|Butler's Brad Stevens does not enter the season empty-handed, with Andrew Smith back in the middle. (AP)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- It has become a familiar refrain from Brad Stevens entering the season.
"I like my team," he said. "I really like my team."
The first time it happened was actually following his first season as Butler's head coach, when he lost four starters off a team that won 30 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
He raved about hard-working, scrappy sophomore post player Matt Howard -- the lone returning starter off that team. He spoke glowingly about a skinny, athletic, unheralded in-state guy who had gone through a major growth spurt named Gordon Hayward, who would later go onto become an NBA lottery pick. He smiled when the conversation shifted to the stocky guard from Lexington, Ky., named Shelvin Mack that all the big boys passed over.
But it has happened over and over -- and Stevens has delivered again and again.
The 35-year-old (just recently) Stevens hasn't just become any old rising star. He is the rising star, compiling a 117-25 record in his four seasons and leading the Bulldogs to the national championship game the past two years.
His words have earned some street cred.
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"You'll be writing us off at some point," Stevens said with a smile.
We already have -- and the season hasn't even begun. Hayward left for the NBA after the first national title game, and now his cohorts -- Howard and second-round pick Mack -- are also gone.
The names have flipped, and usually when that happens, unless your name is Gonzaga, Xavier or Memphis, it means a few years of obscurity for non-BCS programs.
Butler still has a force in the middle with 6-foot-11, 240-pound junior Andrew Smith, and one of the best leaders/defenders in the country in senior point guard Ronald Nored. Khyle Marshall had his moments a year ago and fellow sophomore Chrishawn Hopkins could well move into the spot vacated by Mack.
But let's be honest: This doesn't have the look or feel of a Final Four team.
Then again, neither did last year's group, especially midway through Horizon League play. There was a 20-plus-point loss to Milwaukee, one in which Stevens said his guys looked like an elementary school team. The Bulldogs fell to 6-5 in league play following a loss to Youngstown State in early February.
"I thought we were out," Stevens admitted of his team's NCAA tournament hopes.
Then Butler caught fire when it mattered most -- the Horizon League tourney and the NCAA tournament, where they reeled off five straight for the second consecutive year.
"If anyone thought we'd be in the national title game last year," Stevens said, "they were a lot more optimistic than me. I said multiple times during the season last year, 'We don't have it.'
"But what people remember is what you do at the end," Stevens added.
But Stevens' even-keel approach hasn't altered despite the recent success. The recruiting model hasn't changed; Stevens still continues to go after blue-collar, under-the-radar guys, and neither has his mindset entering the 2011-12 campaign. It's one that doesn't even have the national championship game -- or maybe even the NCAA tournament -- in the equation.
Instead, he is just focused on the "now" and watching this group grow.
He has plenty of new faces, and he feels all of his freshmen can contribute this season. There's Jackson Aldridge, a little-known guard from Australia who Stevens describes as "tough, solid and a guy who knows how to make plays for others." Andy Smeathers is a 6-6 local kid who knows how to make shots, and 6-8 Kameron Woods played center in high school but he'll play both forward spots in college and will give Stevens plenty of versatility. The final freshman is 6-4 Roosevelt Jones, a bruiser who has been the team's top statistical player thus far in practice.
"He does a little bit of everything," Stevens said of Jones. "He's built like an NFL tight end and is the strongest guy pound-for-pound on our team. I'm not sure what position he is. He's just a ballplayer."
The nonconference slate is unforgiving, but Stevens is all about understanding that this opportunity to play the big boys is far from a given. There are three elite games on the slate -- Louisville, Xavier and Gonzaga -- and also contests against Purdue, Indiana and Stanford.
"I'll know exactly what we're good and bad at early on," Stevens said.
Then maybe Butler will do what it does best: Shock the world.