NEW ORLEANS -- Brad Stevens doesn’t have all the answers.
Sure, he is 9-3 in the NCAA tournament as a head coach. He's taken his team to back-to-back Elite Eights and is one win away from his second consecutive Final Four.
In his four seasons at Butler, he has a remarkable 115-24 record, is 62-10 in the Horizon League, and has won at least a share of the conference title in each season.
But what Stevens figured out early in his career is this: He must continue to learn. He must reach out to his coaching brethren and search out solutions to problems that can persist throughout the course of the season.
It's hard to remember now, but there was a time not long ago that the Bulldogs found themselves in a major rut. They had just lost three straight league games to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and last-place Youngstown State. It was early February and they were 6-5 in a mid-major conference and didn't even look like a fringe bubble candidate for the NCAA tournament.
So Stevens called for support.
“We talked through it,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I kept telling him that it would be OK. We were going through something similar [back-to-back losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco]. I kept following them through January and February and compared how we both took care of business.’’
Like Butler, Gonzaga rallied to win a share of its league title and then won its conference tournament.
“I’m sure the people around the Butler program were lamenting coming off a national championship game with the expectations of all those guys coming back and all that noise,’’ Few said. “But you have to believe in the system. And his guys did. They believed in the core values. He did a masterful job, maybe more so this year than last year.
“It was all fun and games last year, like being on a hot streak at a craps table in Vegas,’’ Few added. “This year he had to go to the ATM three or four times. I would argue he’s the coach of the year now.’’
Stevens didn’t let any personal frustrations flow to the players. He remained poised, the way he has throughout his brief tenure.
“He kept saying there were things we could do better and instilling confidence in us,’’ Butler senior forward Matt Howard said. “He kept saying how we could get our confidence back. They were critical in that next game [a 13-point road win over Cleveland State] and that got us on the run we’re on now.’’
Stevens didn’t lean only on Few. He also called Florida’s Billy Donovan. Stevens befriended Donovan years before and had attended his coaching clinic in August -- set up by Donovan’ top assistant, Larry Shyatt, and their good friend, UCLA assistant Scott Duncan.
Stevens and Donovan talked for 30-45 minutes -- sharing insights and thoughts on how to handle success after a Final Four run. Donovan, of course, has experience in the matter. And more importantly, Donovan has dealt with disappointment after two consecutive titles were followed by two straight NIT appearances.
“What I respect about Coach Donovan is that he’s won two national championships and he’s been to a Final Four before and he’s at the pinnacle of the profession, but he’s always trying to grow and get better,’’ Stevens said. “I’ve always been impressed by that.’’
Donovan, 45, is no wise sage. But he is 11 years older than Stevens.
“It was one of those things where he was just reaching out to share ideas with me,’’ Donovan said. “We bounced different things off each other, and it’s great when you get a chance to be able to talk to someone like that.
“The one thing that I respect and admire about Brad in getting to know him is he’s got a great passion and enthusiasm for the game and for coaching, and I also think he has a tireless and relentless attitude to try to get better and improve,’’ Donovan said. “He loves the game.’’
Few said he views Butler as an elite job, a destination. The Bulldogs have had success from a coaching tree that flowed from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter to Stevens.
Stevens signed a 12-year contract after getting to the title game last April. He doesn’t need to take a higher-level job. He has the best job in his league and is at home in Indianapolis. He is at a place where basketball is king -- he has chartered aircraft, made-for-TV games, coveted spots in early-season tournaments, and a program with consistent March success.
“You don’t get to a national championship game or the amount of Sweet 16s that they’ve gotten to by being Cinderella,’’ Donovan said. “That doesn’t happen year after year. They’ve got a great tradition and a great basketball program.’’
Donovan said he feels a responsibility to counsel coaches if any were to call. Stevens did and Donovan was glad to help.
“Probably why Brad and I hit it off is that I see a guy like me that’s trying to get better and trying to improve as a coach, and that’s what I think we’re all trying to do,’’ said Donovan, who added he has sought out the advice of some of the giants in coaching from the NBA, MLB and NFL. “At least I think the best ones are always trying to get better. It’s no different than players. Players are trying to get better.’’
Donovan added an anecdote from his brief stint as a player with the New York Knicks, remembering a story when Larry Bird and the Celtics were playing at Madison Square Garden. The Garden floor was being put down after a hockey game, and Donovan saw Bird taking a few shots while standing on an island of parquet. Bird was shooting at the basket as workers were laying down the rest of the court around him.
“I couldn’t believe it, and it registers that the really great ones understand the level of focus and commitment and time that goes into it,’’ Donovan said. “He was going to be a Hall of Fame player and yet he still had the drive to want to get better. I think in life when you’ve got that drive, you genuinely have a better chance of reaching your potential.’’
And while it’s too early put Stevens in any elite coaching category, his 115 wins after four years is indeed historic. Stevens tops a list that includes NC State’s Everett Case (107), Few (105) and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon (105).
Heading into the Horizon League tournament final at Milwaukee, Stevens said he didn’t know if the Bulldogs could get an at-large bid. But he wasn’t going to let his team fret or feel any additional pressure. When the Bulldogs played with such purpose, pounding the Panthers by 15, he knew then that Butler could go on another run in the tournament.
“After we lost to Youngstown, I told Matt Howard that this three-game losing streak will be the most valuable thing you experience at Butler,’’ Stevens said. “It might not be as fun as a lot of other things, and he’s won 115 games, but it’ll be the most valuable because you’re going to have to react to this and you’re going to have to tread your way through this and you’re going to have to do it together. And if you do it together, it’ll be really rewarding.’’
The words could have been applied to Stevens, too. He adhered to exactly the same advice and it proved just as fruitful, with another Elite Eight appearance in his belt and a chance for much more.