OMAHA, Neb. — When Brandon Miller took over for Brad Stevens in July after the Butler boy wonder left for the Boston Celtics, Stevens had one piece of advice for Miller: "You need to be yourself. Don't let anybody tell you who to be."
Butler is now 0-5 in the Big East (10-7 overall) after getting run off the floor at Creighton on Tuesday night—the first five-game losing streak for the program since the 2003-04 season—and the easy thing to do would be to say that, yes, Miller is not Stevens.
But I'm going to say what Miller would never admit: Stevens wouldn't be doing any better.
The cards were stacked against the new coach—and would have been for Stevens too—in Butler's first season in the Big East. During a summer trip to Australia, Butler's best player, Roosevelt Jones, injured his wrist, ending his season before it ever started.
Stevens was an architect at building a roster with just the right mix of talent to shock the world, but imagine Butler during the second run to the title game without Shelvin Mack.
Jones was the creator. He was the one guy who could go out and get other people open looks. For a shooter like Kellen Dunham, he would have been key to his success. Instead, Dunham has to take it upon himself to create his own offense.
Taking Jones away was like taking the biggest piece right out of the middle of a puzzle.
"We're not going to make excuses," Dunham told Bleacher Report on Tuesday night. "We should be winning games. But obviously with Roosevelt, this would be a whole different story. He's the most unique player I've ever played with."
That's why it was shocking to see the results Butler had before Tuesday night. During their nonconference schedule, the Bulldogs had a shot to beat Oklahoma State—Dunham missed a layup and Khyle Marshall missed two free throws with 8.4 seconds left that could have given Butler the lead—and lost two days later in overtime to LSU.
Those were the only two nonconference losses. Butler also had wins against Vanderbilt, Washington State and Purdue. Nothing spectacular, but solid.
The trend of "what could have been" has continued in the Big East. The Bulldogs have lost in overtime three times, including the opener against sixth-ranked Villanova.
|Butler's Close Calls|
|Nov. 29||Oklahoma State||L, 69-67|
|Dec. 1||LSU||L, 70-68 (OT)|
|Dec. 31||Villanova||L, 76-73 (OT)|
|Jan. 9||DePaul||L, 99-94 (2OT)|
|Jan. 11||Georgetown||L, 70-67|
"The reality of it is—and I told our team this as we prepared—Butler is five or six possessions away from having the same record we have and being ranked in the Top 25 of the country," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "That's how close and that's how fragile this game is sometimes."
A few good bounces and Miller is a national coach of the year candidate.
Stevens seemed to always get those bounces. That was part of his brilliance.
It's too early to say what Miller's calling card will be, but he needs time (and Jones) to figure it out. Stylistically, not much has changed.
"We've tried to keep consistent in terms of the foundation of what we do, the structure of what we do, but we've made tweaks," Miller said. "We've made changes, because of the players we have. You don't have Rotnei Clarke. You don't have Andrew Smith. Obviously, Roosevelt is out. Those are the top three scorers from last year. You have to make some changes. If you don't, you're not coaching."
The fact that Butler, as McDermott put it, has been five or six possessions from a shiny record is a testament to Miller doing something right. Because the talent, currently, isn't there to be able to play with an Oklahoma State or Villanova.
The luxury that Miller has is that Butler is a different kind of place where the boss is a former coach (Barry Collier) and the emphasis is on the process as much as the results.
"I'm 100 percent behind him," Collier told Bleacher Report.
Miller was an outside-the-box hire anywhere else. He's a 34-year-old with no prior head-coaching experience who left coaching for a year three years ago. But again, Butler is not anywhere else.
Collier also hired a 30-year-old unproven assistant without any head coaching experience in 2007. That guy took the Bulldogs to back-to-back national championship games.
Miller was a star guard for the Bulldogs in the early 2000s, and his 2002-03 team went to the Sweet 16. The last Butler team to lose five straight was trying to replace him.
Miller was also an assistant under Stevens in 2007-08 before leaving to join Thad Matta at Ohio State, and he was hired again this offseason to be an assistant at Butler.
"Brad Stevens hired him twice; I only hired him once," Collier said. "I think that says something good about him."
Miller played for three different coaches in his Butler career—Collier, Matta and Todd Lickliter—and he's a man that can relate to change.
In the last four years, he's gone from assistant at Ohio State to leaving basketball behind to be a pharmaceutical salesman to returning as a special assistant for John Groce at Illinois to returning to Butler as an assistant to becoming a head coach before he could have ever expected it.
"There were a number of different reasons why I chose to walk away with my family and the way I approach work every single day," Miller said. "And as I stepped back away from the game, it was the first time I'd never been a part of a team. Where I grew up, you start basketball in first grade and you're a part of a team from first grade on. My dad was a coach for 39 years. I grew up in a gym. That's how I knew life."
That sounds like the perfect story for the man who roams the sidelines of the field house where they shot Hoosiers.
Dunham said he grew up going to Butler games and his dad would tell him to watch Miller, the guy diving after loose balls like a mad man.
On the sidelines on Tuesday night, Miller kept his cool and evaluated much like Stevens. He studied with arms crossed, not showing any frustration.
He knows it's going to take time. This was not an ideal time to transition to the Big East, the program's third league in three seasons.
Even Stevens had a down year after he lost three starters off the second national runner-up. The next season, in 2011-12, the Bulldogs lost 15 games and missed the NCAA tournament.
There was promise for sneaking into the tournament after going 10-2 in nonconference play, but that's no longer realistic after five straight losses. It's hard to hide weaknesses against Big East competition the way Stevens could in the Horizon League as he molded his roster for March.
Miller says all the right things, preaching the Butler company line—"The Butler Way"—almost to a bore.
But behind closed doors the Bulldogs are getting used to a different kind of coach.
"They both see big picture," Dunham said. "I think Coach Stevens understood everybody makes mistakes, and Coach Miller is more upfront about it and more in your face, telling you each and every detail that you messed up.
"... He's not going to beat around the bush. He'll tell you like it is. He'll say, 'Hey, you missed a box out there. That's why we lost the game. You missed a defensive assignment. That's why we lost the game.' He's abrupt about it, and that's how it needs to be."
His own man. Not Stevens.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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