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October 19, 2007

Butler expects to pick up where it left off

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 18 storyline deals with Butler's fourth new coach in 10 seasons. The Bulldogs promoted assistant Brad Stevens with hopes he can match the success their previous coaches have produced.

Don't bother asking new Butler coach Brad Stevens what kind of adjustments he has planned. There are none.

What about the differences between Stevens - who at 30 is the second-youngest coach in Division I - and his predecessor, Todd Lickliter? Other than longer practices, the players haven't noticed any yet.

Butler's schedule even bares an uncanny resemblance to last season's, with another tough nonconference slate that includes Ohio State, Southern Illinois, Florida State and Bradley. The Bulldogs also are part of a strong field in the Great Alaska Shootout that features Gonzaga, Michigan, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech and Western Kentucky.

"Ever since we finished putting it together, we really quit looking at it," Stevens said of the schedule. "It's just another reason why we can only worry about today. Our approach remains the same in every facet."

Stevens can't be blamed for his fear of change. He spent the past six years as a Butler assistant. In that time, the Bulldogs have gone 131-61 and made two Sweet 16 appearances. Last season, the Bulldogs became the first Horizon League team to climb into the top 10 of The Associated Press top 25, thanks to victories over Notre Dame, Indiana, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Purdue. The Bulldogs won a school-record 29 games and reached the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Florida.

"I buy into what Butler is all about," said Stevens, who still talks with Lickliter regularly. "We'll roll with that."

It's that perspective, coupled with Stevens' background, that landed him at the helm of one of the nation's premier mid-major programs. Butler athletic director Barry Collier, a former coach at Butler and Nebraska, could have picked someone with better credentials. Stevens has no head-coaching experience. But in a meeting soon after Lickliter took the job at Iowa, the players made it abundantly clear they didn't want anyone from the outside taking over the reins.

"It was a very scary week (when Lickliter left)," senior swingman Drew Streicher said. "You felt like your dad was taken away from you. We met with (Collier), and all the players told him we wanted someone from within the program. We all came to Butler to play a certain style and to be part of a certain culture. A lot of us would have been disappointed if one of the assistants didn't get the job.

"I think everybody was relieved when we found out Coach Stevens was the choice. Being a Butler guy and knowing the system we're very grateful for that, and in the end I think it worked out."

The style that Streicher refers to revolves around remarkable offensive efficiency and a stingy defense. The Bulldogs committed just 9.5 turnovers a game last season, lowest in the nation. They also gave up 57.1 points a game, which ranked fifth in the nation.

But what about playing for a coach who is just six years older than the team's oldest player, 24-year-old senior guard Julian Betko? Streicher says Stevens' pedigree he also spent a year working under Ohio State coach Thad Matta (who was at Butler for one season in 2000-01) as the school's director of basketball operations and his relentless work ethic override any doubts about youth or inexperience.

"It's obviously strange when you think about it (his age), but when you are out there playing, you don't think about that," Streicher said. "I really don't notice it. (Coach Stevens) is a tireless worker, and we know he'll do everything in his power to make us the best team we could be. He's coached under some great coaches and been part of a system that has been successful.

"Also, I enjoy how young our coach is. It makes it real easy to relate to each other."

Stevens faces higher expectations than either Matta or Lickliter did in their first years at Butler. He inherits a veteran-laden roster that is fully capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament and doing more damage once there.

Five seniors who were part of last year's rotation are back, including the two most important. Guards Mike Green and A.J. Graves form one of the nation's best backcourts. Graves averaged 19.6 points per game against the six BCS-league schools the Bulldogs played last season and shot 94.8 percent (145-for-153) from the free-throw line, which ranked second in the nation. The 6-foot-1 Green led the team in rebounding (6.0 per game) and assists (4.0) and ranked second in scoring (13.9 points) and steals (1.3).

Stevens believes Green and Graves could put up better numbers in 2007-08.

"Mike and A.J. are both better guys than they are players," he said. "And they are really good players. They are a blast to be around and really take being a great teammate seriously. Both of them went through internships this summer, but they worked really hard on their games. When they came back in August, you could tell they had made themselves better."

It looks like 3-point specialist Pete Campbell could give Butler a third major scoring threat. Campbell saw limited action during the first month last season, but scored in double figures in 14 of 15 games during one stretch. Streicher (4.0 points per game) and Betko (4.3 points per game) are experienced role players who each averaged 20-plus minutes a game.

Alabama transfer Avery Jukes (6-8, 215) and four-star recruit Matt Howard (6-7, 220) are power forwards who could give the undersized Bulldogs some much needed help on the boards. Jukes, who was a three-star prospect, must sit out the first semester and will be eligible in mid-December.

"I definitely think we can be better," Streicher said. "We obviously can't live off last year's success, but we can use that experience to help us. Last year, we focused on each task and never got too excited. We never got too high or too low. That's how we maintained our focus. We have to have the same approach."

Keeping everything the same, huh? Relying on what got them to this point? That's exactly what Stevens wants to hear.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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