Shortly after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, the coach of the country's most obscure Top 25 basketball program walked out of the nation's most famous arena dealing with an unfamiliar feeling.
Or rather, a failure to live up to them.
Three weeks after opening the season with a No. 11 national ranking, Butler is likely to fall out of the Top 25 following a 72-65 loss to Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The most troubling thing about the defeat is the potential damage it could do to the Bulldogs' NCAA tournament résumé. Butler is 6-3, with its only quality victory coming in a Nov. 18 win at Northwestern.
Brad Stevens was asked if his players may have been affected by the pressures that come along with such a lofty preseason ranking.
"Sure," he said, "but you just have to do your best not to focus on those things. We live in a world that's always talking about March for basketball. There are a lot of experiences, a lot of opportunities that you have to embrace and go after prior to that time."
Unfortunately most of those opportunities have already come and gone for the Bulldogs, and they failed to take advantage of any of them.
A win or two against No. 15 Georgetown, No. 18 Clemson or No. 22 Minnesota would've done wonders for Butler on Selection Sunday. Instead it lost all three of those games and, by doing so, continued a troubling trend.
The Bulldogs are just 1-7 against Top 25 teams in Stevens' two-plus seasons as Butler's head coach. That's not to say Stevens hasn't done a good job with the program. With back-to-back Horizon League titles and a 61-6 mark against unranked foes, Stevens has been nothing short of magnificent. Only one coach in Division-I history (North Carolina's Bill Guthridge) won more games in his first two seasons than Stevens.
Still, even though they're talented enough and skilled enough to keep games close, the Bulldogs haven't been able to win big games the last few seasons. This year they weren't as athletic as Clemson or as big as Georgetown or as mean as Minnesota.
Granted, Butler is more well-coached than any of those teams. But, as folks always say, the best players usually prevail in the end. That's why the general feeling now is that Butler was ranked too high to start the 2009-10 campaign.
Are the Bulldogs a fringe Top 25 team? Absolutely. But are they one of the top 10 or 15 teams in college basketball? No – not that Georgetown coach John Thompson III was willing to admit it.
"Everyone talks about their system, and their system is great," Thompson said. "But they have very good players. They have guys that can play anywhere, in any league."
That would be hard for anyone to argue after watching standouts such as Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. The trio is averaging a collective 42.3 points per game. But they aren't coming through in the clutch – especially on defense, said Hayward, noting that the Bulldogs had a "meeting" after Tuesday's game to air out their problems.
"Last year we [approached] every game thinking we had something to prove and knowing we had to play hard every single time," Hayward said. "I don't know what it is this year, but it's almost like we go out there and act lackadaisical, like the game is just going to come to us and we're going to get the win. That's not going to work. Obviously it hasn't worked.
"We've got to change everything we're doing right now."
They better hurry.
As poorly as things have gone thus far, Butler still has two more golden opportunities to add some bullet points to its profile. Stevens' squad plays host to No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday. The Buckeyes will be without Evan Turner, who was having an All-American-type season before injuring his back last week. After that comes a Dec. 19 home showdown against Xavier.
No one can question Butler's schedule.
"My point on playing [good teams] is … live!," Stevens said. "Let's go out and challenge ourselves and see how good we can be. We didn't get it done tonight. We've run into some buzzsaws."
If Butler loses its next two contests its only way of making the NCAA tournament would be to win the Horizon League title for the third straight year. Three weeks after opening the season ranked so high, nothing seems certain.
"I look at every win as very meaningful," Stevens said. "I know sometimes the media doesn't. They just count certain wins as meaningful and others as not. We'll see what's meaningful at the end of the year."
Mark Few – The Gonzaga coach continues to show why he's one of the best in the business. Even after losing Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye, Micah Down and Josh Heytvelt, the Zags are 6-2 with wins over Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Washington State. One of their two losses was a 77-75 setback against Wake Forest from which leading rebounder Elias Harris was ejected on a questionable call. The other was a four-point defeat at Michigan State.
Mfon Udofia – Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors garner most of the attention, but Udofia – a freshman guard – has been one of Georgia Tech's biggest difference-makers as of late. He's averaging 17 points over his last four games.
Texas Tech – One season after finishing 11th in the Big 12 Conference, the Red Raiders are 9-0 following Tuesday's victory at TCU. Pat Knight's team has tremendous balance, with five players averaging between nine and 14 points. The next three games (on the road at Wichita State and New Mexico and at home against Stanford) won't be easy.
Trevon Hughes – Wisconsin's senior point guard is the key reason the Badgers catapulted into the Top 25 after beating Duke last week. He scored 26 points against the Blue Devils and then followed that up with a 20-point effort against Grambling State. Hughes, who had made 15 of his last 27 shots, will have to come up big again if Wisconsin hopes to beat Marquette on Saturday in Madison.
Kentucky holdovers – Freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are getting most of the hype – and deservedly so. Still, the players who first-year coach John Calipari inherited from Billy Gillispie have also played a key role in the Wildcats' 8-0 start. Everyone knew Patrick Patterson (16.6 points and 10.1 rebounds). But players such as Darius Miller (8.5 points in 29.5 minutes) and Ramon Harris (four rebounds in 17.2 minutes) have also been helpful.
Tweety Carter – The only McDonald's All-American in Baylor history, Carter made a combined 13 of 19 shots from beyond the 3-point arc in victories over Xavier and Arizona State. His effort made up for a miserable performance by LaceDarius Dunn, who went just 5 of 24 from the field in those two games.
St. Mary's – The Gaels hardly seem to have missed a beat despite the loss of point guard Patrick Mills to the NBA. Randy Bennett's squad will take a 6-1 record into Saturday's game at Oregon. Omar Samhan had 22 points and seven rebounds in a recent win over Utah State that ended the Aggies' 37-game home winning streak.
Rick Pitino – Has anyone had a more frustrating 2009 than the Louisville coach? First the Cardinals got embarrassed by Michigan State in the regional finals of last season's NCAA tournament. Then came the offseason turmoil involving Pitino and Karen Sypher. And now the Cardinals were humiliated by Charlotte 87-65 on Saturday night in Freedom Hall. Jerry Smith, Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva didn't play in the game, but that's still no excuse for such a lopsided loss.
Marriage proposals at games – Is there anything more cliche, mechanical, emotionless, unromantic or cheesy?
Washington State – Back to reality for the Cougars, whose undefeated streak came to a harsh end with back-to-back losses against Gonzaga and Kansas State last week. The Gonzaga setback was particularly frustrating, considering Ken Bone's team led by 12 points at halftime.
Ashley Judd – Kentucky's No. 1 fan has yet to be at a game this season, although word on Saturday was that the actress missed the Wildcats' showdown with North Carolina because of the flu.
15-7 – That was the halftime score of Pittsburgh's game against New Hampshire last week. It was the lowest-scoring half of the shot-clock era.
Greg McDermott – The Iowa State coach may feel his seat getting hot following a subpar start to what was supposed to be a breakthrough season. As if losses to Northern Iowa and Northwestern weren't enough, the Cyclones got spanked Saturday by a Cal squad that was playing without Theo Robertson. The defeat was the third straight for Iowa State.
Kansas' schedule – The Jayhawks always schedule tough and can usually be found near the top of the RPI. But this season's lineup is a dud compared to the ones of seasons past. Not that it's Kansas' fault. Who knew that UCLA was going to be this bad, or that Cal and Michigan would underachieve, or that John Calipari would leave Memphis and take all of his recruits with him? A Jan. 10 showdown at Tennessee could be interesting but, other than that, there aren't that many riveting non-conference games for Kansas.
Forget the AP poll. How would you rank the top 10?
I still think Kansas is a level ahead of everyone else at this stage, but there's not a lot of separation between No. 2 and No. 10. Here's my ballot:
It's still early, but who has the best backcourt in the country?
It's too early to tag anyone with that honor, but I'll give you a longshot candidate: Ole Miss. Chris Warren and Terrico White have been an unbelievable tandem thus far. Warren and White are averaging 17.5 and 17 points, respectively, for a Rebels squad that is 7-1. Villanova is the only team that has defeated Ole Miss, so it's fitting that the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes are one of the few backcourts that can top Ole Miss. Kansas' Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor are lethal, too, even though Taylor's stats suggest otherwise. And obviously John Wall and Eric Bledsoe will do great things at Kentucky once Bledsoe starts playing better. Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown are young but will be great for Texas.
Here's four more backcourts that are way underrated: Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker at Connecticut; Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher at Cal; Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen at Kansas State and LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter at Baylor.
What team has the toughest schedule?
That won't officially be decided until the end of the season, but I can't see anyone trumping North Carolina. As if playing in the ACC wasn't tough enough, the Tar Heels are in the midst of a non-conference slate that includes games against Ohio State, Syracuse, Michigan State, Kentucky, Nevada and Texas. No team will be as battle-tested come March – except or maybe Texas, which plays North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan State and Pittsburgh along with what figures to be a grueling Big 12 schedule.
Back to North Carolina … the last time I can remember a school putting together such a tough non-conference schedule was in 2003-04, when Michigan State scheduled four Top 25 teams – as well as Oklahoma and UCLA, who were unranked – before the start of Big Ten play. The Spartans lost all six of those games and finished 18-12.
Duke freshman guard Andre Dawkins has left the team to be with his family in Virginia after his sister's death in a weekend car wreck. Lacey Dawkins, 21, was a passenger in a vehicle involved in a three-vehicle accident in Pax, W.Va., Saturday morning. Lacey was on her way to Durham to see Duke take on St.John's … Georgia Tech shooting guard Iman Shumpert is expected to miss the next three-to-six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery … In his first big game for USC since transferring from North Carolina, Alex Stephenson scored 22 points in Saturday's loss to Georgia Tech … UNLV is nationally ranked in December for the first time since 1992 … Kentucky coach John Calipari now has more than 1 million followers on Twitter … Touted North Carolina freshman John Henson has played more than 13 minutes in a game just once all season and has yet to score in double figures … On Monday, Metro Sports, a television station in Kansas City, will release an hour-long documentary on the troubled life of former K.C. native and UCLA star JaRon Rush.
Wednesday: Kentucky vs. Connecticut in New York – John Wall hasn't faced a backcourt as good as Connecticut's Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker. Unfortunately, the Huskies don't have much else.
Thursday: Syracuse vs. Florida in Tampa – The Gators turned a lot of heads with their recent win over Michigan State. Now we'll find out how good they really are.
Friday: Iowa at Iowa State – Cyclones fans don't believe there is any chance they'll lose to the struggling Hawkeyes. Then again, they said the same thing two weeks ago about Northern Iowa.
Saturday: Ohio State at Butler – The first big game of the post-Evan Turner era (which hopefully won't last longer than two months) is against the suddenly-under-the-radar Bulldogs.
Saturday: Georgetown vs. Washington in Anaheim – Will the Hoyas underachieve and disappoint like they did last season? Or will they challenge for the Big East title? This game may provide answers.
Sunday: Cincinnati at Xavier – First-year Musketeers coach Chris Mack is still looking for a marquee win, while the Bearcats continue to improve.
Tuesday: Portland State at St. Mary's – After an 0-3 start, the Vikings should enter this one on a four-game winning streak. Still, winning in Moraga doesn't seem likely.
Wednesday: Oklahoma State at Stanford – The Cardinal may not finish first in the Pac-10, but they also won't finish last, which is where Stanford was picked.
Kansas' Kurtis Townsend– There aren't many assistants in the country as well-traveled as Townsend, who worked at Cal, Eastern Kentucky, Michigan, USC and Miami before Bill Self hired him at Kansas in 2004. Known as a relentless recruiter, Townsend has mentored some of the sport's most high-profile names, including Jason Kidd, Jamal Crawford, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Tony Gonzalez. Townsend chatted with the KOTC on Tuesday.
KOTC: What are some of the crazier moments you've experienced during your years as a recruiter?
Townsend: One time when I was interviewing with Henry Bibby at USC, in talking to him, he had told me a story about Dave Miller, who was one of his assistants. He said Miller was recruiting this kid whose last name was McDonald. He said Dave Miller wore a Ronald McDonald suit with a USC jersey over it to one of the kid's games and stood under the basket. Bibby asked if I'd ever do anything like that and I was like, "No, that's not my style."
KOTC: So what'd you do instead?
Townsend: When I first got there, Henry wanted to send all the recruits 100-150 letters every day. So we'd have managers write the letters – just silly stuff so they'd get 100 pieces of mail every day. One kid's mom called me and she said, "Coach, I'm taking you guys off the list, and it's not because we don't like USC. It's because our mail carrier is refusing to deliver our mail because she keeps getting a bad back from having to carry all these letters." It kind of pissed some people off, I think.
KOTC: What former player do you stay in touch with the most?
Townsend: I stay in touch with the majority of them. With me coming to Kansas and with Tony Gonzalez being in Kansas City until recently, he was a guy I started talking to more and more. I still talk to Jason Kidd, not on a regular basis, but I try to stay in touch with him. Jamal and other guys text me after we win a big game. A lot of guys do that.
KOTC: California, Michigan, Miami, Kentucky, Kansas … other than the East Coast, you've worked in just about every part of the country. Which area do you like the best?
Townsend: Being from California, I like where it's warm. Los Angeles was nice. I wasn't in Miami for very long but I enjoyed it while I was there.
KOTC: So you're a beach guy?
Townsend: I like being around the water and seeing it and hearing it. But I'm not going to put a surfboard on my head and walk down to the ocean without a shirt on. What a sight that would be, huh?
KOTC: What's your most memorable moment as a college coach?
Townsend: The one that stands out to me is beating Memphis to win the title in 2008. I know how hard it was to get there and how special it was for everyone – especially Coach (Bill) Self.
KOTC: What do you remember the most about that game?
Townsend: Obviously, Mario's shot. I just felt the whole momentum change when that shot went in. I just saw the looks on our guy's faces and the people that were in the stands. We came out in overtime and scored the first five or seven points and it was over. It was such a big momentum swing. Even now, when I see that shot replayed on our video board before our games, I get chills.
KOTC: What's the best part about working for Bill Self?
Townsend: The thing I like about him the most is that his success hasn't changed him. He's the same guy every day. He makes everyone feel like one big family at Kansas. He's so positive and upbeat. He makes us all feel like we're doing a great job. I've learned a lot from him about dealing with people.
KOTC: I hear Bill takes Halloween about as seriously as he does basketball. What was his costume like at this year's party.
Townsend (laughing): He was Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean. He was a swash-buckling pirate, with the long wig and the headband. He was unbelievable. It was his second-best costume to the KISS costumes that he and Tim Jankovich and their wives wore a few years ago. Now that was something to see.
Mac's Speed Shop and Barbeque, Charlotte – I haven't spent a ton of time in the Carolinas, but friends who have tell me Mac's is as good as it gets. After one trip, I can't see how anyone could argue. The pulled pork comes in heaping portions – even on the combo platter, which I would recommend, unless you have something against pork, chicken, ribs and brisket, all on one plate.
Boudro's, San Antonio – Roy Williams recommended this upscale Texas bistro on the scenic Riverwalk and, after a few bites of salmon – as well as some of my wife's center cut strip sirloin – it was easy to see why. Probably the best meal I had during my summer diet, which I ruined moments later with some bread pudding. Easily the highlight of the meal.
Street Meat, New York – Forget all the fancy Italian place and expensive steakhouses. When I'm in the Big Apple, I pick up most of my meals from the street carts stationed throughout the city. You can't beat a massive lamb gyro – with extra sauce – and a Diet Coke for $5, or teriyaki chicken over rice for $6. Most New York restaurants will charge you that for parsley.