You could argue that the only thing an undersized, overmatched Butler squad has going for it against the top-ranked Indiana team Saturday is that the game will be played in the state of Indiana, where basketball miracles happen.
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In today’s college hoops world, a place filled with facility wars and 24/7 media coverage, with bluebloods and their five-star recruits and the mid-majors who’re always playing catch-up, it can be tough to believe in miracles anymore.
But not in Indiana. And especially not at Butler University, where early on a recent morning bleary-eyed players were just getting out of another video session, planning their next miracle.
It’s hard not to get goose bumps when you walk into Hinkle Fieldhouse, the 84-year-old beauty that Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs call home. The old place smells like basketball. The arena known as Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral could very well be the most recognizable arena in college basketball, with its signature windows that reach five stories high and let afternoon light spill onto the hardwood. It’s known for plenty of things. Like being on the National Landmark of Historic Places. Or hosting the 1954 state basketball championship that was later immortalized in “Hoosiers.” Or, more recently, being the place where two of the most miraculous Cinderella teams in college basketball history grew into giant-slayers.
Common sense would tell you that this weekend, just down the road from Hinkle Fieldhouse at the bigger, newer, grander Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Butler Bulldogs won’t stand a chance. At Saturday afternoon’s Crossroads Classic, common sense would tell you that Butler University, with its 4,200 undergraduates, will get obliterated by the blueblood of the bluebloods when it faces unbeaten Indiana.
Indiana is a school with an enrollment and an endowment that are 10 times the size of Butler’s, and a basketball team with two McDonald’s All-Americans, one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball and the leading candidate for national player of the year in agile center Cody Zeller.
But common sense also would say this: Never count out the underdog in college basketball. Especially when the underdog is the Butler Bulldogs, the mid-major that made the national championship game in both 2010 and 2011. And especially when the underdog’s coach is 36-year-old Brad Stevens, who holds the NCAA record for most wins in his first three years as a head coach and is considered one of the brightest young minds in the sport.
It’s almost as if Stevens were born to slay giants. After all, the first college basketball game he remembers watching when he grew up outside of Indianapolis, steeped in Indiana basketball tradition? He was 8, and he saw Villanova topple Georgetown for the 1985 title, the greatest underdog game of all time.
In his modestly sized Hinkle Fieldhouse office after the video session, Stevens thought a bit about the alchemy it takes to turn a group of lesser-recruited players into a national championship-caliber team.
He has to look for different things in his recruits, things that are less quantifiable. There’s no statistic for toughness, no number that can tell you when a player is playing for himself versus when a player is playing for the team.
Instead, Stevens recruits for more of a feel. He loves watching players on the bench after they’ve fouled out. If they sit and sulk, that’s not someone who plays the Butler Way. But if they jump up and cheer on their teammates, that’s the kind of guy Stevens goes after.
“I want to approach things differently,” Stevens told FOXSports.com. “We were doing a defensive shift the other day, and one of our players said, ‘Man, this is weird.’ And I said, ‘You think traditional will be good?’ For us, you gotta be a little weird. You gotta be a little unique. You gotta be a little different. If everybody tries to be exactly like Kentucky, well, Kentucky’s got better players. We gotta figure ways to be different, and sometimes being different is just being the best, most cohesive team. Sometimes different is a scheme in a game, or a tactical way of approaching a game. But you can be different just by being consistent in your approach for 365 days a year.”
That is the so-called Butler Way. Yes, perhaps it’s a cliche, but the Butler Way is so ingrained in the psyche of this university that it’s posted on a plaque at Hinkle Fieldhouse: “Demands commitment, denies selfishness, accepts reality yet seeks constant improvement while promoting the good of the team above self.” It’s a mantra that college hoops fans learned all about during Butler’s historic March runs. It’s how a David can beat a Goliath.
And the Butler Way is about more than simply getting some five-star recruits and telling them to go ball. Which is why Stevens is as obsessive with watching video as he is about creating that team-focused culture. And it’s why he spent a lot of time at Indianapolis Colts practices over the years, studying what made their organization tick, and watching Peyton Manning, the one athlete of this generation who seems to have more of a handle on his sport’s intangibles than any other.
“You want to take on a great challenge, but you do that best by maximizing what you have and not complaining about what you don’t have,” said Barry Collier, Butler’s former basketball coach and current athletic director. “Part of it is we don’t try to be who we’re not. We don’t try to do what Ohio State can do with 35-plus sports. Brad is a great fit at Butler, and we do everything we possibly can to keep Brad as our coach.”
On Saturday against Indiana, Butler will face its toughest test since its eighth-seeded team nearly pulled off the miracle in the 2011 national championship game against UConn. Indiana is ranked first in the nation in offensive efficiency and has improved greatly over the past year in defense, now ranking seventh in the nation in defensive efficiency.
Butler (7-2) already has handed out a couple of surprises this season. The first was when Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke nailed an improbable 3-pointer at the buzzer to knock off Marquette in the Maui Invitational. The second was the next night, when Butler plowed over then-No. 9 North Carolina for an encore.
After two improbable Final Fours in two years, Stevens’ teams relish the underdog position as much as they relish overcoming expectations.
“Our players (in 2010) went from guys who could walk into McDonald’s unnoticed to being rock stars, in one week,” Stevens said. “You might have an easier time turning those sort of (lesser recruited) guys into a team. But turning them into a Final Four team is a different story. They did it. They’re tough guys who were undervalued because of their toughness.”
You can see how Stevens’ words can give his boys goose bumps. Or if you want goose bumps, you could just walk outside his Hinkle Fieldhouse office and look at a display that’s just down the hall. There, the words that Hickory High’s Merle Webb uttered on this basketball court in “Hoosiers” could be the rallying cry for Butler basketball: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter@ReidForgraveor email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com