Coming off the high of a run to the national championship game against Duke last season, Butler hit a midseason pothole where it lost four of five games in the Horizon League to be in danger of missing a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament. Who did Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens call for advice when his team struggled?
Florida coach Billy Donovan, the man who will be on the bench at the opposite end of New Orleans Arena Saturday afternoon when they meet in the NCAA Southeast Regional semifinal. Donovan hosts a get-together in late August every year for select college and pro coaches to get together and brainstorm about basketball. Stevens was invited starting four years ago when he ascended to the head job at Butler when Todd Lickliter left to go to Iowa, and he and Donovan have become friends.
"I just reached out to [Donovan] maybe at the start of that losing streak," Stevens said Friday. "We just talked about the ups and downs following a championship seasons. We did not win the championship like they did a couplke times [in 2006-07], but certainly, the atarget on your back is relatively the same at that point.
"He shared insights, shared thoughts. You're just two coaches talking on the phone for about 30 or 45 minutes, and you're just looking for anything at that moment in time to flip a switch. You want to stay fresh and grow. That's something I really respect about coach Donovan. He's won two national championships and been to a Final Four before that. He's at the pinnacle of this profession, and he's always trying to grow and get better and I've always been very impressed with him for that."
Whatever advice Donovan offered must have worked because Butler re-committed on defense, worked out its problems, finished in a three-way tie for the Horizon regular-season title with Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and won the league tournament to secure the only bid the Horizon received to the NCAA Tournament. Despite that success, Stevens said something is wrong with that picture when a mid-major league as competitive as the one Butler is in gets only one NCAA bid.
Now that Butler is back in the Elite Eight, Stevens said, "I hope it opens people's eyes to the fact you can go 13-5 in a non-BCS league, playing in a conference that is hard. Every game we play out of 18 games in our league is a Super Bowl. After we lost to Youngstown State, I told [forward] Matt Howard, 'This three-game losing streak will be the most valuable thing you experience at Butler because you're going to have to react to this and treat your way through this and you're going to have to do it together. If you do, it will be really rewarding.'"
At the same time, Stevens said it's not fair for mid-majors, such as his program to be under so much pressure to be almost perfect in the sense they had to win the league tournament to get a bid and couldn't afford mid-season losing streaks and still expect an at-large bid the way teams in BCS conference do. Could Cleveland State or Wisconsin-Milwaukee knocked off some of the 11 Big East teams in the NCAA field? At this point, with nine Big East teams eliminated the first weekend, you have to believe it's a strong possiblity.