Coach Brad Stevens must again mold Butler into a team that is better than the sum of its parts.
It's not just because crazy things can happen in the NCAA tournament. After all, crazy things can happen in every sport, and if the only reason you love college hoops is unpredictability -- if that love has nothing to do with the squeak of a sneaker on a freshly waxed floor or a well-oiled swing pass to a wide-open corner shooter -- then you can just as easily get your jollies from, say, roulette.
But insanity does play its role. As we saw in 2011, the craziness of March Madness -- in which not one, but two good-but-far-from-great mid-major squads somehow found themselves squaring off in the Final Four -- can out-crazy just about anything else in modern sports.
Consider the trajectory of Butler's 2010-11 season: The Bulldogs were essentially left for dead on Feb. 3, when a loss to laughingstock Youngstown State, the team's third in a row, made them 14-9 overall and 6-5 -- 6-5! -- in the Horizon League. Then, naturally, Butler ripped off 15 straight wins, including its first five NCAA tournament games.
For the second straight season -- this time much more miraculously than the first -- Butler got to the national championship game. Then, naturally, the Bulldogs put up one of the worst shooting performances in college hoops history and lost a stinker of a finale to Connecticut (a surprising national champion in its own right). Looking back, nothing about Butler's season, from the early struggles to the late tourney run to the composition of the Final Four -- Virginia Commonwealth! -- to the unfortunate and ugly final performance, was remotely predictable.
In other words, it's difficult to predict where Butler goes from here. Can Brad Stevens build his team's recent postseason shockers into lasting national status? Or is the inequality between schools from mid-major and BCS conferences too much to overcome? Will Butler maintain its excellence despite the loss of its three best players from the past two seasons? Or are the two-time national runners-up consigned to life as a historical footnote?
Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard -- the alternating cornerstones behind the past two seasons' March glories -- are gone. We already saw how difficult Butler's life was in the post-Hayward era; without him the Bulldogs lacked a player that could consistently score against more athletic, taller defenders like UConn's.
Things will only get tougher without Howard and Mack. Howard was especially excellent as a senior. He expanded his outside game, cut down on his fouls and posted one of the more efficient seasons of any big man in college hoops. Mack took on the majority of Butler's scoring load, especially on the perimeter, and he was at his best in the most important spots, where lesser players would allow shooting woes or other struggles to consume their appetite for the ball. Howard was consistent and workmanlike; Mack was cold-blooded and brutal. And both were far more important than their numbers reveal.
Howard won't be easily replaced, but the Bulldogs do have some frontcourt pieces that could come close. First is center Andrew Smith, who shone in his sophomore season with a brilliantly efficient performance in limited attempts. He will have to get better at creating his own offense in the post, not being able to rely on weak-side defenders who collapsed on Howard. But his size (6-foot-11) and interior skills give him a huge advantage in the Horizon League, which often lacks true centers with Smith's frame.
The other is sophomore forward Khyle Marshall, who entered Butler last season as one of the highest-ranked recruits ever to choose Butler. Marshall is a 6-7 forward with an array of talents, chiefly his athleticism. He could be a breakout star as soon as this season. Whether you play in the Horizon League or the Big Ten, that frontcourt tandem is an enviable quality. (Just ask, say, Indiana.)
Butler's backcourt transition could prove much more difficult. Mack is gone, as are solid senior contributors Shawn Vanzant and Zach Hahn. Senior guard Ronald Nored is back, which is good news on two fronts. First, Nored is a great defender, one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Second, Nored is a born leader, and his continuity could be crucial for a team that lost so much at the top when Howard and Mack moved on.
Still, there is no obvious replacement for Mack. Junior guard Chase Stigall is an interesting offensive player, but his game is mostly of the spot-up variety (and even then Stigall only made 32 percent of his 3s in 2011). And, in terms of returners, that's pretty much it: Mack, Vanzant, Hahn, Nored and Stigall were basically Butler's only backcourt players last season (at least when Howard wasn't facing up around the perimeter). Who fills that gap?
That brings us to recruiting, the best indicator of whether Butler has turned the past two seasons into a pathway toward long-term excellence. But the 2011 class wasn't a major statement in either direction. There are some intriguing players here, but no one as good as Marshall. The best prospect in the class is probably small forward Roosevelt Jones, who is ranked No. 33 at his position.
Things are looking better for 2012-13, as Stevens landed Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and has already received a commitment from ESPNU top 100 player Kellen Dunham. And Butler has had a hand in high-profile recruitments like that of Indiana commitment Cody Zeller. But the Bulldogs haven't experienced a recruiting revolution just yet. There might be a springboard effect at work eventually, but right now, its impact appears to have been limited.
That means, in 2011-12 at least, Stevens will be doing ... exactly what he's been doing throughout his tenure at the school, actually. He'll be charged with taking a group of talented but not elite players, molding them into a team over the course of the nonconference and Horizon League season, and then out-scouting and out-smarting everyone with more talent along the way.
After all, Butler's recent rise wasn't just luck. It came thanks to Stevens' brilliant work preparing his teams in the past two NCAA tournaments. As we saw last year, it's a mistake to count Butler out. Major pieces have gone, and replacing them won't be easy. But no coach -- frankly, no program -- in the country is better at forging a capital-T Team built to exceed the sum of its parts.
Then you get in the NCAA tournament. Howard makes a last-second tip-in, Nasir Robinson suffers a mental brain fart at the worst possible time, and the next thing you know, you're right back in the Final Four.
The surprising underdog isn't the only reason we love college hoops, but it's definitely one of them. Butler might not be the next Duke -- let's wait a few years before we render that final judgement. In 2011-12, though, merely being Butler ought to be enough.