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Hopkins is Butler's unlikely season savior

4/1/2011

HOUSTON -- Part of what makes Butler the most irresistible story of the past two college basketball seasons was the skinny freshman sitting in the Reliant Stadium training room getting his ankles taped Friday.

His name is Chrishawn Hopkins, and until last weekend his biggest claim to fame in the Bulldogs locker room was the fact that he apparently has some trouble getting his own laundry done.

"It just takes me a while," he said in response to needling from his coach, Brad Stevens.

But there’s a decent chance the Bulldogs would be at home with all the laundry time in the world right now without Hopkins.

Trailing Florida in the second half of the Southeast Regional final, Stevens did the most preposterous thing: he put Hopkins in the game. The Indianapolis product had played seven minutes total in the previous two months. He had scored two points in that time. He had failed to even remove his warmups in 13 of Butler’s last 18 games.

So when Stevens turned and called, "Hop!" even Hop was a bit startled.

"That was a pretty tough situation to be in," he acknowledged.

But assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry gave him some brief encouragement -- "Just play, don’t be scared" -- and there went Chrishawn Hopkins to the scorer’s table. Nobody in America could have guessed he’d help save Butler’s season.

Down nine with just more than seven minutes to go, Hopkins drove to the basket and fired a pass to big man Matt Howard for a layup. On Butler’s next possession, Hopkins let fly a 3-pointer that swished.

"They tell us to shoot when we’re open and don’t hesitate," Hopkins said. "It felt good as I let it go."

Next thing anyone knew, Gators coach Billy Donovan was calling timeout. The Florida assistants were undoubtedly squinting at their scouting reports, wondering who No. 20 was. Their lead was cut to four and would never again be more than two possessions.

And the Bulldogs were swarming Hopkins to congratulate him on the biggest minute of his basketball career.

"It shows he’s always ready to go, which is one thing we emphasize," said sophomore center Andrew Smith. "You always need to step up and be ready when you’re asked."

Last year, Smith was Hopkins. A seldom-used freshman, Stevens suddenly sent in Smith in Butler’s West Regional final against Kansas State. The big guy responded by playing what was at the time a career-high 12 minutes. He scored three points (his most in a game since mid-January), grabbed two offensive rebounds and played tenacious post defense as Butler went to its first Final Four.

Today, Smith is a starter and Butler’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Stevens believes the confidence gained in those 12 minutes in Salt Lake City carried over to this season.

And don’t forget about Hopkins’ classmate, Khyle Marshall. Stevens leaned on him for 21 minutes against Florida, more than he’d played since early February. Marshall rewarded Stevens with 10 points and a career-high seven rebounds -- all of them at the offensive end. He’s another guy who was at best a sentence or two on the Gators scouting report.

"Next man up, that’s what we’re about," said guard Ronald Nored. "It’s instilled from the coach. Everyone just does his job."

That’s part of what makes the coach so special. Stevens will send a scrub into an incredible pressure situation, then sit back and watch him produce.

Every coach preaches team, but few live it like the 34-year-old Butler boss. His faith in his entire roster has led to six different players making a key play at the end to win a game.

At a time when coaches trust their bench less, playing fewer guys in the furnace of March, Stevens has gone the other way. He’s played more guys -- some who even Butler fans might never have even heard of -- and gotten results.

That takes guts. And complete trust in your players. And an incredible calmness and confidence that can be projected to a scared teenager as you send him to the scorer’s table.

"They don’t care who makes plays," Stevens said, "as long as we win."

The Bulldogs won nine times in the past two NCAA tournaments, more than any other school. And now Chrishawn Hopkins, of all people, is part of the growing Butler lore.