Butler hoping to make another Final Four run
Butler coach Brad Stevens is starting over.
He's looking for three new starters. He needs new leaders, and he sees no point in reliving the successful but painful past.
The 35-year-old coach isn't fretting over this season's big challenge. Instead, he embraces the idea of remaking the Bulldogs so they can make another deep NCAA tournament run.
''Today we have great energy and we'll play really hard because you guys are all here and everybody's talking about how we are,'' Stevens said before the Bulldogs' first practice. ''It's really more about how you are in January when nobody's talking about you. My goal is not to be the best team we can be, in November, but to be the best team we can be at that time.''
Few have a more magical March touch than Stevens, the nation's only coach to reach the last two Final Fours and the first coach from an Indiana school to do that in consecutive seasons. Not even Bob Knight can boast of that achievement.
But making it a third straight time will be a daunting task.
Butler faces a difficult early schedule that includes trips to Gonzaga, Stanford and Indiana; a grand opening act at Evansville's new arena; a neutral-site game against Purdue and home dates against Louisville and Xavier. The Bulldogs will not only play all those games before Christmas, they'll have to do it after losing six players from last season's national runner-up team, including Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack.
Still, Stevens' cupboard isn't bare.
Center Andrew Smith and guard Chase Stigall are returning starters. Athletic sophomores Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins will likely move into the lineup after strong tourney performances. Ronald Nored, who started his first 2 1/2 seasons at Butler, also returns after losing his job in February, and the Bulldogs hope former Indiana high school stars Garrett Butcher and Erik Fromm can become key contributors.
Stevens also has a strong freshmen class that includes Indiana All-Star Andy Smeathers, a 6-foot-5 swingman with a penchant for hitting 3-pointers, and Jackson Aldridge, a 6-foot guard who averaged 15 points on Australia's under-20 national team.
''The last two years, we've had a lot of buzz and hype coming into the preseason,'' Butcher said. ''When I came in as a freshman, people didn't expect a lot of us. It's good. It makes you focus in on every game a little more.''
Some veterans readily acknowledge last season's early struggles occurred, in part, because the team was caught off-guard by being the hunted instead of the hunter. That, the Bulldogs say, caused them to lose focus.
It's not likely to happen this season with so many players still learning how Butler plays basketball.
''I've spent a lot more time focused on team and culture than I did last year because I had so many guys to help me out,'' Stevens said. ''You've got to bring the freshmen along and the newcomers along and that really affects everyone's pace (at practice) a little bit.''
Stevens and his players are not lowering the bar, though.
Marshall said he expected to go to the Final Four last season after watching his future teammates make it in 2010, and he believes the newcomers this year and next have similar goals. What most remember from April's title game, the dreadful 18-percent shooting against UConn that left Butler short of a national title again, is something everyone wants to forget.
''I have not watched it and I have no interest in watching it,'' Stevens said. ''You know all the things we talk about, we did that game. We just didn't make shots. If we ever play Connecticut again, I probably will watch it.''
But that game will serve as motivation for the Bulldogs' unfinished business.
''That's the ultimate goal, to be there and be one game better than we were the last year and the year before,'' Stigall said. ''We can't focus on the end result right this second because we're still trying to get the team ready for the preseason and Game 1.''