes.

They will get bigger with two new power forwards, 6-9 Erik Fromm
and 6-7 Khyle Marshall, who is rated among the top 25 at his
position by Rivals.com. Butler will be more athletic with the
addition of 6-1 guard Chrishawn Hopkins, too.

That means the Bulldogs will be deeper and more experienced, and
that combination could be enough for the Bulldogs to make it back
to the Final Four and maybe even the championship game – if Hayward
and Stevens return and they stay true to their principles.

“We’re going to have to be ready every single night,” Howard
said. “You’re going to have a target on your back, especially if
we return all four of the guys that could be coming back.”