Butler celebrates after defeating Florida, 74-71 in overtime. The Bulldogs would defeat VCU before falling to UConn in the championship game. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty.
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In a Zoom interview with The Butler Collegian, sitting in an office in the Boston Celtics facility, Brad Stevens reminisces on his days at Butler fondly. Even after going to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Celtics three out of four years, he called the back-to-back NCAA Tournament runs in 2010 and 2011 “the most rewarding thing I’ve been a part of.”
“We’ve benefited greatly individually,” Stevens said. “And I think a lot of the players would say that we have great relationships with those guys. It’s been such a fun group to stay up with, and they’re all doing great, which is a real testament to what that group was about.”
Stevens has risen the ranks since he entered coaching in 2000. After quitting his job at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company in Indiana, he started volunteering in the Butler Basketball office. The next year, he was promoted to an assistant coaching position. In 2007, Stevens was named head coach, a position he held until moving to the Celtics, one of the NBA’s most historic franchises, in 2013.
Before Stevens was on the sidelines in Boston, he was coordinating a second consecutive run to the National Championship, but midseason, the team was sputtering.
In February 2011, Stevens remembers attending a dull alumni event in what is now the Efroymson Family Gym. Just a year before, as the team was enjoying great success, the same alumni event was, in Stevens’ words, “hopping and vibrant.” After a championship appearance the year prior, the 2010-11 team was struggling.
“Like there is no vibe, there is like, all of a sudden, all the energy and excitement that was generated was replaced with expectation,” Stevens said. “And so that makes it really hard. And so you felt that weight, as a coach. I think our players felt that weight.”
On Feb. 3, 2011, the Butler men’s basketball team dropped their third game in a row on the road to Youngstown State. The loss dropped the Bulldog’s record to 14-9 on the season. With that many losses in the Horizon League, an at-large tournament bid was now out of reach for the Bulldogs. The last path to secure an NCAA Tournament bid was through a conference championship, and the pressure was starting to mount.
To make matters worse, in that loss to Youngstown State, starting point guard Ronald Nored sustained a cut to his hand. This forced Stevens to make a choice. Concerned about how the injury would affect Nored’s play, Stevens, the strategic mastermind, turned to backup point guard Shawn Vanzant.
“I told [Nored] before the Cleveland State game, I said, ‘we’re gonna bring you off [the bench], because I don’t know if you’re gonna be able to do much.’ And so we brought him off, we won the game,” Stevens said. “Then I just brought him in a couple days later and said, you’re gonna come off the bench the rest of the year. And here’s a guy that started the National Championship game the year before and started every game of his career up to that point.”
In addition to the personnel switch, the players also held a team meeting to discuss the changes that needed to be made. Vanzant said during the meeting leaders on the team, like senior Matt Howard and junior Shelvin Mack, held themselves accountable.
“Everybody said their piece and knew that we were capable of turning the team around,” Vanzant said. “So after that player meeting, I think after that, guys really knew that we didn’t want our senior year to end the way it was going.”
The switches, both from a personnel and a mentality perspective, paid off.
With Vanzant taking over the starting point guard role, and Nored playing significant minutes off the bench, the Bulldogs won nine straight games, including the Horizon League championship against top-seeded Milwaukee, to play itself into the NCAA Tournament as an eight-seed.
Butler opened with a first-round game against nine-seed Old Dominion in Washington D.C., sneaking past the Monarchs with a buzzer-beating layup from Howard. The next round, the Bulldogs were matched up with the southeast region’s number one seed, Pittsburgh. After a wild sequence, Howard was fouled on a defensive rebound with less than a second left, and saved the day for the Bulldogs by hitting his first free throw and intentionally missing his second, securing the 71-70 victory. Garrett Butcher, a junior forward who appeared in 30 games during the 2010-11 season, remembers the unbelievable finish.
“I mean, that has to be one of the craziest endings to a game in NCAA Tournament history,” Butcher said. “I mean, it was insane. It was a weird, emotional roller coaster because we went from this shift of thinking ‘Okay, we have a chance,’ to ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna lose like that,’ like it’s over, all he has to do is make these free throws, and we’re done. To all of a sudden, Matt doing what he did in regards to getting foul and acting like he’s shooting, you know, basically a full court shot, which is totally a Matt Howard move.”
The extraordinary finish may have overshadowed Mack’s performance, who led Butler with 30 points in the monumental upset that gave Stevens and the Bulldogs their second-straight Sweet 16 appearance.
The next weekend in New Orleans, Butler’s hot streak continued. Butler’s defense dominated four-seed Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, leading them to their 12th win in a row.
In the Elite Eight, the two-seed Florida Gators, one of the most dominant programs of the 2000’s, stood in the Bulldogs’ way to a second consecutive Final Four. The Gators were looking for their third National Championship in just six seasons. This matchup was one very familiar for Butler fans, as Florida and head coach Billy Donavan had knocked Butler out from the NCAA Tournament twice before in 2000 and 2007.
The 2011 game seemed to be heading down that same path as the Bulldogs trailed by nine with less than eight minutes to go in the second half. Thanks to the gritty play of reserve guard Chrishawn Hopkins and Mack’s hot shooting, Butler managed to claw its way back to force overtime. A Mack three-pointer with just over a minute to play in overtime gave Butler a two-point lead, and the Bulldogs hung on in the final seconds to cling to a 74-71 victory.
Butler was headed to the Final Four once again.
“We obviously had that perfect attitude and competitiveness and toughness,” Stevens said. “They were just amazingly resilient. But I think that’s where you guys all see the values that are on the wall and on the Bulldog as you walk by Hinkle, that’s where that stuff comes into play. Like, you can’t tell me it doesn’t matter in a one possession game. You can’t tell me that if people aren’t embracing that stuff to the fullest, that every possession doesn’t matter a little bit more… The separator for us was we always felt like we were a lot more connected and committed to each other than anybody we would play.”
After defeating three of the top four seeds in their region, eight-seed Butler was on its way to Houston, set to face Virginia Commonwealth University for a spot in the National Championship.
Much like Butler, VCU and head coach Shaka Smart were having a Cinderella run of their own, becoming just the third 11-seed to ever make it to the Final Four. Although the Rams put up a good fight, Mack’s hot shooting from beyond the arc and the team’s wealth of experience in big tournament games gave them the edge. The Bulldogs defeated the Rams 70-62 and had a consecutive opportunity to win a National Title, a previously unimaginable feat for any mid-major school.
Standing in the way of Butler’s hopes of a National Championship were the UConn Huskies, champions of the Big East Conference, arguably the best conference for the 2010-11 season. The three-seed Huskies, led by Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun, were one of the hottest teams in the country. After losing seven of their final 11 regular season games, the Huskies swept through the Big East Tournament, defeating five teams — four of which were ranked — in five days. Junior guard Kemba Walker paced the Huskies in scoring with an average of 23.5 points per game, and his clutch baskets through the Big East and NCAA tournaments gave him the nickname “Cardiac Kemba.”
Unfortunately for Butler, and any college basketball fan outside the state of Connecticut, the 2011 National Championship game was one to forget. Both Connecticut and Butler shot horrifically from the field, and the game is widely regarded as one of the worst championship games ever.
“I always said that team had nine lives and we ran out of them in the championship game,” Stevens said. “Like all the karma caught up with us.”
The Bulldogs held a slim 22-19 lead at halftime and on the first possession of the second half, Chase Stigall hit a three to put the Bulldogs up by six. Following Stigall’s three, the Bulldogs would only go on to score three points in the next 13 minutes. UConn outscored Butler 34-19 in the second half, holding the Bulldogs to just 6-of-37 shooting. Butler’s 41 points were the fewest in a National Championship game since 1949, and their 18.8 percent shooting was the lowest ever in a National Championship game.
“I felt bad for our guys, because you put in all of that time and then the ball doesn’t go in on the one night,” Stevens said. “And that was a unique place to play. It was even different, it felt, than Lucas Oil. But, you know, it was just one of those nights there. Kemba Walker wasn’t the difference that night. He was the difference in them getting there. But I thought the difference that night was the length of [Jeremy] Lamb and their big guys. And that really hurt us. Like we just couldn’t operate around those guys’ athleticism and length on the offensive end.”
Walker — now the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics under Stevens — may not have had his greatest performance in the 2011 National Championship Game, but he still has ultimate bragging rights over his new head coach. Stevens said Walker will occasionally give him a subtle reminder of who won that game ten years ago.
“We don’t talk about the game very often. He’ll jab me with a reminder or he’ll jab me with [wearing] his UConn jacket, just kind of puff his chest out and all that crap, but he doesn’t talk about it because as I always tell him, it’s not like he played great,” Stevens said. “And it was not exactly a game that any of us want to rewatch or rehash. Right, it was a low scoring, nobody could get a bucket, just a grinder of a game.”
Ten years after the back-to-back National Championship game appearances, it is hard not to imagine what would happen if Butler won either of those games. What if Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot would have banked in for the win over Duke in 2010? What if next year’s team pulled off one more upset over UConn in the Championship?
In reality, even though Butler didn’t take home either National Championship, the players, coaches and university can all look back fondly at the history those teams made.
The trajectory of all parties involved have also changed because of the historic back-to-back runs. In two years, Butler men’s basketball went from relative obscurity in the Horizon League to a nationally-known program.
But this change didn’t happen overnight. Vanzant credits past Butler teams for laying the foundation for such a run. The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 in both 2003 and 2007.
“It’s not just about the 2010-2011 team, it’s guys like the year I got there, the ‘07 team, and Matthew Graves [‘98] and all those other guys who paved the way for us,” Vanzant said.
Stevens also said the foundation of Butler’s success was built well before the runs to the National Championship, and saw the 2007-08 team that won 30 games as a turning point.
“What that set in motion, moving forward with Matt Howard as a freshman, and then getting Hayward, Mack and Nored in one class. Now we had the tradition, the history, we had the know-how, we had an incredible culture,” Stevens said. “And we had just a little bit more talent than maybe before, although it was close. That’s how good the early 2000s were — the talent level was close to  and .”
Now competing in the Big East, the profile of Butler basketball — as well as all Butler sports — has been elevated. With this advancement of Butler Athletics’ profile, the basketball program could have easily lost track of what got them to where they are. Butcher believes the program has maintained the same values which made it so successful over a decade ago.
“I think the basketball program has done a lot to make the right improvements to strive to try to stay competitive, while continuing to focus on the foundation of what got it there in the first place — the culture, the type of people they’re recruiting, the type of basketball they’re playing — I mean, that hasn’t changed too much,” Butcher said. “Which is good to see. And I think something that the program is really focused on maintaining.”
The core values of the Butler men’s basketball program may not have changed too much, but Stevens saw a clear change in the teams’ popularity. For those who know Hinkle Fieldhouse as a loud and raucous arena, that was not the case when Stevens arrived on campus in 2000.
“When I got there, there were like 100 people at a free exhibition game. So like, it’s changed as far as atmosphere for Butler games, it’s changed a lot,” Stevens said. “And, you know, I always laughed, because my last year we were charging for an exhibition game, just like a home game. And it was family weekend, and it was packed. But that was one of those moments that made you think like, wow, this has just taken off.”
Stevens has attended multiple Butler basketball games since leaving the program for the Boston Celtics of the NBA in 2013. When watching Butler games, Stevens does not view them from a coaching perspective, rather he is content with his current relationship with the program — a fan.
“When I come back, I love being a fan,” Stevens said. “And I’ll let everybody else get riled up about whether we win or lose. I just like watching Butler basketball. And I love LaVall. And that’s it.”