Brad Stevens and DePaul on Collision Course?

67 years ago 29-year-old Ray Meyer led DePaul to the Final Four. On Saturday another coaching prodigy, 33-year-old former businessman Brad Stevens, will lead the Butler Bulldogs into Lucas Oil Stadium against Michigan State in a national semifinal.

Even though security guards still sometimes confuse him with his players, Butler's run to the Final Four has made the baby faced Stevens one of the hottest names in coaching. The speculation runs rampant that he'll join Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter as coaches that left Indianapolis in search of greener pastures of the cash variety.

In April of last season Stevens signed a contract extension to keep him in Indianapolis until the 2015-16 season. The deal reportedly pays Stevens around $900,000 – though the exact total is unknown. Would an offer to double his salary be enough to convince Stevens to move to Lincoln Park?

If so, the timing seems awfully perfect. For while DePaul has been methodically checking off every name on the wish list Jean Lenti Ponsetto and company had when Jerry Wainwright stepped down in January, they may have unwillingly set themselves up on a collision course with the possibility of hiring the current wonder kid. Stevens can't interview until his team finishes playing and DePaul doesn't seem to be in any rush to hire someone. It almost seems like a match that's too good to be true.

Of course, it wouldn't have been this way if the Bulldogs, the fifth seed in a solid West Region hadn't had some breaks go their way. But unlike Michigan State, which avoided the top seeds in the Midwest thanks to upsets, Stevens and Butler paved their own way to the Final Four by beating highly ranked teams like Syracuse and Kansas State. Considering the Bulldogs, a five seed, were a trendy pick to get upset by 12th seeded UTEP in the first round, and Butler was one possession away from falling to Murray State, that's quite a long way to come.

This deep tournament run is no fluke. Stevens has only been the headman at Butler for three seasons, but it is obvious that he knows what he's doing on the bench. He has won 86 percent of his games as a head coach at Butler. With those victories has come a quiet confidence that permeates through Stevens when he's on the court. While other coaches will flap and flail on the sidelines, Stevens stands there arms folded, stoically analyzing the court. Occasionally he'll yell out a defensive set, or seem a bit nervous, but it's rare you'll see him animated – which makes outbursts like his flying back bump with freshman walk-on Emerson Kampen after the victory over the Wildcats even more surprising.

What wasn't surprising was that Stevens could get so high in the air. This isn't a story of your typical businessman turned basketball coach, if there is such a thing. At one time Stevens was a very good basketball player in his own right. He earned all-conference and academic all-conference honors as an economics major at DePauw University.

Those analytical skills helped Stevens at his first job as a marketing representative at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., but they've also helped him on the basketball court. Stevens has embraced using modern statistical analysis to help his team play better and has even been referred to as the "Quant Guy" by ESPN's True Hoop ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html ). Stevens often refers to Willie Veasley, a 6'3" swingman, as Butler's Shane Battier. Battier of course was the subject of Moneyball writer Michael Lewis' piece about the use of statistics in basketball entitled "The No Stats All-Star" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html).

"We know everything we need to about our opponents, all their tendencies are broken down," sophomore guard Ronald Nored told the New York Times. "I honestly believe every time we go on the court, we're the most prepared team in the country."

Not surprisingly, where the analysis and preparation seems to show up the most is on the defensive end. Despite being undersized and outmanned athletically during most games in the NCAA Tournament the Bulldogs have been absolute pests. Stevens has designed game plans that have made Syracuse and Kansas State look pedestrian with the basketball. According to Ken Pomeroy the Bulldogs have the sixth best defense in the entire country.

In just three seasons at Butler Stevens is 88-14. It is the most wins ever by a coach in his first three seasons. He has made the NCAA Tournament every season he's been the leader on the bench and he is the two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year.

There are some things that could give a high-major school pause. For one, Butler's coaches haven't exactly set the world on fire once they leave Indianapolis. Lickliter and Collier both failed to produce good teams at Iowa and Nebraska respectively. Another hang up is that Stevens' career seems to mirror that of another coach that was once a hot name at a mid-major program, current Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. Like Stevens, Carmody is one of six coaches to accumulate 50 wins in 56 games or fewer. And like Carmody, Stevens accumulated most of his wins while dominating a small conference.

Whether Stevens game-planning ability and analytical skills will translate isn't a question, but if he jumps up to a major program like DePaul, diamond in the rough recruits like sophomore Gordon Hayward aren't going to be enough. He'll have to consistently recruit the top talent in the nation. No one knows if Stevens can do that until he tries.

Then again, Stevens seems to do awfully well with the talent he gets. The odd thing is that this year wasn't supposed to be the season that Butler took off. The Bulldogs were supposed to be a year away. Veasley and Avery Jukes are the only seniors that contribute on the court for the Bulldogs and stars Matt Howard and Hayward are expected to be back next season. This magical run was supposed to happen next year.

Of course by then it would've been too late. DePaul would've already settled on someone else. Maybe fate has made it possible not only for the Bulldogs to reach the Final Four in their hometown, but also for the Blue Demons to capture one of the shooting stars of the college basketball coaching profession.


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