By about 6 a.m., the players wander into Hinkle Fieldhouse, the historic and delightfully cavernous crate on the north side of Indianapolis. Practice is at 6:30, because that's the only time the whole team can gather without messing up class schedules. Butler was a university before it was a March Madness sleeper pick. They seem to remember that there.
The 33-year-old, third-year coach loves this time of day. The quiet, the focus, the fieldhouse before dawn. Among his prized possessions Brad Stevens counts a key to Hinkle. He used to be a marketing rep for a large local company. He made good money and had a bright and stable future. He chucked it to be a basketball coach, his life forever tied to the whims of college kids with girlfriend problems.
The athletic director can't stay away. He keeps coming back. He went to school here, played basketball here, graduated from here in 1976. He left for a time, then returned in 1989, to coach his old team, which won 20 games for him five times, and made three NCAA tournaments. He left again, for Nebraska, where he coached for six years. He liked Nebraska, but it wasn't home, so he came back to Butler in 2006, to another office in Hinkle Fieldhouse, just down the hall from his old coach's office, which is a halfcourt shot from his old locker room.
Not long after he returned for what he's sure will be the last time, Barry Collier was nosing around the fieldhouse. Beneath the swimming pool, he found a pulley. He did some research. A few lifetimes ago, construction workers filled the pulley with excavated dirt, which was pulled out by teams of horses in 1928, the year Hinkle Fieldhouse was built.
The player doesn't mind the 6:30 workouts. They get his mind right. "What else am I going to be doing at 6:30 in the morning?'' asks senior guard Willie Veasley. "I'm focused.''
(Actually, the Bulldogs don't practice on Thursdays until 7:30. "Our mid-afternoon practice,'' Stevens calls it.)
This is basketball at Butler. Really. Everybody's favorite 12-over-5 upset-that- isn't stands now at No. 12 in the AP poll, has an RPI of 17, has won 18 games in a row and is projected to be no lower than a No. 6 seed a week from Sunday. The Bulldogs play rib-sticking defense (allowing just 60 points a game) and a share-the-wealth, value-each-possession offense that works well in March.
Butler is edging out of the Little Team That Could zone. It used to be clever when bracket swamis picked Butler to win a tournament game, or even two. Now, it's conventional. That doesn't mean the Bulldogs still aren't charming, in a way that makes the NCAA tournament so appealing.
"Team Over We,'' Veasley explains. "There are no egos here. Nobody's out for himself. We're family.'' This is how they talk at Butler. It takes some getting used to. "It's not a facade. It's what we have here,'' Stevens says.
Let's try not to make too much of this. The players don't practice in canvas Chuck Taylors. They don't sport flattops and look like Buddy Holly. Gene Hackman isn't the local high school coach, even though the movie Hoosiers was filmed at Hinkle, and the 1954 Indiana high school championship game did occur there. Even though the hero of that game, Bobby Plump, attended Butler.
But the Bulldogs are a throwback. They can be as quaint as the place where they play. Start with Stevens, who quit his job eight years ago at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly because he "wanted to be in a place where you could have a great academic atmosphere and great basketball. I knew I wanted to try coaching. I love the game and the competition.''
Stevens described his job at Lilly as "developing metrics and incentives for sales reps that called on managed care organizations.'' Fascinating. When's the shootaround?
Stevens grew up 20 minutes north of Butler. He started his coaching career by scouting high school games. Then-Bulldogs coach Thad Matta, whom Stevens had met at a summer camp, gave him a job as a volunteer assistant. Three months later, Matta promoted him to director of basketball operations, a fancy title for someone who does everything but coach.
Then Matta left for Xavier, Todd Lickliter took over and promoted Stevens to full-time assistant. Three seasons ago, Stevens got the head job when Lickliter left for Iowa. He says his short-lived marketing career fit nicely with his basketball ambitions. "Every decision you make has to be done with marketing the university in mind,'' Stevens says. "Marketing is planning, thinking and strategizing, putting the right people in the right roles.''
It's also selling his players on the notion that all that matters is the next moment. Players arrive at dawn to find notes on their lockers. Most reinforce the notion of playing games one possession at a time. "Value the ball" is a Stevens favorite.
Stevens says the difference last year between his 26-6 team being 32-0 and 13-19 was three possessions a game. "Win the next game,'' he says. "Win the next possession. That's our focus. It's boring. It's also the way championships are won.'' Stevens is so in the moment, he can't tell you how many consecutive games Butler has won.
"Eighteen,'' I say.
"Something like that. I haven't kept track. I know we've won the (Horizon) league.''
"What's your record?'' I ask.
Stevens pauses. He has to think. "We've played 30,'' he says. "We're 26-4. I do know that.''
He says he "watched, enthralled'' last April, when North Carolina beat Michigan State for the national title. "No individual motives,'' Stevens says. "You could see the focus, the way they approached each possession.''
In March, a team that values the ball is going to be a tough out, at least until superior talent takes over. That's where the Butlers of the quasi-amateur universe tend to lose their grip. And yet, part of the Madness is believing the myth: George Mason lives, somewhere. Maybe in Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of Hoosiers and one impossible dream.
Stevens scans the building. "When we're all out here in the morning, it's pretty cool,'' he says. "And when that sun starts coming through those windows toward the end of practice, there's nothing better. Nothing better."