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Butler's Stevens as cool as they come

It's not much of a surprise that back in the day when Brad Stevens was a young assistant at Butler University and the coaches used to break out the cards, he was a formidable Texas Hold 'Em poker player.

"It's tough to get a read on him," said Butler assistant Matthew Graves. "He doesn't show his hand."

Stevens is the Tom Glavine of college basketball. Glavine was a guy who would have the identical expression on his face whether he had just been blasted for seven first-inning runs or was in the midst of tossing a one-hit shutout in the World Series.

"The most rattled I've ever seen Brad is when he'd hit a golf ball out of bounds or miss a putt from a few feet," Graves added. "Other than that, he just never gets flustered."

That'll bode well this weekend when Stevens and his mid-major Butler Bulldogs share the spotlight with three big boys: Duke, Michigan State and West Virginia.

Butler will face Michigan State in the first national semifinal matchup on Saturday night and while the last non-BCS team, George Mason, appeared nervous and out-of-sorts when it reached the Final Four in 2006, don't expect that to happen to the Bulldogs.

Neither Stevens nor his team will be overwhelmed by taking an improbable spot with three powers on college basketball's most intimidating stage.

There's Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will likely retire as the all-time winningest coach in D-1 history; Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who is making a remarkable sixth Final Four appearance in the past dozen years; and Bob Huggins, who will likely join Coach K and Izzo in the Hall of Fame soon after he calls it a career.

Three larger-than-life figures who have roamed the sidelines for years. Three fiery, intimidating personalities who are often unable to control their emotions.

Then there's Stevens, the 33-year-old wunderkind who just never, ever seems to lose his cool.

Except when, following the win over Kansas State that earned Butler a spot in the Final Four in the Bulldogs hometown this week, Stevens ran across the floor and exchanged chest-bumps with walk-on Emerson Kampen.

Stevens had been doing it in the locker room following each of the first three NCAA tournament wins, but decided to show a side of him that few have seen.

"I've never seen that side of him where he completely lets go," said Brandon Miller, who played for Stevens at Butler, was an assistant coach and is now an assistant at Ohio State. "Never once in my life and I've known him forever."

"I don't care what people think," Stevens said. "They can write whatever they want about it. It was fun."

Stevens was the all-time leading scorer at Zionsville High in Indiana who spurned a D-I offer to play for Bill Fenlon at DePauw University. But he had to adjust.

He became, as Fenlon put it, a "hybrid" guard -- one who wasn't a true point guard or your typical shooting guard.

"He just wasn't able to score the ball in college," Fenlon said. "But he was always a team-first guy -- an unselfish leader."

Cerebral was how Fenlon and others close to Stevens have described him. Prepared. Methodical.

"He wasn't a goofy guy," Fenlon said. "He was pretty driven, a guy who took school and everything pretty seriously."

Stevens was in the honors economics program and was a consistent academic all-conference honoree.

When he graduated, he went to work at Eli Lilly as a marketing associate where he was creating matrix and incentive programs for higher level account executives -- seasoned sales people calling on HMOs.

"It was alright," Stevens admits. "I was 22 and wasn't all that passionate."

Stevens was passionate about basketball and yearned to break into coaching. He worked then-Butler coach Thad Matta's summer camp and shortly thereafter found his way onto Matta's staff as a manager.

"I don't remember what I was making, but it was probably half what I was making at Eli Lilly," Stevens joked.

"He was very inquisitive," said Matta, now the coach at Ohio State. "He was a sharp kid who didn't say a lot, but he took control of a lot of things right away."

"And he looked exactly the same," Matta added.

Young.

Stevens, now 33, could still pass for a player or a frat boy with his clean-cut look.

Stevens was a manager for just a few months before sliding into the director of basketball operations with some fortunate luck after there was some movement on Matta's staff just before the season began in September.

He was promoted to a full-time assistant seven months later, following Matta's departure to Xavier, where he became Miller's position coach.

"We'd play 1-on-1," Miller recalls. "I'd beat him and he'd said, 'You got me when I'm old and out of shape.'"

Stevens was 25.

"But he was the oldest 24 or 25-year-old you'd ever meet," said Miller, who later joined Stevens on the Butler coaching staff. "He acted a lot older than he was. "It wasn't an act, either. Brad is one of the most consistent, so even-keel people I've ever been around. That's who he is and that's who he was when he was a volunteer assistant my sophomore year."

The difference is now, eight years later, he's leading the Bulldogs into the Final Four.

When Stevens was handed the keys to the Butler program, he admits the timing couldn't have been more ideal. As a young head coach replacing Todd Lickliter, who had left for Iowa, he had a veteran team.

"I wasn't nervous because of the group we had," Stevens said. "If I would have had to start with a young team, it may have been different. But it was the ideal transition for a young coach."

Stevens got his feet wet with a team that had a terrific backcourt in A.J. Graves and Mike Green, a host of underrated vets and a young post player named Matt Howard who had chosen Butler over BCS programs.

But after the season, Butler was supposed to fall off the map. Nearly everyone of note was gone except for Howard. The Bulldogs were slated to finish toward the bottom of the Horizon League.

Except for one small problem: People underrated Stevens and his staff's ability to coach and evaluate. Butler brought in an unknown, but skilled, in-state forward, Gordon Hayward, and a guard out of Lexington, Ky., named Shelvin Mack.

That duo, along with Howard, led the Bulldogs to another Horizon League crown and a berth in the NCAA tournament as freshmen.

Now Hayward, Mack and fellow sophomore Ronald Nored all have a year of NCAA tourney experience under their belt.

But even as freshmen, they were mature well beyond their years, largely due to their even-keeled coach.

"I don't think I'm as composed as some people think I am," Stevens said. "One of the first games I coached here I didn't feel like I handled myself with great composure and our guys played on edge. Since then, I've tried to make a conscious effort to be more composed."

It's worked -- and his young players have taken a cue from their young coach.

Even Stevens said he had to do a double-take last week when he was sitting on the podium following the win against Kansas State in the Elite Eight and looked beside him.

"Next to me were three sophomores," he said. "It wasn't like I was sitting next to three fifth-year seniors. Their maturity is outstanding. They play with the sense of urgency the way a senior usually does."

Stevens will become a hot commodity whether he wins two more games and cuts down the nets in front of what will be a partisan crowd or the Bulldogs bow out on Saturday night against Michigan State.

Oregon and the big bucks of Nike czar Phil Knight may well come calling with a lucrative offer that includes a chance to coach in a BCS league in a brand-new gorgeous facility.

"Let's face it," his former college coach said. "If you don't think he's coaching at the highest level, you don't know college basketball. You can talk mid-major all you want, but these guys play at the highest level."

"Is he going to stay at Butler, money be damned?" Fenlon asked. "If I could see anyone do it, it would be Brad Stevens."

You'll never be able to tell by the look on his face.