The Front Row with Jim Litke April 6, 2010
INDIANAPOLIS - The differences in age and accomplishment are vast. Brad Stevens would have you believe the gulf is wider still.
The whiz-kid Butler coach said Sunday he was thrilled just to have worked the other end of the sideline from some of the deans of his profession. Now he gets to share the national championship stage with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
"I think the best way I can put it," Stevens said, "is they write books and I get to read 'em.
"But, again, I don't focus on it. You know, I appreciate what they've done. My job is to try to prepare our team well," he added. "They're stuck with me, unfortunately."
Don't buy it.
That's simply the former marketing executive in Stevens' past coming out. Although it's true Krzyzewski already has been every place that he wants to go - three national titles, 11 Final Fours, a dozen coach-of-the-year awards, Olympic gold medal and best-selling author - the 33-year-old Stevens is already well ahead of Coach K's pace.
"When I look at Brad, I say, 'How far ahead is he from where I was?"' said the 63-year-old Krzyzewski. "He's a much better coach. He's done a great job. He's already established himself.
"I was in the midst of trying to find out who the heck I was at this level," he added. "And, thank goodness, Duke stuck with me through my growing days. Butler hasn't had to stick with him. They should hope he sticks with them."
Krzyzewski didn't make the NCAA tournament in five seasons as the head coach at Army, nor in his first four at Duke. It took him another three years to reach his first Final Four and four more appearances after that to win it all. Yet for all the ways to measure his success, maybe none provided more satisfaction than this.
Considering how many times the Final Four coincides with Easter, Krzyzewski used to scramble to arrange egg hunts for his three daughters. This time around, he's doing the same for seven grandchildren.
"That was a neat thing. Our players got to see Rem," Krzyzewski said, referring to his sixth grandchild, "in his bunny outfit."
Asked whether he'd had time to reflect on his improbably quick rise, Stevens told a similarly sweet story about returning to his hotel room soon after the Bulldogs beat Michigan State to book their place in the final.
"I've been told by everybody in coaching that, you know, you need to take 15 minutes and slow down and recognize what's going on," he began. "When I did go back to my hotel room last night, my wife ... was just kind of staring at the wall. The she stared at me like, 'You guys are playing for the national championship.'
"I said, 'Yeah, but we're playing Duke."'
If nothing else, the punchline reveals that Stevens, unlike Krzyzewski, is still focused more on the destination than the journey.
Yet they have plenty in common. Both recruit smart, versatile players - and like jujitsu masters, they often attack opponents by identifying their greatest strength and then turning that against them.
Stevens does it primarily with defense, crunching numbers to decide which defensive sets are likely to yield the best results. Earlier this year, after one of the toughest scheduling stretches any team in the country endured, his team came back from winter break with an 8-4 record and found a note taped to their lockers.
It read: "Need two more stops a game to go from a 46 percent field goal percentage defense to 40 percent field goal percentage defense."
"When you look at it that way," Stevens recalled, "it sounds doable."
The Bulldogs have won 25 straight games.
"They've scored five times as many points off of turnovers as anybody in the tournament. Last night," Krzyzewski said, referring to Butler's win over Michigan State, "40 percent of their offense was off turnovers. And it's done because of good hands and good help.
"It's outstanding defense," he added, "just outstanding defense."
In order to get those turnovers against Duke, the Bulldogs will have to break down the Blue Devils' guards. Yet great guard play has been the bedrock of Duke's success during the Krzyzewski era - hardly surprising since Coach K played point guard for Bob Knight when his mentor was the head coach at Army.
"I didn't always appreciate the lessons I was learning from him while he was teaching them," Krzyzewski said. "But I think I became a lot tougher. I certainly understood the game a lot better."
For all their differences, the admiration both coaches still have for Knight is revealing.
"I've never really had an awe factor looking down the sidelines because I thought it was really important to just try to be good for my team," Stevens said.
"But you do think about it. When we played Coach Knight (already at Texas Tech by that time), that was really meaningful to me, not because of me coaching against him, but because I grew up watching him. ... That was the biggest deal for me.
"But I have a great deal of respect for a lot of coaches at a lot of different levels. Certainly," Stevens said, with a nod to Krzyzewski, "we're aware we're playing if not the best, one of the best."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.