Stevens will never say it, but he's in a class all his own

by | CBSSports.com
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HOUSTON -- He spoke briefly, as briefly as he had all year after a game, then gave the floor to the seniors.

Butler was minutes removed from the most embarrassing, uncharacteristic loss of its season, a 53-41 defeat to No. 3 Connecticut in Monday's national title game, and Butler coach Brad Stevens wasn't going to use this as a time for lessons or memories.

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It was his seniors' last moment in uniform, covered in sweat and surrounded by teammates in one of their most natural habitats: the locker room. The seniors who have helped bring the Bulldogs program to a national level no one could have imagined -- they got the final words.

"It's hard to talk about the game and really care about the intricacies of the game when you're talking about the personal relationships and the things that you develop as a team over time," Stevens said. "You know, when you see the freshmen in there bawling their eyes out because they know they're not going to get to play with [the seniors again], you know you have something pretty special. Seniors always get upset. When everybody's upset, that's a unique thing."

Once again, Brad Stevens refused to make it about him. And had a member of the team who wasn't on the coaching staff not been pressed for some information, what I'm about to share probably wouldn't have come out. Matt Howard spoke. Then Shawn Vanzant, Zach Hahn, Alex Anglin and Grant Leiendecker continued, offering different words of encouragement. There was praise. There was advice. Some had tears, some didn't. Some didn't know what to say. Some players leaned over in front of their lockers; some sank into them. The coaches stood near the tables in the back of the room while the seniors took turns talking to each other before the rush of questions and cameras and lights and a cacophony of voices flooded their solemn space.

Howard talked about how this team had become another family. He offered advice to younger guys about what it takes to win.

"I think this team has been through more than any team I've been a part of," Howard said. "That's what I always thought made this run more special. ... I don't think tonight should take away from that."

Vanzant, above all, wanted to say he was sorry -- to everyone.

"I got a chance to look at the stat sheet. I was 2-for-10," Vanzant said. "I would say, it's not exaggerating, more than 80 percent of my shots were wide open. ... When it was time for me to step up, I didn't do anything."

No one was blaming Vanzant, though. And soon enough, he addressed the coaching staff and thanked them wholeheartedly. The quick reset for why: Stevens recruited Vanzant when many thought he wasn't suited for D-I basketball at all; he was considered much more of a football recruit. "I also told and thanked my team, them being there for me, when things got rough for me outside of basketball," Vanzant said. "I really couldn't say too much -- I was hurting at that time."

Hahn implored the younger guys to appreciate the opportunities, focus on details and take full advantage of it, "because time goes by fast," he said. "You turn a corner, you're a senior, and it's done."

Hahn didn't know what to feel or how he should feel. He's a role player on a team that came close, relatively speaking, to winning two national titles at Butler.

"It's confusion, just because, I don't know, I'm obviously hurt, but I'm still very proud of every one of these guys and what [Stevens] has helped us become," Hahn said while running his thumbs on the inside of the right shoulder loop of his jersey.

If Stevens had his way -- not that he'd ever push for such a thing -- he'd pick every story written about his team to have quotes only from his players. Storylines only driven by how his players made a second run to a national title game, something he and every mid-major coach will forever chase to repeat, almost certainly to come up short.

And, of course, Stevens is still as great a coach right now as he was Monday afternoon. Don't let a bad -- historically, epically, inexplicably bad -- shooting performance alter your vision of what Butler's about and who Stevens is. He's still among the youngest coaches to coach in a Final Four; he's still the most coveted name in college basketball. Any job that opens, he's still the top candidate.

With the locker room doors shut, the players left alone, Stevens spoke outside to the horde of reporters who wanted a few more words on his team's great season and horrible final game.

"We're not playing in the national championship game if Zach Hahn doesn't make shots," Stevens said outside his team's locker room. "Shawn Vanzant carried us on his back for the second half of this season."

The praising continued for six, seven, eight players, as you'd expect. While this was going on, the media was filtering out of the Butler locker room, and Howard was taking in that moment every senior must take in. The most important player for Butler let his head lean against his locker, all the weight of his body pressing up against the cold, dark-blue metal. His eyes began to glare and he peered up toward the ceiling, though it's likely he wasn't really looking at anything. There was a ruby-red cut on his knee, a proper physical representation of his career.

Others around him still had uniforms on, but had time to decompress. This was Howard's first private moment of the night. Meanwhile, Vanzant, with backpack on, was leaning against the pale-white brick wall outside the locker room. He thumbed through his phone. He wanted out. He hated himself for his performance. Vanzant just wanted someone to tell him he could walk to the team bus.

"But I thank coach for all of this," he said. "All he's done and all we've done."

And although this was ugly, like, all-time ugly (.72 points per possession, the lowest for Butler since 2004, and 3 of 31 shooting from 2-point range is simply beyond outlier status), it still doesn't reflect badly on Stevens. Try and accuse Butler for sending basketball back to the '40s, it's still not going to make Butler's 10-2 tournament record the last two seasons any less impressive.

Stevens never even has to win a title at Butler and he'll be a legend. He already is a legend. A 34-year-old legend at that university and in that state. Getting to this level, a level beyond anything any mid-major has achieved, is without rival or company. Stevens is set for life at Butler. He never has to make another Final Four.

In time, the back-to-back title games will be seen as more and more impressive, and the 2011 national championship game will be more about Jim Calhoun going three-for-three in title-game scenarios than Butler's bad offensive performance. Stevens has gone above and beyond, and will continue to do so.

He'll just insist on letting his players tell the story, like they did Monday night, for worse on the floor, and for better in the locker room.

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