LEXINGTON, Ky. — Still 24 hours away from losing by 12 points to Butler in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen already was hugely impressed with the Bulldogs.
“I’ve gone through seven, eight game tapes of Butler,” he said Wednesday. “It’s the best coaching clinic you can have.
“Their attention to detail, their execution defensively and offensively is textbook. I think Butler is kind of the gold standard for preparation and attention to detail and being the team that doesn’t beat itself.”
Until this week, Butler was the little team that could — the charming, disarming, clean-cut cast from middle America that somehow found its way to back-to-back national championship games in 2010 and 2011, coming within an unanswered prayer of denying Duke its fourth NCAA championship in ’10.
But now the Bulldogs are about to join the big boys, if you can call what’s left of the Big East Conference truly big.
And their unofficial first Big East game will take place around 8 tonight inside Rupp Arena against Marquette, which lost to Butler on a last-second 3-pointer by Rotnei Clarke in November’s Maui Classic.
Asked about the ESPN commercial that replays that shot, Marquette’s Trent Lockett said Friday: “That’s definitely my least favorite commercial throughout the year, because it always brings you back to that moment where that shot went in. They played a great game.”
But that 72-71 Butler win was four months ago. Today is for a spot in the NCAA’s Sweet 16, which will bring acclaim to the winner far beyond anything won or lost in Hawaii before Thanksgiving.
Yet should the Bulldogs top the Golden Eagles again, it will be one more unimpeachable example of why Butler’s Brad Stevens may be the best coach of his generation.
“Coach Stevens is a Hall of Fame coach. He’s just not old enough for you to call him that yet,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said of the 36-year-old Stevens during a news conference Friday.
Based on his first six seasons, it would be hard to argue with that. Stevens is 166-48 (.777) with two appearances in NCAA title games, five tournament appearances and five years with 26 or more wins, including this year’s 27-8 worksheet.
But there’s also this, from Stevens himself, when asked to compare this Bulldogs bunch to the storybook squads who have come before it:
“They have some mettle, they have some intestinal fortitude that is built up over time, but also, hopefully, has become a big core part of our team,” said Stevens after Butler’s comeback win over Bucknell on Thursday.
And he’s no doubt right about that. The Bulldogs have shown such resolve from long before Stevens took over in 2007.
Even then, doesn’t really explain the Butler Way, as it’s now often described in the same reverent tones reserved for the legendary John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success or Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s “Process.”
Butler senior center Andrew Smith helped fill in the blanks Friday, however.
“The best example I can give is that when were watching Selection Sunday and we were paired up with Bucknell, we probably did about 15 minutes of media and walked into our locker room for a team meeting,” Smith explained.
“Coach came out and said, ‘Well, I’ve already watched 20 clips of Bucknell’s defense.’ We all just started laughing. I don’t know where he gets that information so quickly.”
Stevens isn’t shy about praising his staff for much of his success. Of the game plan that helped defeat Bucknell, he said, “Michael Lewis [the former Indiana guard] stayed up until 3:30 this morning and slept on a couch, then showed our guys a personnel tape at 8 a.m. that he created. I’ve got a great staff.”
It starts at the top, though. It starts with a gym rat who reached his maximum level as a player at small-college DePauw but should carry him to the Hall of Fame as a coach.
One more Stevens line to prove this theory, this to explain a Butler defense that few coaches ever solve:
“We do it more of a full rotate, where everybody can guard everybody. And it does take a long time to get good at it. There are plenty of days when I say to myself, ‘Man, there’s probably easier ways to do this.’ But if you can get into March and start to understand things, you can become pretty good defensively.”
And pretty good defensive teams usually find a way to make pretty good runs in the NCAA tournament.
Or as Bucknell’s Joe Willman said after the loss to Butler: “It just shows that [any size school] can play basketball, and that if you put in the hard work, really buy into what your team is doing, you can be successful.”
Funny how that works. Funny, too, how so few programs seem capable of embracing that hard work and buying into their coach’s system as well as the Bulldogs.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...