— HOUSTON - In case anyone has forgotten, Matt Howard finished the 2010 national championship game flat on his back at midcourt. Duke players, delirious from their victory over Butler, surrounded the forward. Multi-colored confetti streamed down from the ceiling to blanket the court.
Duke’s Brian Zoubek had just missed the second of two free throws with 3.6 seconds left. Butler’s Gordon Hayward grabbed the rebound, got to midcourt thanks in large part to a screen set by Howard, and heaved a shot that almost was the greatest in NCAA tournament history. Instead, more than 70,000 fans in Indianapolis released a unified groan as the ball bounced off the rim.
Howard had turned to watch. His knees buckled and he dropped into a crouch. Just as quickly, his legs came out from under him entirely. Howard was spread eagle, hands over his head, near the center circle — alone in defeat.
“Seeing that shot be as close as it was, I think it made it a little bit harder and a little more disheartening,” Howard said. “It sort of took the wind out of me. I think that’s why I ended up where I was. I had the element of surprise on my hands.
“I was all right. I think it was more of an emotional taking of the wind out of me. I don’t remember any reason why I would collapse. But I sort of did.”
Howard said Sunday he doesn’t watch the video and he doesn’t plan to view it in the hours leading up to Monday night’s national championship game against Connecticut.
That’s right, little old Butler is back. The small private school from Indianapolis, the fan-favorite that nearly turned “Hoosiers” into a college basketball reality show, has reached consecutive championship games. Florida did that in 2006 and 2007 and took away two trophies.
But if Butler (28-9) manages to knock off the bullies from the Big East (at least that’s the way the Huskies are being cast in this film) the Bulldogs would join 1990 UNLV on the short list of outsiders to break through the NCAA mainstream since the tournament expanded in 1985.
None of that seemed to be on the minds of Howard or his teammates Sunday. And Howard, a 6-8 senior, said he would not use the disappointment of losing to Duke last season as motivation for Butler’s unexpected and immediate second chance.
This is a new team, with a new task.
“I think just getting prepared [for the championship game], that’s where the experience of being here last year does help,” Howard said. “But I think the idea of talent vs. experience is debatable. The result will decide whether or not experience helped.”
Howard is Butler’s leading scorer (16.7 average) and rebounder (7.8). He joins guards Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant as the core group back from last year’s 33-5 team.
But Howard has become a cult hero and the symbol of small town Indiana basketball, coming from tiny Connersville. His fans love him for his work ethic, his physical play, and his humble demeanor. There are many ways to define the so-called Butler Way, but if you are looking for a face of the program, Howard might be there right behind Stevens.
That might generate a laugh or two since Howard is often told he resembles Saturday Night Live comic Andy Samberg.
Maybe it’s the long, shaggy hair.
“If I cut my hair and styled it, I wouldn’t look a whole lot better,” Howard joked. “At least that’s the way I look at it. I don’t really care what I look like or what my socks look like.”
Oh, those socks. He likes to wear the same pair, over and over, until there are holes. Big holes. His teammates joke he has had his current pair since eighth grade. They are stretched out and tend to fall down. His teammates call them “turtleneck socks.” Howard simply responds he is low-maintenance and he says that he “overuses things.”
His teammates joke about every geeky thing he does, but they can tolerate his quirky traits. That’s because Howard is a winner, a leader, and the guy who always comes up big for the Bulldogs.
“He only wins,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “And his mind and his motor are different. “I mean, he is different. He is an outstanding player. And it’s going to translate to any level.”
Howard, Vanzant and classmate Zach Hahn only need to beat UConn to join two seniors from last year — Willie Veasley and Nick Rodgers — as the winningest players in Butler history. They are at 117 victories and the 2010 seniors had 118.
At times Saturday night, Howard looked shaky in Butler’s 70-62 semifinal victory over VCU. He finished with 17 points and eight rebounds but was 3-for-10 from the field and had four fouls. Even so, his rebound basket in the final minute of play had the feel of a winning shot. Then he sealed things with four free throws that helped increase a four-point lead to 10.
Howard has a way of being in the right place for his team. He scored the game-winning layup against Old Dominion to start this NCAA run. Then he scored 16 points, including the game-winning free throw vs. Pittsburgh. He was less dramatic against Wisconsin, but scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds.
“He just has a non-stop will to succeed for his team and that is it,” Stevens said. “There is nothing else that matters to him.”
Connersville will be watching Howard Monday night — at least those inhabitants among the almost 14,000 who haven’t migrated to Houston already. Howard’s parents have become famous. He is the eighth of 10 children, the youngest of five sons. His father, Stan, has been a mail carrier since the 1970s.
Those humble beginnings have carried Howard a long way. He says there are more stoplights in Connersville than you might imagine. Asked about the hottest thing to do for fun, Howard said Connersville is all about being with good friends and hanging out with them. It’s not unusual for 5,000 people to show up for a high school basketball game.
“It’s just Indiana basketball,” he said.
For that matter, so is Butler. The Bulldogs can irritate opponents with their physical play and hard-nose approach. VCU forward Jamie Skeen called Howard “a flopper” after Saturday’s semifinal game. Skeen also said he could not root for the team that had just beaten his Rams.
That won’t bother Howard. He knows he will have enough support from his coach, his teammates, everyone in Indiana — and especially Connersville, where all other activity is likely to shut down and stop when Butler plays UConn.
“The support has been unbelievable,” Howard said. “When I played my last game at Hinkle [Fieldhouse [at Butler] there were 1,400 that I knew of — maybe more. From a town of 12,000 that’s pretty incredible.
“That meant so much to me. It’s a special relationship I’ve been able to build with them.”
One final victory, especially one to erase last year’s crushing defeat to Duke, would make it all that more special. And that’s the only thing Howard and Butler are focused on now.