EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Everyone knows about Butler coach Brad Stevens now. There have been a seemingly infinite number of stories written about what he's done, and the way he is, and how Butler has become the model mid-major program in college basketball.
But there are still people on this earth who have never met Brad Stevens in person. Yesterday's Butler-Duke game was the first time I ever covered a Bulldogs game, and Stevens' postgame press conference was a terrific experience.
If we all learned something about Butler from the way they played in an 82-70 loss to the Blue Devils, I think I can say I personally learned something from the way Stevens conducted himself afterward.
I know I haven't been at this for an especially long time, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a coach as singularly focused and driven on getting the very best out of his team at every minute as Stevens. He is not a super-intense person (think of Jimmy Patsos as being at one end of that scale), but he is amazingly unflappable.
Everything he says relates to the game, and the moment. He does not introduce distractions to himself or his team, nor does he allow them in from outside. He does an exceptional job of deflecting any questions on how he feels about having his program in the national spotlight.
So what if making the national championship game last season has made his program glamorous? So what if the national media places thousands of words' worth of pressure on his program - and decrees failure if any result goes against that conventional wisdom? Stevens just keeps going, coaching hard and getting his players to play even harder.
It is a fortification that seems from afar to be as strong as the walls that encircle the great medieval cities of Europe. Against those ramparts, journalists play a role akin to that of an invading army. And just like that army, it is a natural instinct of journalists to try to overcome the erected barrier.
That's what I did yesterday. I wanted to get something out of Stevens, however small, about what it feels like to be in his position, riding a rocket ship from Hinkle Fieldhouse into the college basketball stratosphere.
Whether or not I should have done so, I felt it a better use of the allotted time than to ask an even more clichéd question about what transpired on the court. So when the opportunity came, I took it:
Q. Coach, could you talk about coming into a game like this, and all the outside hype and attention that was being generated about it? I know that you guys have been really good at blocking that out, but what was that like?
And then to come in and deliver that kind of performance, when people thought - between the [Ronald] Nored injury and how well Duke's been playing - that it wouldn't have been that close?
A. Well, you know what? I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to all the talk. You know, I didn't turn my TV on today. Didn't read any papers, didn't have any internet access. So I didn't know that there was as much as maybe there was.
But certainly, we knew there was a big game, and against a very quality opponent. And we knew that if we were not focused, then, you know, we weren't going to have a very favorable outcome, and it would be over early.
And so I was pleased in some regards, but I think that like last year, you see a little light at the end of the tunnel if you can embrace things. Which is a big "if."
The proverbial gate had opened just enough for the gatekeeper to ask why I had come to visit. The reason wasn't the right one, and the gate was slammed right back shut. So much for that.
I decided that my next question should be more basketball-related, just to be safe. A few minutes, later, I was able to ask center Matt Howard what it was like to deal with Duke's frontcourt depth. That went well enough. Then I got one more chance to query Stevens. Somewhat against my better judgment, I went back to the original theme:
Q. Coach, for as much as you've been focused on the game, obviously, does it feel at the end of a day like this - when you've played Duke again now, for the second time, and this game was sort of arranged - that the program has really risen to another level?
A. Ummmm... [and he held it for a second, just like that], yeah, I guess, maybe. Just because of, you know, the talk surrounding it, probably. But, you know, um, certainly, I got a few more text messages wishing me good luck than I did before some of our other games. But yeah, I think that's part of it.
I think all the exposure and all those things are positives, but I'm pretty darn focused on just what's next for this team. And how do we become better, and how do we, um, with our margin for error, how do we make as few mistakes as possible.
I printed all the instances in which Stevens said "um" and "you know" on purpose. I don't normally do that, but I wanted to this time to really demonstrate just how Stevens delivered his remarks. It was as if he didn't want to, even though he knew he had to.
Still, I thought I got something interesting and unique from that second answer. Maybe Stevens didn't want to talk about it, but it seemed in the moment to be heartfelt. So I felt pretty good.
Then someone was a question about a Butler injury during the second half, and about how to guard Duke's sensational freshman guard Kyrie Irving. At that point, I left the press conference room, and went back to the work room to start packing up. I didn't need to bother with the other topics.
Look, a lot of us are mid-major basketball fans, and I use the first person on purpose. It's not about a specific team, but an ideal. And I know a fair number of Butler fans will read this post and it will be the first thing they've ever read on this blog, and they might dismiss it as just another basketball writer out there who's come in and discovered what they knew all along.
But there's a first time for everything. There has to be, and it was my turn yesterday. If I got something new or incrementally different from Stevens, that's fantastic. If not, oh well. I made an honest effort to get past that gate, and I'm glad I did.
You really do have to see Brad Stevens in person to understand his amazing focus and drive. It rubs off on his players, Butler's fans, and, to be quite honest, a room full of reporters after a nationally televised game against the college basketball's most famous team.
It's an impressive thing. Stevens and Butler deserve the kind of attention that Butler has gotten since last season, even if Stevens doesn't let an ounce of it get to him or his players.
That will likely not stop the media from massing at the gates, however - at least for as long as Butler keeps winning. And while the spotlight might not change Stevens' personality, I do hope he takes it as a compliment.