LEXINGTON, Ky. — Fifteen minutes after Butler’s first NCAA opponent was revealed on Selection Sunday, Brad Stevens walked into the locker room and told his team he had already watched 20 clips of Bucknell’s defense.
The players couldn’t help but burst into laughter. They couldn’t believe their coach had not only gotten the information but had watched and learned that much about their opponent in such a short time.
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Bring up Stevens’ name to any coach at the NCAA tournament regional in Lexington, Ky., and strong praise is sure to follow. Words like genius and savant have been tossed around.
He knew exactly how many times Bucknell had run a triangle-and-two defense this season and what the call was from the coach to trigger it. Why is this fascinating? Because the Bison had run only 30 possessions of that particular defense all season.
“Coach Stevens is a Hall of Fame coach,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said of the 36-year-old. “He’s just not old enough for you to call him that yet.”
As the Golden Eagles prepare to face Stevens’ Bulldogs in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament at Rupp Arena on Saturday night, Williams knows Butler will be improved and more prepared than it was in the teams’ first meeting in November.
“Brad Stevens is not 12-4 in the NCAA Tournament because he coaches the same team in March that he coaches in November,” Williams said. “I think schematically overall there’s a lot of similarities, but they’ve made tweaks, they’ve made adjustments.”
When Stevens was promoted to head coach following the departure of Todd Lickliter to Iowa before the 2007-08 season, he took over a program that was a trendy upset pick each year it made the NCAA tournament but wasn’t yet on the map.
Just six years later, Stevens has taken Butler to two national championship games and has jumped the school from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 and now to the Big East. Instead of being the sexy mid-major pick to make noise in the tournament, Butler is now the school other mid-majors are emulating.
“If I wasn’t having to prepare to play against Butler, this would be an unbelievable experience because it’s like a clinic,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said Wednesday. “I’ve gone through seven, eight game tapes of Butler. It’s the best coaching clinic you can have. Their attention to detail, their execution defensively and offensively is textbook.”
Stevens is a rare breed who enjoys the learning process that comes with being a college basketball coach — maybe even more than the game itself. His intense preparation mixed with extreme intelligence and a large focus on advanced stats have earned him all of the praise from his peers.
“I’ve never prepared for a game where I didn’t ultimately want to steal something from that team,” Stevens said. “I don’t think I’ve ever prepared for what I would consider to be a poorly coached team.
“I absolutely love getting together with other coaches. I think that’s one of the great benefits of our job.”
Last August, Stevens spent time at a retreat learning from Florida’s coaching staff and spent two days at Kansas as the Jayhawks prepared for their European trip.
“I love that part of this business,” Stevens said. “It’s a very competitive industry with regard to we’re judged based on winning and losing, but it’s also an interesting thing because we all get together and talk about the game, and that’s one of the things I relish the most about my 13 years in coaching.”
Overtures have come often from bigger schools trying to lure Stevens away from Butler. He’s been offered big money elsewhere but has always chosen to stay. It’s a lesson he may have partially learned from Lickliter, who was fired at Iowa just three years after leaving Butler. He’s currently coaching at Marian University, a NAIA school in Indianapolis.
“People are finding the coaching carousel to be more of a game than true life stuff,” Stevens said. “That bothers me a little bit because I’ve been around coaches that have moved on, have had good friends fired, and I know this: It’s very stressful when people move, and so, you know, I think it’s certainly more real than sometimes it’s made out to be.”
Stevens has developed a calm and cool demeanor on the sideline that his players have responded to. Sometimes the coach is criticized for being too calm when he shows little to no emotion after a big win. It’s all calculated, but it’s worked at Butler.
“I think that’s just a testament to him,” Butler guard Rotnei Clarke said. “Even watching film and seeing game-winning shots like we’ve hit this year, you never see him rattled. It’s just like it’s another game to him. He just cares about how hard we’re competing.”
Williams has a totally different but similarly calculated sideline demeanor. Saturday’s game will feature two coaches that know how their teams respond to them.
“I think that’s the case at all times in every team,” Williams said. “I’m not near the coach that Coach Stevens is, and so how I process things, I’m not as calm. Our kids are not going to make a shot and my reaction is going to be the way his is.
“I have great respect and admiration that he can operate like that. But that’s not been my path. I wouldn’t have been admitted to the institution that he graduated from. I wouldn’t have been hired by the accounting firm that hired him. That’s just not who I am.”
The two men may go about their business in different ways, but both can flat out coach. As Butler moves into the revamped Big East with Marquette, a rivalry could be brewing.
It all starts with Saturday. A trip to the Sweet 16 is on the line, something much more important than any conference game down the road. One thing is for sure, however: Stevens is at Butler to stay, and the “genius” is going to be a thorn in Marquette’s side for years to come.
“He’s a pretty special coach, and in my opinion he’s the best coach in America,” Butler center Andrew Smith said. “I think he’s proved it year in and year out. I hope we can keep him forever.”