INDIANAPOLIS -- It is 5:55 on an October Thursday morning as a Midwest full moon decorates the outline of the old basketball barn, Hinkle Fieldhouse. Walking from my car to the front doors, I hear balls bouncing, a lot of balls bouncing. Every player is already on the court and ready to go.
The announced practice time was 6 a.m. as a warm-up and 6:15 as the official start. As I walk inside the old arena, I see 50 Indiana high school basketball coaches who have trekked to Butler from all parts of the state. This is a basketball X's and O's pilgrimage to pay homage to what is currently the best basketball coaching staff and program in Indiana.
Even Charlie Coles, the veteran head coach at Miami (Ohio), left his office before 4 a.m. to be here to watch coach Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.
We all know how it ended last season with the missed shot by Gordon Hayward, now with the Utah Jazz. But this is a new season. There was no Midnight Madness at Butler last week, just early morning pre-rooster-crowing practices like this one.
All-American candidate Shelvin Mack (14.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg) returns with a pro body and explosive skills to match. At 6-foot-8, Matt Howard (11.6PPG, 5.2RPG) brings more game-savvy than just about any post player in the country and returns with his old-shoe, leather-tough inside game. Ronald Nored (Horizon co-defensive player of the year) is a professorial point guard combining smarts with strong communication and leadership skills. Zach Hahn’s game has a lot in common with Northern Iowa tourney hero Ali Farokmanesh.
While these returnees provide a core for another successful Butler basketball season, it is the snap-chest pass that catches my eye. It is the perfectly executed wrap-around bounce pass from wing to post that I appreciate. It is the three dribbles it takes to drive and lay it up over 94 feet that I admire. I love watching the outside pass to the outside shoulder, the rapid-fire squeak of rubber closing out on offensive threats on the perimeter, the all-out dive for every loose ball and how every Bulldog rushes over to help the floor-burned teammate to his feet.
As for the coach, Stevens communicates in a measured and fair tone. He is a teacher/taskmaster who commands respect without profanity or demonstrative actions to call attention to himself. That is the Butler Way.
A few more observations from Indy:
Newcomer Khyle Marshall, who is 6-7 and averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds at his Florida high school last season, brings big-time athleticism and a mid-range game. He will definitely give Butler a much-needed runner/jumper at the 4-spot.
Another big and skilled freshman could also see time. Eric Fromm is a skilled 6-9 big man out of Bloomington (Ind.) South High School who has 3-point shooting skills to add to the Bulldogs’ offensive weapons in the high-post offense. Fromm grabbed 15 rebounds for the winning Indiana All-Stars against Kentucky this summer.
Some publications have left Butler out of their preseason Top 25 due to the loss of Hayward. That’s almost comical. Trust me, the team I saw at a recent practice is easily a Top-25 team.