Butler gets to work after two runner-up finishes

BY foxsports • October 14, 2011

Butler stuck to its traditional opening-night schedule Friday.

Coach Brad Stevens closed practice, ditched the dunk contests and got down to coaching basketball earlier than most other teams.

Just 15 minutes after the official start to basketball season, the two-time national runner-ups hit the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse without a fan in sight.

''We'll emphasize different things because we are different, and I think we'll be able to do more than we did last season,'' Stevens said referring to his team's strategy, not outside expectations. ''I think we're more versatile on defense than we were last season. Now they don't know all the action coming at them, but I think we're more versatile.''

That's not good news for opponents already familiar with Butler's stifling defense.

But this is not the same team.

Butler must replace three starters - Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant - from a squad that reached college basketball's biggest stage, the national championship game, the last two seasons. Sophomores Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins, who played key roles in last season's postseason run, should fill two of those spots.

Finding a replacement for Howard, a fan favorite and the heart and soul of the Bulldogs in the locker room, will be tougher.

''Of course it will be different,'' Marshall said. ''Matt was the face of this program for the last four years, but we have to move on.''

Stevens also has to find a new rotation.

The Bulldogs need productivity out of a highly touted freshman class and key contributions from a host of upperclassmen, two of whom have gotten ready for the season in unorthodox ways.

Ronald Nored, the starting point guard for 2 1/2 seasons before losing the job in February, and Garrett Butcher, the 6-foot-7 forward, have done their conditioning on bikes and in the pool after battling leg injuries the last two seasons.

Stevens said both reported to practice in top shape.

And nobody was more excited to get started than Butcher, a former Indiana high school all-star who had surgery on both knees after his sophomore season. The persistent pain was so bad last season that Butcher spent the second half of the year riding a stationary bike during practice instead of working out with his teammates.

''This is my first full practice since this time last year,'' Butcher said, grinning. ''Frankly, it's really exciting for me.''

Even if no one is around to watch.

But that is the Butler Way.

The Bulldogs never celebrated Midnight Madness when it was covered live on late-night television, and still don't open it up for fans even though the NCAA has agreed to let teams start working out earlier in the day.

Here, it's always been just another practice.

The one difference from last year is that the Bulldogs are back on their old stomping grounds.

In 2010, Stevens moved practice from Butler's campus five miles north of downtown Indy, to Franklin College, a Division III school just south of Indiana's capital city, because of scheduling conflicts with football and volleyball. Stevens thought the awkward time slots available for practice and the continual flow of fans through Butler's basketball cathedral would be too distracting.

This year, there was no such problem.

The volleyball team is on the road and the opening of basketball practice does not fall on homecoming weekend, so Stevens simply shut the curtains in the old gym and got back to business.

''I never read too much into the first day of practice,'' Stevens said. ''Last year was the best first practice I've ever been a part of. Two years ago, was the worst first practice I've ever been a part of, so it's not a good indicator.''

Butler wound up playing for a national championship both times.

And now they're back, hoping to achieve the one result Howard & Co. couldn't - winning a national title.

''That's the ultimate goal, to be there and be one game better than we were last year and the year before,'' starting guard Chase Stigall said. ''We can't focus on the end result right this second because we're still trying to get this team started and get ready to play.''

Notre Dame was scheduled to hold Irish Madness later Friday night, and Indiana moved back its traditional Hoosier Hysteria festivities to Saturday night. Purdue also had a closed practice Friday night.

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