Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey has been raking in the hardware lately. The Associated Press named him its men's coach of the year. So did Basketball Times and the United States Basketball Writers Assocation.
Brey is deserving of those awards. He did a fine job with the Irish this season. They won 27 games, challenged for the Big East regular-season championship, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet Sixteen, all notable accomplishments.
But someone else has proven himself to be the best basketball coach in the country. How can you not give that tag to Butler's Brad Stevens? Two straight years in the national championship game? Butler?
It defies comprehension. Because he's not doing it with McDonald's All-Americans coming out of high school. As the old joke goes, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski sign McDonald's All-Americans. Stevens' guys eat at McDonald's.
Let's be fair. The Bulldogs aren't just a bunch of guys that Stevens rounded up one noon at the YMCA. The star of last season's team, sophomore Gordon Hayward, was good enough to go in the first round of the NBA draft and is now with the Utah Jazz. Matt Howard, this season's leader, was regarded as a top 100 high school player by some recruiting services. Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Zach Hahn were all-state players in high school.
Still, these weren't players who had coaches across the country drooling over them. They're just solid players who know the game, understand their limitations and can figure out how to capitalize on their strengths. And for the second straight year, they're playing on the final night of the season while the bluebloods of the game can only watch.
Stevens looks like your high school valedictorian. If you were a bartender and he walked in and ordered a drink, you'd card him. But Stevens knows which buttons to push and when. He's got it figured out and he coaches players who know how to win. Heck, they easily could have gotten knocked out in the first round by Old Dominion. But there was Howard, in exactly the right place for a putback just ahead of the buzzer.
Virginia Commonwealth was loaded with athletes, yet Butler outrebounded them by 16 in Saturday night's national semifinal and held the Rams to ... let's see ... oh, zero fastbreak points. Pittsburgh shot 62 percent against Butler in the second half, yet the Bulldogs still won. They held Wisconsin, one of the most efficient teams around, to 30 percent shooting. When Butler and Florida were tied at the end of regulation, it was time for us to leave to join some friends for dinner, so I turned the TV off. When Pam queried, "Don't you want to see the end of the game?" I told her, "I don't like Butler's chances in overtime." Shows what I know: Butler 74, Florida 71.
Connecticut is favored by 3 1/2 points in Monday night's championship game, which makes sense. UConn's Kemba Walker will be the best player on the floor. The Huskies' coach, Jim Calhoun, is more than twice Stevens' age and already has won two national titles. And they've been an amazing story themselves, winning five games in five days in the Big East tournament, then adding five more victories in the NCAAs.
But win or lose, Stevens still gets my vote. What he's done the last two years is nothing short of remarkable. You sure wouldn't want to count he and his team out Monday night.