Butler relies on continuity to make tourney run
When Matt Howard arrived at Butler, he was just trying to fit in.
There were nuances and playbooks to learn, and upperclassmen were trying to teach him how to win the Butler way.
Now, after spending one season adjusting and another re-teaching those lessons to his young teammates, the junior center is reaping the benefits of college basketball's rarest commodity - continuity.
``When you get used to people, you can get into a rhythm,'' Howard said Tuesday before leaving with his teammates for the West Regional semifinals in Salt Lake.
He certainly knows what to expect from his teammates now.
What Butler has done over the past two seasons defies the conventional wisdom of today's game. At a time when one-and-done recruits dominate the national stage and mid-major programs rely heavily on seniors, Butler has gone down a different road.
It did not lose a single player off last season's roster, and coach Brad Stevens has used the same starting lineup - Howard, Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley - for 61 of the last 66 games. That's three sophomores, a junior and one senior. The only time Stevens changed the lineup was because of injuries.
And they got even more playing time together on last summer's trip to Italy, which means the Butler five have started the equivalent of 2 1/2 to three seasons together.
The dividends are priceless.
``As a point guard, it really makes it easy when you know where everybody is going to be and what everyone is going to do,'' Nored said. ``You still have to work on things at practice, but it makes it a lot harder as a point guard when you don't know where they're going to be.''
Butler can see the results.
A year ago, with three freshmen and a sophomore starting, the Bulldogs struggled in February and March and wound up losing to LSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In November, when Nored was trying to play his way back from a stress fracture in his left leg, the Bulldogs lost twice in California.
Since Nored's recovery, the Bulldogs (30-4) have been virtually unbeatable.
They have won 22 straight games, the Horizon League regular-season and tourney titles and on Saturday reached their third regional semifinal since 2003. They haven't lost since Dec. 22 at Alabama-Birmingham, and a win Thursday over top-seeded Syracuse would move Butler within one victory of returning home for the Final Four.
Players insist they wouldn't have made it here without all those shared experiences and point to Hayward's late gamble against Murray State as the perfect example.
The Horizon League player of the year first started to trap Racers guard Isaiah Canaan, then backed off and jumped into the passing lane where he deflected the pass into the backcourt to run out the clock. Butler 54, Murray State 52.
It was a gamble Hayward took, in part, because he knew how his teammates would react.
``A lot of it was instinctual, but playing with each other, I knew the guys would have my back,'' he said. ``I didn't have to think 'Is my teammate going to be there?' ``
Building that kind of unconditional trust takes time, something that has always been in great supply at Butler - a school that has never produced an NBA player.
But the 33-year-old Stevens warns that continuity can create pitfalls, too.
``There is a lot of consistency in game-planning and understanding their roles, which is good,'' Stevens said. ``But I think one of the potential disadvantages, and it hasn't happened with our team, is that they become very accepting of a lesser role and you want them to continue to grow and get better.''
The Bulldogs haven't fallen into the trap.
Instead, they've gotten stronger physically, more aggressive and confident mentally and now have a better understanding of expectations from their teammates.
The combination helped put Butler on the college basketball map and kept them there even in the midst of a major rebuilding project last season.
``We know each other well, we've bonded well, we have high expectations,'' said Veasley, the only senior in the starting lineup. ``It's always easier when you know what the other four people are doing.''