Has success spoiled Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs? Doesn’t seem so.
The 34-year-old head coach, who appears barely old enough to shave, has his team in a great place right now — and we’re not talking about Waikiki, since the Bulldogs took the late flight back to the mainland last night.
Last spring’s national runners-up were unranked headed into the Diamond Head Classic. Will they crack the top 25 after soundly beating Washington State 84-68 with a second-half surge in the tournament final? The Cougs came in at 10-1 (their only loss to Kansas State).
It’s clear Washington State — impressive in wins over Mississippi State and No. 15 Baylor here — will go as far as Klay Thompson can take them. The son of former Lakers, Blazers and Spurs big man Mychal Thompson served Butler with a game-high 31, but none of his mates hit double figures. Klay is a 6-6 guard who does most of his damage from long range, but also goes well to the basket.
Meanwhile, it was a team effort for the Bulldogs. Shelvin Mack (22 points) impressed, as he loosened things up with his NBA range. Forward Matt Howard and center Andrew Smith (14 points each) did the work up front.
The team stats were eerily similar at the break, with Butler clinging to a 40-38 lead. Offensive and defensive rebounds were identical, and both teams shot 47 percent from the floor.
Stevens delivered his best aw-shucks routine when asked about his role in Butler’s blitz of 18-2 after the break. It wasn’t exactly false humility, as guard Zach Hahn’s shooting keyed the decisive spree with back-to-back 3s and a layup. Hahn also scored 14. All Stevens had to do was make sure he was on the floor.
"He’s gone on runs like that multiple times to win games for us," Stevens said. "A neat weapon to have. Chase (Stigall), too. Chase had a heckuva tournament."
The big difference in the stats from first half to second? The Bulldogs hit 54 percent from the field to 33 percent for the Cougs.
So now it’s off to Horizon League play for Butler, which is 9-4 and probably won’t lose many games until March. Butler in the Horizon for hoops is roughly analogous to Hawaii women’s volleyball in the WAC — the competition level takes a big dip once conference play begins.
AS FOR HAWAII, coach Gib Arnold was the happiest fifth-place-out-of-eight-teams guy you’ll probably ever see. Arnold had reason to be pleased, as the Rainbow Warriors won two of their three games and are now 9-3 heading to a tough conference opener at Utah State.
Usually coaches save the "they’re not freshmen anymore" line for postseason, but these UH youngsters Trevor Wiseman, Bo Barnes and Bobby Miles earned some stripes this week. Sure, Utah was terrible and Mississippi State was in disarray, but the Warriors never gave up in the opening loss to Florida State, and that paid off in the next two games.
Senior Hiram Thompson looks like he can barely walk due to his back strain, but his inspirational play propelled UH in both wins. "Hiram’s 23 going on 80," Arnold quipped. "We got him a walker for Christmas."
Mississippi State had just eight scholarship players available after forwards Elgin Bailey and Renardo Sidney played Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots in the stands Thursday and were sent home — on separate planes, wisely. So UH actually had a deeper bench, with its nine full-ride guys.
It will be interesting to see what this team can do when starting forward Bill Amis comes back from his foot injury and Miah Ostrowski absorbs the sets enough to add to the guard depth now that his football season is over.