INDIANAPOLIS -- Pay attention, because you're watching the growth of a giant.
Today, Butler basketball is the feel-good story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament -- a basketball miracle, a textbook mid-major from the humble Horizon League that is two games from winning the national championship.
|If Brad Stevens makes Butler his long-term home, the sky's the limit for the Bulldogs. (Getty Images)|
The best basketball program in one of the best basketball states in the country -- that could be Butler, and not just during this one NCAA Tournament, but for years to come. Yes, Butler. Taking over the Hoosier State.
It's not a sure thing, so don't paint me into that corner. If Oregon or one of the other big schools that comes along and throws money at Butler coach Brad Stevens lands him after this season, or the next, never mind. I take it back. Butler won't be the next big thing if it keeps losing its coach every three or four years. That's why Xavier hasn't become the absolute beast it could have been by now. Because Pete Gillen left and so did Skip Prosser and Thad Matta and Sean Miller. Xavier has remained relevant over the years, a Top 25 program and then some, but Xavier hasn't become a certifiable monster.
Butler could be that monster. Brad Stevens is just 33 years old. Imagine him making Butler his destination job, like Mark Few has done at Gonzaga. Butler could be Gonzaga, only bigger, because Gonzaga isn't in a basketball-mad state. For Gonzaga to be the best program in Washington, it has to beat out the Huskies and Cougars. Gonzaga has done that, and while that's quite a feat for a school from the West Coast Conference, leapfrogging Washington and Washington State makes you a regional power -- not necessarily a national one.
If Butler leapfrogs the Indiana Hoosiers, plus Notre Dame and maybe even Purdue, it becomes a national power.
Butler's Stevens wants no part of that conversation, of course. Overtake Indiana? Butler? He would rather not hear about that, or about the term mid-major, or about any description of his program, other than this one.
"Our mission as a university is to try to recruit great student-athletes," said Stevens, an honorable man but an awful quote. "We don't consider ourselves anything more than a university with a basketball team."
That's his choice, but the rest of us should contemplate the emergence of Butler as not just a school with a mission, but as a rising basketball superpower. And I'm telling you, it could happen. Hell, that's an obvious statement. This isn't something that could happen. It's something that is happening. Right now. As we watch. Whether you recognize it or not is up to you, but this is a rare opportunity for us as basketball fans, because this doesn't happen every day or every year or even every decade.
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These things take time. One day there's a decent basketball program in the deep South, a school that wins 20 games some years, but finishes well below .500 in others. But then that program gets the right coach, and he gets the right players, and all of a sudden we're looking at Duke. In the Northeast, after 20 years of mediocrity, a school hires a passionate coach and soon that school isn't mediocre -- it's UConn.
Conference affiliation helps, and I'll get to that in a minute, but that's a detail to be negotiated as the giant emerges. So how does the giant emerge? How does it happen? It happens like this, like it's happening with Butler. It happens in baby steps that you can't see, baby steps you wouldn't care to see, until those baby steps start to add up and instead of going a few inches at a time, the program starts to advance in great chunks of distance.
The baby steps at Butler started in 1989, when the Bulldogs hired Barry Collier. Before Collier, Butler had fielded a men's basketball team for 91 years. In those 91 years, the Bulldogs reached 20 wins twice. Sad. Collier started scooping up the leftover talent in the Hoosier State -- think of what the South Florida football team has done with second-tier Sunshine State recruits -- and averaged 17.5 wins a season for 11 years.
By the time Collier left (for Nebraska) in 2000, Butler was rolling. Assistant Thad Matta picked up the ball for one season and won 24 games, then left (for Xavier). Assistant Todd Lickliter stepped up and wavered, winning 25-plus games three times in six years, but also enduring seasons of 16-14 and 13-15. But before he left (for Iowa), he picked up the first in a series of program-changing recruits. Matt Howard was a 6-foot-8 post player with good hands and great feet, and Indiana wanted him. So did Purdue. Howard chose Butler, and it had begun -- the final stage of the evolution of Butler basketball.
As a freshman, Howard was Horizon League Rookie of the Year and second-team all-league. Stevens, the new coach, won 30 games and won two enormous recruits -- Indiana-born Gordon Hayward over Purdue, and Kentucky native Shelvin Mack over a handful of SEC schools. With Howard becoming conference player of the year and Hayward and Mack also in starring roles, Butler won 26 games last season.
That's how Butler did it. It wins enough games to land Howard. Then it lands Hayward and Mack. One of those players every year, on average, turns a regional program into a national one. Two, and it's almost not fair -- and Butler has two of them coming in next season. One is 6-7 wing Khyle Marshall from Fort Lauderdale, who turned down offers from the ACC, SEC and Big 12. The other is Chrishawn Hopkins, a 6-1 guard who plays way above the rim. Either Marshall or Hopkins would be the best athlete Butler has attracted, maybe ever. And they're coming together. In a few months.
The year after that, Butler could land Cody Zeller of Washington, Ind., the latest sibling from a basketball family. (Luke went to Notre Dame; Tyler is at North Carolina.) Cody is a 6-11 forward, quite possibly a bigger cross between Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, and Butler is among his final choices.
This is how it happens. Butler wins 20 or 25 games a year with good recruits. Then Butler wins 30 games a year with a handful of very good recruits. And then the handful gets bigger. And bigger. Soon you have a season like Butler has now, and then you repeat it, over and over.
Assuming Stevens stays, the only thing in Butler's way is its conference affiliation. No offense to the Horizon League, but it's hard to become a heavyweight team from a middleweight conference. That said, there is at least one more massive wave of conference realignment coming, possibly triggered by Notre Dame, and the fallout could include another restructuring of the Big East. It's not hard to imagine the non-BCS football schools from that league -- led by Villanova, Marquette and DePaul -- forming a Midwest basketball super-conference with schools like Dayton, Xavier, Temple, St. Louis and, yes, Butler.
There is a vacuum in Indiana, waiting for some basketball school to fill it. Sampson ran the Hoosiers over a cliff, and that program is still trying to heal. Notre Dame basketball is good, not great, and Luke Harangody is gone. Purdue is exceptional, and I don't see Purdue going away, but the state of Indiana is big enough for more than one national powerhouse.
Imagine if that second powerhouse in Indiana isn't Indiana. Well, no need to imagine it. It's here, right now.
But imagine if it stays like this. For years. You can tell your kids that you saw Butler basketball happen.