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A step ahead: Stevens' cool gives Butler edge

Butler and coach Brad Stevens had just shaken loose from Virginia Commonwealth, 70-62, Saturday night and booked a spot in the national championship for a second straight season. But even as stars Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack tried to keep their emotions under wraps explaining how the Bulldogs had accomplished something no mid-major school had done since UNLV's high-flying Runnin' Rebels in 1990-91, Stevens sat off to one side, already scribbling notes for the next game.

That comes Monday night against Connecticut, which beat Kentucky in the second semifinal Saturday night.

"We said coming into the game that it was going to be a possession game and something where we had to be great with the ball," he said, "which I thought we were."

Stevens also knew Butler was going to have to find a way to offset VCU's strength, a torrid 3-point shooting attack, especially after the Rams deposited three in a row a few minutes into the game. He accomplished that by opening up the middle of his defense and inviting VCU to drive to the basket. They were lulled into playing inside game, going nearly 18 minutes in one stretch without an attempt. Next, he went to work exploiting their weakness.

"We tried to get 80 percent-plus back on the defensive glass and 40 percent plus back on the offensive glass. And we were 83-38," Stevens added, "and that turned out to be good enough."

Translation: To have a chance, Stevens knew Butler would have to rebound the basketball like, well, Bulldogs.

For the record, the margins were 16-6 in Butler's favor under its own basket and 32-26 under VCU's. Because Stevens is as good at statistical analysis as any coach in the land, what often gets overlooked is how a coach motivates his kids to hustle and fight — which is basically what rebounding is — to pile up margins like that.

That part of his repertoire, the ability to motivate players, is often overlooked. That's because just a few games into his four-year career, Stevens worked the Butler sideline as nervous and fidgety as a young coach can be and quickly figured out that his own mood was reflected in his team's play. If he wanted them to show poise in the closing moments, he had to do the same.

From that day forward, Stevens often took to watching big chunks of the games from the far end of the floor, down past the end of his own bench, looking to all the world like someone studying the players instead of coaching them. He usually kept his glasses on and never shed his jacket. Butler's players are anything but buttoned-down, but they're almost never sloppy.

"They've got smart players," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "They have guys that know how to execute. ... They're not going to beat themselves.

"As for Butler going back-to-back to the national championship game, I'm not surprised. Their program's rock solid. They've got a great coach and a great system. They have players that every time they take the floor, they do so with a clear head. And when you have a clear head for winning," he added, "you have a great opportunity to win."

Stevens is the equivalent of a third-degree black belt in that way. During the summer, he decided that practicing holding opponents to 12 points in the final 10 minutes of a game was too generous, so he set a goal of eight. That mindset came in handy as Butler won its four previous tournament games — in succession over Florida, Wisconsin, Pitt and Old Dominion — by three, seven, one and two points.

"We don't need to score 10 points in the last two minutes to win the game," center Andrew Smith said. "We'd much prefer to just get a few stops. That's kind of what we're made to do."

Yet there was a stretch in February when the Bulldogs couldn't do much of anything. They lost three straight league games to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and last-place Youngstown State. They were 6-5 in a mid-major conference. A return to the tournament looked out of reach, let alone zooming all the way back to the title game.

Instead of blistering his players, Stevens does what he often does in the huddle late in games. Coolly, he lays out the next task, tells them he's confident they can finish one task and then tackle the next. It sounds hokey, but he usually closes by simply saying, "We're going to win this game."

He turned out to be right on that night in mid-February, through most of March, and the Bulldogs haven't looked back. Optimism is one thing, having a plan is another. But getting a bunch of kids to put all those things together on the floor in the closing minutes of a basketball game is about belief as much as brains.

"That," Shawn Vanzant said, "is a tribute to our coach."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org