Even after Hayward's early exit, Butler's in good shape with Mack
Mack grew up in Lexington rooting for Kentucky, but the 'Cats let him get away
Butler needs to overcome the departures of Hayward and senior Willie Veasley
With Mack and Matt Howard, Butler should be a Top 25 team again next season
A priority for any program is to recruit strongly within its own state. And despite its national reach, Kentucky is no different. Accordingly, three of the five members of the 2008 all-state first team eventually joined the Wildcats, even with the transition from Tubby Smith to Billy Gillispie.
That season's Mr. Basketball, Scotty Hopson, escaped to SEC East rival Tennessee and has been solid for the Vols, but it's the other miss, on a kid who grew up in Lexington rooting for the 'Cats but never was recruited by Smith, that may be the more costly one.
Indeed, if you're looking for next season's Gordon Hayward, the mid-major player who could burst onto the national scene with his own play underscoring dramatic team success, you may not have to look farther than Butler's current roster and the one that got away from UK: Shelvin Mack.
Mack became a known commodity in the basketball world last summer when the United States U-19 team won gold at the World Championships, America's first title in that age group since 1991. Not only did Mack surprise many by making the final roster, he ultimately was named a team captain. The general public became aware of Mack when his quiet competence fueled the Bulldogs during their epic run to the NCAA final, where they lost to Duke in a riveting title game.
Now, without Hayward, who left school two years early for the NBA and could be a lottery pick next month, the job as team headliner is open. And even if a program like Butler doesn't like to anoint any one person to that title, coach Brad Stevens thinks Mack will be comfortable in a leading role.
"I think, especially in league play [this past season], they really keyed on him already, so he's lived that a little bit," Stevens said. "I think he does have the experience to handle that."
In just two seasons, Mack's already played in 70 games and logged over 2,100 minutes, with career averages of around 13 points, four assists and more than three rebounds a game. All the while, Mack has defended like a demon in a team concept and helped Butler's offense keep things at its favored turtle-like tempo.
This is not to say that Kentucky should lament having had John Wall leading its backcourt this past season, but it's hard to imagine Mack, a hard-nosed combo guard, wouldn't have gotten some significant playing time for the Wildcats. They desperately needed some perimeter shooting to complement Wall's fast break prowess and the post potency of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, and Mack knocked down 39 percent of his threes last year.
And maybe, some of those minutes would have come at the expense of close friend Darius Miller, who also was on that 2008 all-state team. Miller's presence on the 'Cats is an added reason why Mack admitted that he would have liked to have seen Kentucky also make it to Indianapolis for last season's Final Four, even though Mack was overlooked by Smith early in his recruiting process and was locked up with Butler by the time Gillispie (and Louisville's Rick Pitino) came with late scholarship offers.
The 'Cats' Elite Eight loss to West Virginia, though, has provided Mack with the platform for some playful -- and thoroughly unexpected -- barbs.
"I joke with [Miller] a lot, telling him that two years in a row I finished ahead of him," Mack said. "He gets jealous of that."
Can Butler make it three in a row in that category? A lot will depend on the defensive end, where Butler made its mark last season. The Bulldogs need to overcome the departures of Hayward and senior Willie Veasley, the team's two most multifaceted defenders. It will take time to adjust to new roles, which may explain why Mack becomes particularly uncomfortable when asked about whether the Bulldogs, despite the presence of senior forward Matt Howard, a former Horizon League Player of the Year, will be "his" team.
"I wouldn't say that," he said. "I'll [just] be more of a focal point for opposing coaches to deal with." Then, catching himself saying something with the slightest tinge of bravado, he quickly added, "Well, not deal with. To focus on."
Mack's humbleness aside, it's fairly certain the Horizon League -- and the nation -- will have to deal with him this season. And as Butler tries to repeat the glory of its 2009-10 campaign, UK fans will have to continue to deal with the rise of a native son who is leading a mid-major to Kentucky-esque heights.