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Butler's Brad Stevens continues coaching emergence

With his Butler Bulldogs mired in a funk earlier this season, 34-year-old Brad Stevens picked up his phone and called Florida's Billy Donovan.

If the nation's top young coach needed advice, it makes sense he'd seek it from another coach who not long ago carried the same label.

"He just shared insights, shared thoughts," Stevens said. "You're just two coaches on the phone talking for 30 or 45 minutes just sharing stories and sharing ideas.

"You're just looking for anything at that moment in time to flip a switch."

From Donovan's perspective, that advice might have been a little too good.

Now on a 12-game winning streak dating to Feb. 5, eighth-seeded Butler (26-9) will face second-seeded Florida (29-7) on Saturday in the NCAA Southeast Regional final.

On Friday, Stevens and Donovan both spoke of the respect they've developed for each other's programs since meeting for the first time in 2007 at a Florida coaching clinic.

Stevens said he called Donovan because the coach had a unique perspective of coming off a Final Four season and dealing with heightened expectations.

The 45-year-old Donovan has a more accomplished resume with three Final Four appearances, two national championships and more than a decade of sustained success at a program that wasn't considered a national powerhouse before his arrival in 1996.

But Stevens is gaining ground quickly. He led the Bulldogs to a shocking NCAA tournament run last season, advancing to the national championship game before a narrow loss to Duke. Now Butler is just one victory away from a second consecutive Final Four — an accomplishment unheard of for a so-called mid-major program.

To Donovan, Stevens isn't a great young coach. He's simply a great coach — period.

"I think a lot of times people can label somebody based on their age, and I don't think that's fair to Brad," Donovan said.

For Donovan and Stevens, the similarity in style is striking. They're usually calm on the sideline, with an understated approach that players say helps in tense situations. Both were guards in college, and are known for recruiting smart players who play well together and don't have huge egos.

"Sometimes we'll be in the huddle during a tight game and look up at coach Stevens and he's just so calm," senior Zach Hahn said. "You wonder 'How's he doing that?' But it definitely has an effect on everyone else. We don't get rattled easily."

Most importantly, both coaches are winners.

"I personally believe he's one of the best coaches in America," Butler junior Shelvin Mack said. "He continues to do great things year in and year out. Just because you're young doesn't mean that me and my teammates don't respect him."

Butler sophomore Chase Stigall said Stevens is a master of motivation, with an ability to mold his style to fit different players. When the Bulldogs were on a three-game losing streak in February — something unheard of for many of the players on the current roster — Stigall said Stevens didn't panic or do anything desperate.

He just did what he does best, communicate.

"He has a different way with every player," Stigall said. "When he's tuning into a certain player, he has a different way of treating each guy. He knows that my high school coach was a yeller, and he knows that I can be yelled at and that's how I respond the best. Other people can't respond to that — and he knows it."

Now Stevens will lead the his team against a program that has caused the Bulldogs plenty of heartache over the years. Butler lost to Florida in overtime in 2000 when Mike Miller hit a shot at the buzzer and again in 2007 in the round of 16.

Butler players said former players from both the 2000 and '07 teams have sent encouraging text messages over the past 24 hours, hoping the current group can finally get past the Gators.

But Stevens has kept the mood light, mixing practices with jokes and the occasional shooting contest with one of his players. Mack said he got the best of Stevens in their most recent contest — and the point guard joked that the coach needed to step up his game.

It's those moments that Stevens said are why he got into coaching.

"You know, this might sound strange," Stevens said. "I love to win, I love to compete and I love to prepare. But I like being around these guys more than all of that."