Final Four Preview: Butler
Where do you go when you've climbed a mountain no one even knew existed?
There's a cartoon being passed around on Twitter with a woman in a Butler T-shirt donating Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue gear to Goodwill. The Bulldogs are the talk of the Hoosier state, one of the most basketball-rabid in our country. And little Butler, the private school from the capital, has made back-to-back Final Fours, something Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue can't claim.
Butler's the hottest team in college basketball, and the oddsmakers are saying it'll probably reach a second straight national title game. The last time a team lost a title game, then made it back the next year, Tubby Smith was cutting down the nets after his first season with Kentucky in 1998.
But there's a logical fallacy in comparing Kentucky to Butler. There isn't a bigger blue-blood program than Big Blue, after all. Kentucky is a public school with massive funding and the overwhelming support of the most loyal fanbase in the country.
Butler's the flavor of the week in Indiana. The really, really long week.
No team from a Horizon League-level conference had made it to consecutive Final Fours in the last 50 years. Until Butler. This is what happens when Cinderella finds Prince Charming and gets to live in a swanky castle without forgetting where she came from.
Barry Collier coached a Cinderella Butler team. Thad Matta coached a Cinderella Butler team. Todd Lickliter coached a Cinderella Butler team.
Brad Stevens coaches a powerhouse.
It's difficult to imagine the Bulldogs repeating this performance next year as we watch Shelvin Mack's draft stock soar into first-round territory. Matt Howard is a senior, and those two are the only Bulldogs scoring in double-figures this season.
Should Mack return, Butler will be a hot pick in next year's NCAA Tournament pools. But even if he leaves, Stevens has stocked the cupboard well enough that this team should be dancing again. And maybe even pulling off a few upsets in the process.
Forward Khyle Marshall and center Andrew Smith ensure the rebounding will be there. It's tougher to replace a frontcourt than a backcourt, and Smith's development in the second half of this season ensures the loss of Howard won't be too brutal.
In the backcourt, the losses of Shawn Vanzant, Zach Hahn and (potentially) Mack will be tough to take, but Ronald Nored is the type of player who rises to the occasion. The junior is an outstanding defender, and he has enough moxy that he can figure out how to score.
Chase Stigall also returns, and Stevens has smartly worked him into the rotation more and more – to the point that he's starting over Nored now – as the season's continued.
(Sidebar: Stigall as a redshirt sophomore is part of the same recruiting class as Gordon Hayward, Mack and Nored. That's got to go down as one of the all-time best in mid-major history, right?)
The key is Stevens, who is bringing in yet another strong recruiting class with three three-star freshmen who, if the past is any indication, will develop into the leaders of the next Horizon League powerhouse team. Unless their coach leaves.
Stevens is 34, and even if he spurned the big-time last year, the offers will only improve now that he's proven himself for a second straight year (as if his first two seasons, with a combined 56-10 record and two NCAA Tournament bids, weren't enough).
Stevens has an interesting choice – particularly with Tom Crean's warm welcome to Indiana starting to run thin.
Without him, Butler's still going to make NCAA Tournaments and win a lot of Horizon League games. Without him, Butler's still going to be everyone's favorite perrenial Cinderella.
If Stevens sticks around, though, maybe Butler will find an even taller mountain to climb.
Well look at who's in the final again.
For any three or four-star recruits with borderline NBA talent, Butler is the place to be. How a three-star recruit became a lottery pick after only two years is nothing short of amazing, and Brad Stevens and his staff should be given a lot of credit.
I think it may be more common than you realize. Derrick Williams was a three-star recruit, and he could wind up the No. 1 overall pick after his sophomore year.
That's not a slight on Butler or Stevens, though. You're right. They've pulled off a feat that I doubt will be matched soon.