Butler is in transition, but not dead

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Beneath the bespectacled, bookish exterior that charmed America in the past two NCAA tournaments, Brad Stevens is a cutthroat competitor.

Stevens, Butler's analytical coach, didn't build one of the most improbable success stories in college basketball history on smarts alone. He also fostered a culture of ferocious competitiveness that helped the Bulldogs reach consecutive national title games, shocking power programs such as Syracuse, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida along the way. That run was built as much on desperate clawing for loose balls as it was executing cerebral game plans.

So the cutthroat part of Stevens relished the challenge when the media started shoveling dirt on the struggling 2011-12 Butler team. This month alone, there was a USA Today headline reading, "At Butler, Glass Slipper Cracks," and one in The New York Times that said, "For Butler, The Road Back Is Bumpy."

That has prompted this line from Stevens: "Don't write our obituary until we're dead."

This health update from Hinkle Fieldhouse: Butler isn't dead.

After starting the season 5-7, the young Bulldogs have slowly evolved into a legit contender to win the Horizon League tournament and advance to their eighth consecutive NCAA tourney. And if they get there, they would be the scariest mid-major team with double-digit losses ever. The sight of the word "Butler" in the bracket would give some high seed ample reason to pucker.

No, this 17-12 team is not going to make a third consecutive Final Four – if that happens, it would make the Jeremy Lin story look mundane – but killing Butler will not be easy.

"I like where this team can head," Stevens said Saturday, after the Bulldogs blitzed the Missouri Valley Conference's Indiana State 75-54 in a BracketBuster game at Hinkle.

It was Butler's fourth victory in a row, the longest winning streak of the season, and it fortuitously comes at a time when two rivals at the top of the Horizon are wobbling. League leader Valparaiso has lost two of its past three games, and second-place Cleveland State has dropped four in a row.

The league tournament features a strong home-court component that probably won't favor Butler this season, but you know the rest of the Horizon is hearing footsteps. With one week left in the regular season, the bloodied bully of the block is threatening a comeback.

"We have an opportunity to continue to work," senior guard Ronald Nored said. "Continue to get better and better and better. And we'll see what happens from there."

[Video: UConn isn't only team fighting to make the NCAA tourney]

Before seeing what lies immediately ahead, understand what might have been. Butler lost Gordon Hayward to pro ball after his sophomore season in 2010 and Shelvin Mack after his junior season last year; both would be seniors right now, and this easily would be a top-10 team, probably top five. This isn't Kentucky; losing multiple stars early is not something you plan for in recruiting at Butler.

Second, understand what will be next season: Stevens has sharpshooting Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke redshirting, plus a stellar recruiting class coming in. Butler will be back, sooner rather than later.

But in between the glory of the past two tournament runs and the promise of future success is this transition season. It has been a slow build to this point.

"I've said I believe in these guys all along," Stevens said. "It's been an adjustment and will continue to be an adjustment because they've been targeted. … But I've never let any negative thoughts creep in about [whether] this team can get better."

For fans on the outside who figured Butler suddenly had gone from Cinderella to autopilot, a crash landing in the middle of the Horizon pack was startling. But you could see this coming.

Stevens had to develop a team with just one senior and two juniors among its nine-man nucleus, and has two sophomores and a freshman currently in the starting five. The result of the youth and new roles was some frightful offensive basketball for long stretches of this season, bottoming out in a 42-point effort in a loss at UW Milwaukee that dropped the Bulldogs to 12-11.

That team bore no resemblance to the one that hammered Indiana State on Saturday.

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Heading into the game, Butler ranked 336th out of 344 teams in 3-point field goal percentage, hitting just 28.1 percent. The Bulldogs were 8-of-20 against the Sycamores (40 percent). The gym was so shooter-friendly that a guy pulled out of the stands for a half-court promotional shot swished it. Everything was going in.

Specifically, players who have struggled badly made shots Saturday.

Sophomore Chrishawn Hopkins, forced into a starting role a year earlier than anticipated because of Mack's departure, made two 3-pointers. He has made six of his past 12 after making just 20 of his first 87 attempts (23 percent) this season.

Junior Chase Stigall, whose shooting was timely during the run to the national title game a year ago, swished a trio of "3s" in five attempts. He had made just five of his previous 34 from outside the arc (15 percent).

When guys who could not buy a basket start hitting, big things can happen. Indiana State coach Greg Lansing – whose team beat NCAA tourney lock Vanderbilt on the road – can see it coming with the Bulldogs.

"He's got them going," Lansing said of Stevens. "He's got them getting better every day, got them competing with a sense of urgency going toward the postseason, like he always does."

In 2010, Butler roared into postseason play on a 20-game winning streak. Last season, the streak was nine. This season, the roll is much more modest – four and counting.

But don't think the rest of the Horizon League hasn't noticed. Butler still is alive and has no interest in reading its obituary anytime soon.

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