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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Without Hayward, Butler seals historic conference run

By Eamonn Brennan

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Valparaiso coach Homer Drew has seen plenty of Butler teams in his 30 years of coaching -- much more so since Valpo made the switch from the Mid-Continent Conference to Horizon League in 2007 -- and his diagnosis of the 2009-10 Bulldogs after Butler's 74-69 win over Valparaiso Friday night was straightforward, simple, and full of gravitas. Oh, and it was accurate.

"They're the best Butler team I've seen," Drew said.

Bingo. But let's go one further: This Butler team isn't just the best in the history of the program. It's the best in the history of the Horizon League.

Those are the kind of accolades you can realistically bestow on a team that sealed an undefeated conference season Friday, and has the nation's longest win streak at 18. And they managed to do it without their best player and leading scorer, Gordon Hayward.

Hayward was sidelined by back spasms Friday night -- his condition is day-to-day, according to Butler coach Brad Stevens -- and Butler felt his loss. The Bulldogs trailed by one at halftime, the product of a feisty Valpo offense and an inability to get anything going with their own offense. For lack of a better cliche, Hayward is the straw that stirs Butler's rather rich offensive milkshake. Without him, Butler's offense loses its edge.

Then again, the Bulldogs managed to get to 17-0 in the Horizon League before Friday night for reasons other than their star player, and those reasons were evident at the Athletics Recreation Center Friday night. Forward Willie Veasley's outside shooting keyed the stretch that put the Crusaders away in the second half. Forward Matt Howard -- oh, by the way, the 2008-09 Horizon League player of the year -- towers over most Horizon League forwards and can score from either side of the bucket. Shelvin Mack is strong, controlled and effcicient. Ronald Nored is a lockdown defender. Zach Hahn is a pure shooter.

OK, you get the point. Which is this: Stevens has built a very deep, very talented team, a team that managed to go an entire stretch of 18 league games without losing a single one -- the first Horizon League team to ever go 18-for-18 (the fourth to go undefeated). No off nights. Not one upset. And from day one all the way back in January, very little hope for the rest of the league.

Butler's teams are always better than their conference opponents, but rarely are they this much better. After three years at the helm, Stevens deserves much of the credit.

"He's one of the bright young coaches in Division I," Drew said. "He's done a wonderful job."

Again, bingo. At just 32 -- and yes, the man looks even younger -- Stevens hasn't just built an elite program. He's also put himself atop the nation's list of hot young coaching prospects. He's officially a "name" -- a name you should prepare to hear every time a new coaching position becomes available, which is to say, all the time. (That sound you hear is Butler fans putting their fingers in their ears and singing "la la la can't hear you la la la." Who can blame them?) For tonight, though, Stevens and his team can pocket the future for a moment and instead spend some time reflecting on their truly impressive accomplishment: an undefeated conference season.

No upsets here. Butler is your Horizon League champ. Next stop, NCAA tournament. Now things get really interesting.