The Butler Bulldogs granted SI.com permission to observe their preparation for a matchup against the Vols in Birmingham, Ala. Here's how a mid-major attempted to knock off a championship contender.
Friday, 7 p.m.
In a second floor ballroom of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Butler head coach Brad Stevens and assistants Matthew Graves and Brandon Miller sit at two different tables reviewing film of Tennessee on their laptops. Miller is putting the finishing touches on his Tennessee personnel highlights for the players to look at in about an hour. Miller prepared "the scout" for Tennessee as soon as the pairings were announced on Selection Sunday, while Graves was given first-round opponent South Alabama and assistant Terry Johnson had American. The Vols eliminated American, and thereby Johnson's "scout." Butler defeated South Alabama, 81-61, in their first-round matchup on Friday afternoon. Now they're preparing for a chance to go to the Sweet 16.
The atmosphere is relaxed, yet focused. Stevens had the scout of Tennessee when Butler beat the Vols last year in the preseason NIT when he was an assistant to Todd Lickliter.
"There's a lot of pressure when the head man did the scout the year before, and it was a winner," Miller says. "I think he still knows more about them than I do."
Stevens is breaking down the Kentucky-Tennessee game, periodically asking Miller questions about Tennessee's tendencies in other games.
"Does J.P. Prince drive left 90 percent of the time?" Stevens asks.
"Ninety-nine percent," Miller responds.
"Good enough for me," says Stevens.
When asked if he senses anything different regarding his five seniors' mentality as the end of their career approaches, he says no.
"I know that if there is a loose ball on the floor at the end of a game, they are going to get after it," he says. "They don't want this to end."
The players are due back at 8 for the first part of their preparation for Tennessee. Miller sets up the video equipment, while Stevens will occasionally mumble, "they are really good," to know one in particular.
Friday, 8 p.m.
The Bulldogs file in after a team meal. Dressed in khakis and golf shirts, the players take their 13 seats in front of the video screen. Stevens begins the session by asking players to turn off all cell phones, then addresses the group.
"They thrive on teams that beat themselves and special teams [press, inbounds plays]," Stevens says. "That's good for us, because we're going to be strong with the ball."
Stevens then goes to the back of the room and lets Miller take over. Miller starts with Tennessee's star guard Chris Lofton, explaining his strengths and reading off key stats. There is a chart posted up on the wall, and the players look over to supplement the information Miller is giving them. The staff does not hand out scouting reports to the players, instead relying on them to pay attention in the meetings and return to the staff if they want to see more.
Miller says when Lofton goes right, he's trying to drive. When he goes left, he's trying to get some separation to pull up for his jump shot.
"He'll take tough shots," Miller says.
The clips show a variety of long shots Lofton has made, plus some drives. They aren't all made baskets, but the message is sent: as they all know from watching him on TV this year, Lofton is a dangerous scorer.
Tyler Smith is next, and he is described as the Vol with "the highest basketball IQ." Miller says Lofton makes a lot of the big shots, but when Tennessee needs a big play in crunch time or to change momentum, it is Smith they look for. His signature play is a spin move in the lane, and various clips demonstrate what to look for.
Miller runs down the rest of the Vols, then the meeting breaks up. Curfew at 11 p.m., breakfast at 9:30 the next morning, team meeting at 1:30 p.m.
A.J. Graves hangs around to watch extra film with Miller. He knows he'll have Lofton on Sunday.
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
The next video session focuses on Tennessee's offensive "sets" and out-of-bounds plays. The Vols run a relatively basic "flex" offense but have several options out of it that makes them difficult to defend. Again Miller stands in front of the group while Stevens is in the back.
Miller gives the players certain audible calls to look for that he's picked up from broadcasts, telling them to watch for the back-screen alley-oop from one particular call and another that is designed to free Lofton up to shoot from the wing.
"Stick to the system and we'll be fine," Stevens says from the back of the room. "You are going to be able to guard them whether we walk through this [at practice] or not."
Stevens asks for a particular play to be shown again from the Kentucky-Tennessee game when Tennessee runs a set that results in an open three-pointer.
"Everything about [Kentucky's] defense on that was good except they didn't close out on the shooter," he said. "You have to run at him with your arms up yelling and screaming. They missed when we did that last year against them. They missed a few of them."
The 15-minute session ends, and Stevens walks to the front of the room.
"I want to give you one statistic that I think illustrates their mindset," Stevens says. "They are in the top 50 in the nation in offensive rebounding, and they are in the bottom 50 in the nation in defensive rebounding. I've never seen that before. It tells you they like it easy on offense and they really get after it, and they like it easy on defense and they won't pay attention to the details late in the possession."
The team then boards the bus for the 15-minute drive to the arena, where a press conference and a one-hour practice await.
Saturday, 2:25 p.m.
Stevens is conducting his prepractice news conference, again declining to get into a debate about seeding and giving Tennessee plenty of credit. Earlier, A.J. Graves, Mike Green and Julian Betko were the three players chosen for the players session.
Standing in back of the room, Butler sports information director Jim McGrath is chatting with Matthew Graves.
"I suggested bringing Drew [Streicher] and Pete [Campbell]," McGrath says. Those choices would have been interesting figures for the media, since Streicher is on his way to medical school and Campbell nailed eight 3-pointers the previous day. "Brad wanted the same three guys we had before the last game, since we shot well."
"Little T," Graves laughs, referring to Stevens' nickname that stems from Lickliter. "Does that mean we'll have to eat at Olive Garden again?"
"Think we have some superstitions here?" McGrath laughs.
Stevens, the 31-year old rookie head coach, handles the media session flawlessly, and echoes the theme he's trying to get across to his team.
"We have to play with a high sense of urgency, and you have to combine it with poise," he says. "That is a hard thing to do. We'll have to lean on our experience."
Saturday, 6 p.m.
The team heads to Olive Garden (no surprise) for dinner, then breaks up for the night. The 3 p.m. practice was centered around setting up the press attack after Tennessee's made baskets. Butler knows the Vols will pick their spots in order to speed up the game, and being able to break the press is vital if Butler hopes to pull the upset.
The coaches also spent a lot of time on Tennessee's "actions," reviewing what was displayed on film earlier that afternoon. Shooting drills and free-throw shooting wrapped up the workout, and the team boarded the bus and returned to the hotel.
Stevens spent the evening watching Tennessee's games against Ohio State, Florida and American, as well as his own team's game against South Alabama. Because Butler uses a lot of the same principles as Ohio State (coached by Thad Matta, Stevens' first boss), Stevens thought that would be a good game for him to review. He also said Florida now plays a similar style to Butler with last year's big guys now in the NBA.
Sunday, 9:15 a.m.
Waiting a bit impatiently outside the Riverchase Ballroom B at the Wynfrey are 2-year old Brady Stevens and 3-year-old Braeden Shrewsberry, the son of Butler director of basketball operations Micah Shrewsberry. They've been told the Easter Bunny has remembered they are in Birmingham, and there will be an Easter egg hunt as soon as the basketball players arrive.
The team went to Hoover High School for a walkthrough at 8:30 a.m. which was "precise and focused," according to Matthew Graves. There was no shooting, just a review of out-of-bounds plays and other Tennessee sets.
When the team does arrive, Stevens wisely opens the door, and the hunt begins. Point guard Mike Green takes the lead, helping Brady and Braeden scoop up the plastic eggs and put them in their baskets, which are plastic basketball bags with a handle. Miller helps his 8-month old son Mason walk through the room, and when Mason gets an egg, he likes putting the plastic casing in his mouth more than anything else. The players enjoy watching the kids have their fun, then they go next door and have breakfast.
The players file out and head back to their rooms to pack. A.J. Graves is carrying an orange egg from the hunt. The bus leaves at 11:45 a.m., and the players need to be all packed. Win or lose, they are not coming back to their makeshift headquarters of the past four days.
The coaches linger in the breakfast room with their families, and Stevens tapes his pregame radio interview with play-by-play man Joe Gentry. Oklahoma, who will play after Butler and Tennessee, is eating breakfast in a ballroom across the hall.
Stevens talks about a statistic he's uncovered in his preparation.
"They haven't won if the other team committed less than 13 turnovers, and they are undefeated if they force 15 or more," he says.
Stevens and his squad is about to play their 19th game away from Hinkle Fieldhouse, and they are treating it just like all the others.
"The players are pretty even-keeled," Stevens said. "But I don't think they are napping right now. They have a pulse."
Sunday, 11:55 a.m.
A bus pulls up to the rear entrance of the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center, and about 50 Vols fans begin to cheer, until they realize it is the Butler team bus. "When No. 4 [A.J. Graves] gets off the bus, somebody grab 'im," says a UT fan. There are exactly three Butler fans in the crowd when the first player emerges, but more congregate as the team files in. Freshman Matt Howard gets one last hug from his mom as he enters the arena.
The Tennessee bus pulls up just as the last of the Butler personnel file in. There is plenty of cheering as the Vols gather their bags. This is an early indication that despite the neutral floor, it will be a decidedly orange crowd.
Butler is in the locker room next to the one they used against South Alabama. No doubt Stevens doesn't like the switch.
Sunday, 1:25 p.m.
Butler is about to take the floor for and play for its basketball life. Senior Julian Betko is one of the last ones out of the locker room. He pops a stick of gum in his mouth, then tosses the wrapper toward a trash can and trots out to join his teammates in a huddle. When his wrapper misses, Betko stops, comes back and picks up his trash. Stevens preaches about doing things the Butler Way. That apparently trickles all the way down to littering.
Sunday, 3:45 p.m.
The final horn sounds, and Butler leaves the floor after a valiant effort comes up short in a 76-71 overtime loss. Several of Stevens' pregame concerns had played out: Tyler Smith made some big plays when needed, the Vols forced some turnovers and timeouts with their press and UT hurt Butler on the offensive glass.
He also was prophetic about his seniors, first maintaining their poise despite a 13-2 hole to start the game, and also leaving it all on the floor at the end. When Howard fouled out, Butler went with its five starters to begin overtime, but Tennessee made a couple more plays that allowed them to win.
The final turnover total for Butler? Fourteen, two above Stevens' magic number.
Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
Stevens, Graves, Green and Streicher leave the locker room for the news conference. The five seniors had just finished addressing the team in the locker room, and all of them mentioned to the younger players to continue the tradition of Butler basketball and appreciate the journey.
"That just shows how unselfish these guys are," Stevens says. "They are talking about next year's team. It is unbelievable."
After the postgame interviews, Graves hits the shower, then limps back to is chair. His slight build took a beating against the SEC regular-season champs, and he has the marks to prove it. Graves brushes off a question about his future, then addresses his thoughts on his career coming to an end.
"It is emotional," he says. "When you put in so much hard work for so many years, not only the four years here but the four in high school and all the years before that, it is hard. It is a lot to reflect back on in one single moment and to realize that it is over. I wanted to express to the younger guys to enjoy it and take advantage of every opportunity you can."
Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
It is a warm afternoon as the players board the buses outside the arena. Family and friends greet the players, and while there is disappointment, there is the satisfaction that Graves talked about in terms not having any regrets.
"We went to overtime with one of the best teams in the nation and shot 36 percent," Stevens said. "I couldn't be more proud."
And the Butler bus heads for the airport, with no more games to prepare for.