INDIANAPOLIS - I'm out here for the week covering Major League Soccer's college draft. But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to swing by Butler University's famed Hinkle Fieldhouse, so I headed there Wednesday night to watch the Bulldogs' first ever Atlantic 10 conference home game.
I had been here once before, but only to get a tour of the place. If you ever get the chance to visit Hinkle, I would highly recommend doing so. It really is a kindred spirit to the Palestra. The brick foundation, steel arches and big glass windows cast a familiar warmth across the court on a cold winter night.
Along with the good building, there was some good basketball too.
Butler was picked sixth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. It has become increasingly clear that the Bulldogs are not the sixth-best team in the conference. They are better than that, and a comfortable 62-47 win over the Spiders provided yet more evidence.
We all saw Butler silence Hagan Arena in the Bulldogs' first ever A-10 game. The Bulldogs then traveled to an even more hostile venue in Dayton, and the result was another victory.
After that, to paraphrase the old saying, Brad Stevens' team finally came back home to Indiana. Wednesday's opponent was a Richmond squad that already had 11 wins on the season. So Chris Mooney's team had some confidence, and Mooney was ready to pose a test to Stevens with his version of the Princeton offense.
But few teams in the country have challenged themselves this season the way Butler has. After an early-season loss at Xavier, the Bulldogs beat Marquette and North Carolina in the Maui Invitational before losing the title game to Illinois. And of course, there was that epic overtime win over Indiana that the nation watched on CBS.
No conference game is ever truly easy, but this one was pretty close. Impressive center Andrew Smith dropped in 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting from field goal range, and he posted the exact same numbers from the free throw line. Roosevelt Jones delivered a double-double, recording 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Stevens has yet to lose a conference game in the A-10. And he got this win without the team's leading scorer, Rotnei Clarke. He suffered a neck injury at the game at Dayton and it's not known when he'll be back.
On this night, Clarke wasn't needed. Although Butler only shot 37.5 percent from the field, they dominated Richmond on the glass, pulling down 20 offensive rebounds to the Spiders' 14 defensive rebounds. And on defense, the Bulldogs held their visitors to a paltry 32.7 percent shooting night.
"It's a hard team to play against [and] a hard team to prepare for," Stevens said. "I'm glad we scheduled Northwestern and Vanderbilt, because they run similar stuff [to Richmond], so it wasn't foreign to us."
I kept looking at that rebound differential, though, and I asked Stevens for his thoughts on it after the game. Stevens is renowned for being a less-than-effusive talked, but on this night he said a lot of interesting things.
One of them was that he game-planned specifically to attack Richmond's constantly-switching man defense. He might have preferred a better shooting night, but his team was ready to pounce when the ball didn't go in.
"The switching is a hard thing to attack," Stevens said. "You've got to do your best to get it inside and then attack the rim on rebounds."
Butler will play one more non-conference game this season, and it will be yet another big-time matchup. This time, though, it will come within Hinkle's friendly confines. Gonzaga will visit Saturday night, and ESPN's College GameDay show will be on hand to showcase college basketball's best-known mid-majors.
The hype started building as soon as the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night. Within minutes, a line of students wanting tickets snaked around Hinkle's lower concourse. Saturday's game is already sold out.
(So is the January 26th game against Temple, by the way.)
"We have an unbelievable respect for Gonzaga and have from afar for a long time," Stevens said.
He noted that the Spokane-based Bulldogs have influenced the Indianapolis-based Bulldogs by being a model when it comes to scheduling.
"They buy a handful of games and then they play anyone anywhere, as long as they'll either come back to Spokane or play them on a neutral court," Stevens said. "We've done our best to model that. We haven't perfected it yet, but we've really tried."
Stevens admitted that facing Gonzaga at home is a "bucket list" occasion, just as making two straight national championship games was.
"College GameDay is coming to Hinkle Fieldhouse and you play when they tell you you're playing," Stevens said. "I think that's appropriate. It's going to bring a lot of attention to Butler - it's a great place to be and Butler can used all the attention it can get."
It's clear that Butler has been good for the Atlantic 10. But has the Atlantic 10 been good for Butler?
Stevens admitted that his team has had a lot on its plate this season - perhaps more than he would have liked at one point.
"We scheduled [Gonzaga and College GameDay] before we knew we were in the A-10," he said. "And when I looked at it in September, I was like, 'I'm an idiot.' I should have scaled back a little bit, knowing especially what the start of our A-10 schedule looked like."
Stevens admitted that his team is "susceptible" to "having to really manage the ups and downs, and you've created them - that's why a lot of those teams don't go on the road, other than the financial side of things."
But players such as Smith, Jones and Clarke have stepped up. And now Stevens is in a place where he only has to worry about the next game, not the bigger picture.
It's a place in which he feels quite comfortable.
"I don't mean to sound flippant by any means, but I don't really pay attention to our record - I pay attention to getting better, and I pay attention to the day-by-day process," he said with reasonable honesty.
"I've been through this long enough to know that three [wins] out of 16 [games played] is not a big enough sample size," Stevens added, the fact that he's all of 36 years old notwithstanding. "If we get to 12, 13 games in and we're still in the race, that's a different story."
At this point, it's looking quite likely that Stevens and Butler are going to be in that race for a while to come.