Hayward, Butler hitting on all cylinders
INDIANAPOLIS -- Gordon Hayward Sr. braced his son for a life of basketball hardship.
He told Gordon Jr. that he was destined to be short -- Dad is 5-foot-10, and so is Gordon's mom. Because of this presumed inevitability, Gordon Sr. continually pushed his son to develop a guard's skill set -- handle the ball well with both hands, hone the perimeter shooting stroke, be a deft passer.Then Gordon Jr. grew 8 inches in high school, to 6-8, and has added another inch in college. His twin sister, Heather, left behind at 5-9, and everyone else in the family gazes up at him in genetic wonder. "You look at family pictures and go, 'Who's that?'" Hayward Jr. said with a smile. Who's that? The most versatile player in college basketball not named Evan Turner, that's who. The guy who learned how to play like a guard but now has the size of a power forward. Hayward is a five-position player on a five-alarm-hot Butler team that slapped Siena 70-53 in the BracketBuster marquee game Saturday. It was the Bulldogs' 17th straight victory, and it officially burst Siena's NCAA tournament bubble unless the Saints win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Along the way, a sophomore who ranks in the Horizon League top 10 in eight different statistical categories performed virtually every basketball task. He started the game at forward but migrated to every other position, from point guard to center. He scored 15 points, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds (his fourth straight double-double), dished out four assists, blocked two shots, made a pair of 3-point shots, handled the ball for most of the game against Siena's three-quarter-court press and held down the paint while center Matt Howard sat half the game with foul trouble. "You can't put a price on that guy," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. Actually, a few NBA scouts were in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday to attempt exactly that, trying to gauge Hayward's game as it relates to the pros. His invaluable versatility goes beyond what is normally found at the Horizon level of the game. That's why he's started all 61 collegiate games he's played, and why he is a major reason the Bulldogs have risen above the mid-major mob and into the top 20 in both polls.
It's also a major reason why a perennially successful program was expected by many to take it up another level and have the best season in school history. At least one media knucklehead (yeah, it was me) picked the Dogs to go to the Final Four right here in their hometown.The expectations were further inflamed on campus by an excited student body. Try as the Bulldogs might to block out the hype, it was impossible. "It's just something outside that kind of creeps in naturally," Hayward said. Playing an ambitious schedule, Butler buckled under the weight of those expectations early in the season. The Bulldogs lost four of their first 12 games and needed a controversial clock decision to beat Xavier in Hinkle. Hayward played well against the best opponents, averaging 22 points and 10.5 rebounds against the four probable NCAA tournament teams Butler faced (Clemson, Georgetown, Ohio State and Xavier). But it didn't translate to the anticipated team success. After a no-doubt loss to UAB on Dec. 22, Butler had nine long days to take stock. "We went into the season with a lot of expectations, and to kind of fall behind a little bit was hard for us," Hayward said. Between practices and a couple of players-only meetings, the Bulldogs rediscovered themselves. On Saturday, it was time for the rest of us to rediscover the Butler we thought we'd see all season. Bludgeoning the Horizon League for weeks was nice, but unconvincing. It was time to see this team take on someone its own size. Siena came in comparably hot, having won 16 of its previous 17 games, and presented a stylistic challenge. The Saints like to play many RPMs faster than the Bulldogs, and had the pressure defense to force the issue. After a fast Butler start, Siena's defense did exactly that, forcing the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone offensively. But Hayward helped calm the seas by becoming Butler's primary ball handler against the press. "He relieves pressure very well," Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. "It's a great weapon to have." The Brownsburg, Ind., product's ambidexterity as a ball handler is particularly noteworthy. Given the fundamentally bankrupt state of the college game, where an alarmingly high number of players cannot complete a drive and contested shot with their weak hand, it's nice to see. What also was nice for Butler fans to see was the Bulldogs' overcoming the absence of senior starter Willie Veasley, who missed the game with a sprained knee, and the 21-minute absence of center Howard because of foul trouble. Even with the personnel deficit, Butler was able to cruise to a 17-point victory fueled by Shelvin Mack's 23 points, Ronald Nored's six assists -- and a little bit of everything from Hayward.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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