Media Day was coming to a close for the Atlantic 10 as I was sitting at one of about four or five roundtables in the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn for one last time. The topic of discussion was non-conference schedules, to which I had to ask the gentleman sitting opposite me, ‘did you piss somebody off before you arrived in Indiana?’
Brad Stevens laughed.
“I know, right,” Stevens said, seemingly searching for an answer as to why he put himself and his Butler Bulldogs in such a position.
In its first year in the A10, Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs’ biggest challenge may not even lie in conference play (Credit: UI Photo Service)
But in reality, it makes all the sense in the world for Stevens to test his crew early on, and he knows that. The biggest question mark surrounding Butler thus far, and with good reason, centers around whether or not the Bulldogs will be able to handle the rigors of conference play now that they’re in the A10 and not the Horizon League.
Let’s face it. Aside from Valparaiso, which typically suits up a competitive team, Cleveland State, which had Norris Cole and one of the greatest hairdos the college basketball world will ever see to thank for its recent success, and now Detroit, led by junior Ray McCallum who if wasn’t playing for his old man, would likely take his 15/5/4 to a bigger school, there hasn’t been a great deal of competition to stop Butler from steamrolling through a more or less weak conference these past few years.
Point blank, Milwaukee, Youngstown State and Green Bay don’t exactly match up well with Xavier, Richmond and St. Bonaventure, three teams not even predicted to finish in the top half of a significantly improved A10 Conference.
So what does Stevens do to prepare his squad for what conference play might bring to the table and – hopefully – in the process quiet the critics as January approaches? He takes on, what he refers to, anyway, as the hardest road schedule in the country, with a great deal of those challenges coming in the non-conference.
Before A10 play begins, and before Stevens’ club even gets a chance to prove it belongs in the best basketball-only conference in America, the Bulldogs will take on Xavier in a non-conference game as part of the ESPN
What makes Butler’s non-conference schedule so difficult, as head coach Brad Stevens pointed out, is that so many tough games will be played away from the friendly confines of Hinkle Fieldhouse (Courtesy: Chris Dortch)
Tip-Off Marathon, they’ll participate in the Maui Invitational where they will play Marquette, they’ll travel to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to take on preseason No. 1 Indiana and they’ll round out 2012 with a game at Vanderbilt.
Did I mention that not one of those games will be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse?
“I’m looking forward to those challenges,” Stevens said, “but there’s no question, I think when you look at college basketball, you’ll say Butler played the most challenging road schedule in the country.”
So will all those non-conference road games help prepare Butler for conference play, the portion of the schedule that so many critics will analyze when they asses Butler’s first year following the jump from the Horizon League?
“It helps if you handle it right,” Stevens said. “Helps if you manage it right. If you have success it helps greatly but if you don’t, you just have to manage that. The key is maintaining at an even keel throughout the ups and downs.”
If the Bulldogs do handle it right, there will be no more doubt they’ll be ready for the challenges awaiting them come conference play. In fact, as good as the A10 is expected to be this year, when March rolls around, the dust settled and questions answered, critics may consider Butler’s survival of its non-conference schedule to be more impressive than its survival, if that be the case, of its conference schedule.
Of course, if the Bulldogs don’t handle it right, if Stevens’ guys don’t perform in the non-conference, then all that pressure facing Butler now as to whether or not it’ll be able to handle its A10 portion of the schedule will multiply exponentially the moment January rolls around.
Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
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