Butler lifts expectations in the Horizon

March, 29, 2011
Grace Calhoun wanted to make sure when she left Indiana for the athletic director's job at Loyola of Illinois that the school was committed to chasing down Butler in the Horizon League.

Back-to-back Final Four appearances by Butler has changed the Horizon League. How much is still to be determined as the schools still try to schedule and win nonconference games with the hope of multiple at-large berths.

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Jim Whitesell
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIJim Whitesell went 109-107 overall and 50-70 in the Horizon League in his seven seasons with the Ramblers.

While that didn't happen this spring -- Cleveland State and Milwaukee, the two teams that tied with Butler for the league title, didn't do enough outside the league to earn an at-large berth -- Calhoun has a chance to make a statement with the only open position in the league. She fired coach Jim Whitesell after he went 16-15 overall, 7-11 in the Horizon. Whitesell had been at Loyola for seven seasons.

Calhoun said she hopes to land a coach by the end of the Final Four in Houston. There are a number of top assistants in the Midwest pursuing the job, some head coaches and one high-profile name in Florida International's Isiah Thomas, a native Chicagoan, who would certainly be a headline act. Thomas finished last in the Sun Belt in his second season with FIU, but would be more in his comfort zone in Chicago. Of course, Loyola would have to have assurances that Thomas wouldn't soon bolt to the New York Knicks or anywhere in the NBA if given the chance.

Butler's run last season and the assurances that Loyola would invest in the program both factored into Calhoun's decision to become AD.

"We've got a gorgeous new facility, they're financially investing in the program and we're heading in the right direction," Calhoun said. "We want Loyola to be competitive and it's hard not to look at the Butlers and think we could be there. We're a great school in a fantastic location."

But what also has to happen is for the schools to continue to compete salary-wise with Butler, which pushed Brad Stevens closer to the $1 million per year mark with last year's 12-year deal.

"The schools do have to make the investment and they have," Horizon League commissioner John LeCrone said. "We've managed the transitions well. Brad Brownell leaves for Clemson and Wright State hires Billy Donlon. Tod Kowalczyk leaves [for Toledo] and Green Bay had Brian Wardle ready. We've got Gary [Waters] at Cleveland State and Homer Drew at Valparaiso."

LeCrone was a former member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, so he knows the Horizon League teams have to win more nonconference games against power-six schools.

"They didn't have the balance needed in their schedule," LeCrone said of Cleveland State, which won 25 regular-season games but lost to West Virginia and at Old Dominion in BracketBusters. "They've got to win those games."

The Horizon League has a small deal with ESPN, but LeCrone obviously wants more exposure for his conference.

"I feel good about the television package, and do I think we deserve more with two Final Fours? That's not up to me," LeCrone said. "We just have to continue what we're doing and the rest will take care of itself."

Quick hitters:

• UCLA coach Ben Howland wasn't totally shocked by the departure of Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft. Honeycutt, he said, should be a first-round draft pick. The decision by Malcolm Lee to test the draft waters is a bit of a surprise, but Lee should return since he is hardly a lock to be selected.

Howland probably has more issues dealing with the draft than others because L.A. is the home to so many agents that can get in the heads of his players and inflate their opinions of their stock.

Losing Honeycutt will slow the Bruins' growth, though, for next season. UCLA will have a formidable front line with Josh Smith joining North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear on the inside, but losing Honeycutt takes away a scoring forward and puts the Bruins still behind Washington and possibly Arizona, if Derrick Williams were to decide to stay.

UCLA is filling a void by accepting UNC transfer Larry Drew II. He has to sit out next season to be eligible for 2012-13.

• Keep in mind with all these players testing the draft like Ashton Gibbs of Pitt and UCLA's Lee -- they won't be getting many workouts. The window to test is only two weeks, since players have to withdraw by May 8, and NBA teams, especially those in the playoffs, aren't going to conduct workouts with players that may not be in the draft. So it's not really testing if all they're getting is verbal feedback from the league without a slew of physical workouts to truly get a read on their draft position.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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