WHEN BRAD STEVENS gave up a good living as a marketing associate with Eli Lilly to take an unpaid administrative post in the Butler basketball office in the summer of 2000, "a lot of people questioned his intelligence," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who was then Stevens's boss with the Bulldogs. "But he was willing to do whatever it took to get into coaching, from driving players to the airport, rebounding for them or breaking down film."
Matta left Butler in May 2001, and new coach Todd Lickliter made Stevens a full-time, salaried assistant the following season. And when Lickliter resigned in April 2007 to take over at Iowa, the head-coaching job and a roster full of seniors was left to Stevens, who was just 30 years old. Since then, what Stevens has accomplished is remarkable.
Last season he became just the fourth (and youngest) Division I coach to win 30 games in his first season, going 30--4 and winning a first-round game in the NCAA tournament before losing in overtime to second-seeded Tennessee. That kind of success may not be a shocker at Butler—the Indianapolis school, with an enrollment of just 4,437, has been to the NCAAs seven times in 11 years and has won at least one game in each of its last four appearances—but the Bulldogs were supposed to come back to earth this season after losing four starters to graduation. Instead they are off to a school-record-tying 16--1 start and are ranked 16th in the AP poll. The roster doesn't include a single senior and is ranked 340th (out of 344) in "personnel experience" (a metric that uses eligibility class weighted by minutes played) by kenpom.com.
One big reason for this year's success is that 2 ½ years ago Stevens helped persuade someone else to pick Butler over what appeared to be more promising options. Matt Howard, a 6'8", 230-pound forward from Connersville (Ind.) High and a national top 100 recruit, had offers from Purdue and Indiana, among others, but he liked the feel of Butler's program and the idea of playing in 81-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse (the setting for the final scene in Hoosiers), plus the opportunity to play right away.
"A lot of people questioned me when I made that decision," says Howard, now a sophomore averaging a team-high 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds. "But they've all changed their minds."
Stevens also brought in a highly regarded recruiting class this season, and three members of it—guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored and swingman Gordon Hayward—have started every game. "You could tell during [pickup games] this summer that these guys could play," Howard says. Hayward and Mack are both scoring in double figures, and Nored is second on the team in assists.
The Bulldogs feature a solid defense (they give up just 55.8 points a game, second best in the nation) and a patient offense, but another reason for the school's success is the Butler Way, a statement of principles—commitment, selflessness and team unity—posted in the locker room and dating back to the legendary Tony Hinkle, who coached the team for 42 years.
Stevens says Howard in particular embodies the team philosophy. He was the Horizon League's newcomer of the year last season after averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, but he shot just 1 for 7 in the Bulldogs' tournament loss to Tennessee. He used that defeat as motivation and spent the summer working to improve his quickness. That set the tone for everyone else on the team. "[Howard is] a workhorse and an honors student," says Stevens. "He's just a terrific representative of our program in every way."
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More on Butler in Bill Trocchi's mid-major report.
UP STARTS In two seasons together, Howard (54) and Stevens (inset) are 46--5.
[See caption above]