The ‘Butler Way’: Sacrifice, then sacrifice more
INDIANAPOLIS — The 53-minute session said everything and nothing about Butler basketball.
Calling it a practice was like saying potato chips are a meal. Every player on the floor spent five minutes dribbling across the floor and the rest of the time lazily launching threes. No one guarded anyone. Only in Indiana would 30,000 people get up out of their seats at the end of a shootaround and give a standing ovation to a bunch of guys who barely broke a sweat.
“The only thing I will say,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said Friday, “is it’s not a usual practice.
“So you’re not going through anything technically. We’re not doing anything defensively. I want these guys to enjoy it while at the same time getting some shots up, just get used to the building, if nothing else.”
Strip away the romance and the connections to the movie “Hoosiers,” and the best story in college basketball this season is about a team that almost always winds up in the right place at the right time.
It didn’t hurt that the school’s campus and quaint fieldhouse are 10 minutes away by car, smack dab in the middle of college basketball’s historical sweet spot. But that’s not why Butler is in the Final Four.
They’re here because they play defense like, well, Bulldogs. And because Stevens would watch film of a Rubik’s Cube being solved if he could glean even one in-game adjustment from it, and then recruits players smart enough to use that information. And because they found a way to limit Kansas State’s stellar guard duo to two first-half points and to make a veteran Syracuse squad turn the ball over 18 times.
Against Kansas State, it required nothing more complicated than having Butler defenders Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley step out on screens, boxing in Wildcats Josh Pullen and Denis Clemente and disrupting their offensive flow. Against Syracuse, the adjustment was even subtler. Stevens’ film study revealed the floor leader, Andy Rautins, liked going to his left, so the Bulldogs simply took that option away.
The best teams impose their style of play on opponents. In that sense, Stevens is a master. He finds what opposing squads do best and turns it against them. The trickiest part is recruiting kids who can adjust their playing styles from game-to-game.
“The style of play is winning,” Stevens said. “That means that you have an advantage somewhere and you’re able to push the tempo, you’re able to trap, increase turnover, whatever the case may be. Based on who you’re playing, we’ll try to do all of those things.
“At the end of the day, it’s who you’re playing and what you think you can be advantageous in attacking them.”
It’s no coincidence that Butler’s starting lineup looks like a collection of spare parts. The only player taller than 6-foot-3 is NBA prospect Gordon Hayward, and he often winds up at a guard spot because of whom he’s covering. Small forward Veasley, generously listed at 6-3, often guards post players.
Butler’s players are out of position so often they spend a lot of time covering each other’s back. The school formalized that philosophy in a 19-word mission statement, but one word is enough:
“Sacrifice,” Nored said.
“Sacrificing yourself for one another,” he added a moment later. “It’s not about the name on the back of your jersey. It’s not about what you can do or getting your name out there.”
Toward that end, every one of Butler’s big men must run the same dribbling and 3-point shooting drills in practices as the guards. They’ll rarely get the chance to do either come game time, but they’re always ready.
That, ultimately, is what that standing ovation at the end of Friday’s 53 minutes was all about. Some of basketball’s most knowledgeable fans voicing their appreciation for a coach and players who respect the game so much there’s no corner of it they won’t venture into.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org