USA TODAY US Edition
Butler’s working-class hero
Howard fouling less, laughing, delivering more
NEW ORLEANS — Matt Howard’s father, a mail carrier in Connersville, Ind., lately is having trouble completing his route.
“ Everybody has been stopping me to ask, ‘Did you see that game?’ ” Stan Howard said by phone Tuesday night.
He and fellow Connersville residents rehash the exploits of the
Butler men’s basketball team, but especially those of his son, whose late-game heroics lifted the Bulldogs past Old Dominion in the NCAA tournament’s second round and top-seeded Pittsburgh in the third.
Butler, an Indianapolis university with a little more than 4,000 students, is in the Sweet 16 a year after reaching the national final as a sentimental favorite and losing to Duke by two. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs will play No. 4 seed Wisconsin today in a Southeast Regional semifinal.
They have advanced behind Howard, a 6-8 senior averaging 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds. In a wild finish against Pitt, he grabbed a rebound off a missed free throw by the Panthers, drew a foul and sank a winning free throw in a 7170 victory.
Against ninth-seeded Old Dominion, Howard scored the winning layup at the buzzer in a 6058 victory.
Years ago, “You’d hear him playing in the driveway, and he’s saying, ‘There’s Howard for the win.’ Then it happens,” his father said.
On one hand, Howard is an unlikely hero. Last season, Gordon Hayward took the tough last-second shots, but he’s in the NBA now, playing for the Utah Jazz. Shelvin Mack seemed a more likely candidate for that role after working out with the college select team that played against NBA players on the national team. Mack is averaging 15.6 points, second to Howard.
In last season’s NCAA tournament, Howard could be maddening to watch (friends and strangers told him so) because he often was on the bench saddled with foul trouble.
“Sometimes I wonder if my mind does not think fast enough to say, ‘There’s the ball, but it’s not a good situation to go for it,’ ” he said early this season. “Can I sacrifice two points to not have a dumb foul?”
He also poked fun at himself with deadpan humor.
“I’m not sure how well those size 18s move sometimes,” he said, pointing at his feet. “They don’t move that well. I don’t know if it’s howbig the shoes are or if I’m slow.
“If you’d watch me play, you’d wonder howsmart I am.”
Howard, a two-time academic All-American majoring in finance, was named academic AllAmerican of the year this season by the College Sports Information Directors of America (athletes must have at least a 3.3 gradepoint average and be starters or key reserves to qualify for nomination). His favorite TV show is CNBC’s documentary series
American Greed. “I can’t get anyone to watch that with me,” he said
On the court, he has cut back on fouling. “He became more mobile and better laterally,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday. “He worked on his offensive moves so a lot of his shots aren’t around the basket and there isn’t as much contact.”
Howard no longer has to constantly guard teams’ tallest players because Andrew Smith is doing that. “Andrew has been critical, there’s no question,” Howard said. “He’s been the difference this year, and it has helped me a lot.”
Smith, a 6-11 sophomore, is one of the most improved players for Butler, averaging 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds while playing nearly 24 minutes a game, up from about five last season.
“I like to guard a team’s better forward, but (the coaches) will move me away to limit my chances of fouling,” Howard said. “Maybe I’m just pulling back where there’s a chance I could make a (defensive) play, but it’s very risky and it’s probably going to be a foul. That’s something I wouldn’t have done in the past.”
Always finding the ball
Now that he’s playing longer stretches, his confidence is up for those game-winning shots.
He downplayed the gamewinning plays against Old Dominion and Pitt.
“Honestly, if you go back and look at it, there is a little bit to making a smart play, but it’s almost that I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “Sure, you have to make the layup or you have to make the free throw, but those are the two easiest shots in the game.”
Stevens gives Howard more credit.
“There is some luck involved,” the coach said. “The ball finds you sometimes, but there is some irony in that his motor allows him to always find the ball. Against Old Dominion, he was at the top of the key and the ball went up and he went to the glass. He doesn’t have to do that. A lot of guys are tired and stand at the top of the key and watch.”
Howard is a threat from almost anywhere on the floor. He is shooting 49.2% on field goals and 43.2% on three-pointers, though sometimes he needs prodding from his teammates to shoot.
“He’s obviously a skilled big man that can stretch the floor and shoot it, but he’s also effective in the post,” Wisconsin senior forward Jon Leuer said. “He’s physical, and he moves his feet well. He does everything right, everything that you want a big (man) to do.”
Added Wisconsin senior forward Keaton Nankivil: “Versatility and tenacity are probably the two things I see in him. He does a lot for them.”
Coaches have talked about Howard’s drive since high school because he’s always on the move. “He’s always been trying to make the extra play,” said Rodney Klein, who coached Howard at Connersville.
His father jokes that Howard learned to block out while fighting for the bathroom against his four brothers and five sisters. Their ages range from 35 to 16, and Howard, 22, is eighth among the 10. For years, they lived in a small homewith one bathroom.
“He’s known nothing but teamwork all his life,” his father said. “When there’s a dozen in the house, you don’t always get your way and you’re not always the one standing out.”
Almost all of the children started working at a young age. Howard was 9 when he started delivering the local daily newspaper. By 16 he saved enough to buy a car, a used Nissan Maxima. He had money left over and opened a certificate of deposit. He paid for his own car insurance; all the children had to because their parents couldn’t afford it.
“It doesn’t mean you’re making a lot,” his father said of the paper route. “He saved virtually everything he made in seven years. He’s close with his cash.”
Good guy, good teammate
Howard also is eager to please, according to his father. Howard, whowas home-schooled for seventh and eighth grades, was good enough to play on a Christian high school team as an eighthgrader. It didn’t count against his eligibility because some Christian schools aren’t sanctioned under Indiana regulations.
He played in junior varsity and varsity games. As the best player for the JV, he could have scored at will. “But Matt would kick it out,” his father said. “Sometimes he would rebound four or five times for a little guy to make the shot. He’s always trying to think of other people.”
It’s no surprise then that last spring, after the runner-up finish, Howard gave an autograph to a fan who put him in an awkward spot. The team was at a charity function put together by thensenior Avery Jukes. A woman brought a magazine and asked Howard to sign a picture in it. He was taken aback by the photo, which had been taken immediately after the title game.
There he was sprawled at halfcourt with his hands burying his face amid the Duke celebration.
“It’s like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Howard said. “ ‘You want me to sign this?’ Would you do that to somebody? Open up the magazine to something that is not a good memory?”
He found some humor in it. “It was hilarious that a fan brought a picture of us in dismay. There are so many pictures, I would imagine, of us being excited.”
Nevertheless, he smiled and signed it.