The clip popped on television late Saturday, just before Butler and Texas Tech were about to tip off in the title game of the Great Alaska Shootout. It was a promo for the upcoming contest, the kind they always do heading into a commercial. But this one seemed more interesting than normal, if only because of the striking differences between the two men on the screen.
|Brad Stevens is garnering attention because his Bulldogs play smart. (AP)|
On the left was Brad Stevens.
And as I watched their exchange I became curious about how Knight seemed to be going out of his way to say something to his counterpart. The Hall of Famer had his hand on Stevens' shoulder, and I wondered what words were coming out of his mouth because the look on the face of Stevens -- Butler's new coach who was raised 70 miles from the Indiana campus Knight dominated for 29 seasons -- was equal parts shock and satisfaction, and it didn't seem like a normal pregame handshake.
So I called Stevens and asked what Knight told him.
"He was really kind," Stevens said. "He just said he had really enjoyed watching my team in preparation, and I told him I really appreciated that. And he not only took the time to come talk to me, but he took the time to talk to each of our assistant coaches too, and I thought that was really classy. ... So it meant a ton to me and it meant a ton to our team because, you know, we've got a lot of Indiana kids -- and I'm probably one of them -- who understand Coach Knight set a standard in a lot of ways in this business."
Not bad for a first-month-on-the-job highlight, is it?
Brad Stevens -- a self-described "Indiana kid" whose father played football for the Hoosiers -- got to match wits with an icon, and that the result was an 81-71 victory for Butler was icing on the birthday cake, of which Stevens has had only 31, and did I mention that already? If so, forgive me for being redundant, but it's fabulous to see an athletic director hand his most-high-profile program to an unusually young protégé, then watch the decision get off to the kind of brilliant start that has forced stupid voters in the AP and Coaches polls who omitted the Bulldogs from their preseason Top 25 ballots to add them in the subsequent weeks.
Butler is now No. 16 in both polls.
But that's still too low, if you ask me, because a team that returns five of its top six scorers from a Sweet 16 squad and gets off to a 6-0 start -- featuring two true road wins (over Ball State and Evansville), one 28-point home win (over Indiana State) and a trio of neutral court wins that came against a Big Ten member (Michigan), an ACC member (Virginia Tech) and a Big 12 member (Texas Tech) -- deserves the same benefit of the doubt a bigger program would get if it returned the same core and accomplished the same things.
Alas, the Bulldogs don't get that benefit of the doubt because they do not look the part or try to dunk on every possession. Plus, their coach is younger than two of the members of *NSync, and that must figure into the equation, right?
Either way, Stevens and his team garnered high praise from Knight, who told reporters, "The best compliment I can give them is that I wish we played as smart as they do." And if Butler can manage a win over Ohio State this weekend in Indianapolis, then more and more people will start to take notice.
Meantime, the goal is to stay as level-headed as possible.
"We can't rest on our laurels," Stevens said. "We haven't even played 20 percent of the season."
Spoken like a true coach.
One who is mature beyond his years.