Howard returns to spotlight for Butler as a changed player
Two years after winning conference player of the year, Matt Howard is a star again
He was the leading man in both of Butler's drama-filled NCAA tournament wins
Howard is more of a perimeter player without Willie Veasley and Gordon Hayward
Ask anyone on Butler about Matt Howard and you'll walk away thinking there was one small flaw with the way he corralled a crucial free-throw miss, drew attention to Nasir Robinson's reach-in and calmly sank the subsequent foul shot to beat No. 1 seed Pitt.
Howard did it all himself, creating a rare instance where the humble senior couldn't immediately credit someone else.
Unlike last Thursday, when frontcourt partner Andrew Smith helped create the mayhem that led to Howard's uncontested putback at the buzzer that took out Old Dominion, Saturday's three-part play was a solo act. It also cast a fitting spotlight on Howard, who two years after being the best player on a No. 9 seed Butler squad, has re-emerged as the program's unwitting star.
"Matt's been consistent his whole career. He's been a guy of few words, but he shows it a lot with his leadership through his actions," sophomore guard Chase Stigall said after Saturday's pulsating 71-70 win over the Panthers. "A lot of people think this was a great thing Matt did tonight, but he does it every day. He does it in practice, he does it in games."
That kind of constant, quiet leadership can get overlooked when what the public sees is a changing of the guard. Few recall that Howard was the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2009, leading a 26-5 Butler team into the NCAAs as the top scorer and rebounder. The more lasting image is last season's Howard, relegated to a distant third offensive option by the star turns of then-sophomores Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack as the Bulldogs fell inches short of a national title. Howard was memorable more for his general awkwardness, a reckless propensity for fouling and the concussion that left him a game-time decision for the title game against Duke.
Perhaps there was symbolism, though, in the teeth-jarring pick Howard set on Duke's Kyle Singler that freed up Hayward for his now-famous half-court heave that just missed. It was a "don't forget about me" moment that underscored the dirty work Howard did all year that helped Hayward become a star. With his path cleared, Hayward kept going, all the way to becoming a first-round NBA draft pick. Suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly, the Butler frontcourt was Howard's once again.
"When you've got a guy like Gordon Hayward, you know a lot of things are going to be different and we ran a lot of things through him, as we should," Howard said. "This year's been a little bit different, as well. I reverted back to needing to be a little more aggressive in the offense, the same way it's been in the last two games in this tournament."
Howard's return to prominence has been helped by the emergence of sophomore big man Andrew Smith, who's now playing the complementary role that Howard found himself in last season. With Smith's size allowing him to bang successfully in the post, Howard has spent much more of this season on the perimeter at both ends of the floor.
After taking just 20 three-pointers combined in his first three seasons, Howard launched 111 this year, making an impressive 43 percent. He's provided a crucial dose of outside shooting in a season where Mack has been very inconsistent with his stroke and three-point specialists Zach Hahn and Stigall haven't made enough between the two of them.
Perhaps more crucially to what we're seeing now, with the Bulldogs preparing for another Sweet 16 appearance, this time against Wisconsin on Thursday night in New Orleans, is what Howard (and Smith) have done on the defensive end. The departures of Hayward and Willie Veasley (to graduation) cost the Bulldogs their two most versatile defenders, capable of guarding multiple positions and diffusing high screen action with their ability to defend guards off the dribble. It was a huge adjustment for Howard and Smith to figure out how to aggressively hedge high screens and then recover to the post. As such, Butler's defensive falloff was the primary reason for its struggles for much of the season.
"Willie, as a fourth-year guy in our system, he could cover for people who didn't even know he was covering for them, so losing Gordon and Willie really took an adjustment," said associate head coach Matthew Graves, himself a Bulldogs star from the late 1990s. "Matt had to get used to guarding on the perimeter and we started switching ball screens with Matt, so he got used to guarding other teams' guards. It just took about two or three months for that to develop and it started clicking about mid-January."
It took a few games longer, and a lineup change at Cleveland State on Feb. 5, for things to really start jelling, but the Bulldogs haven't lost since, holding eight of the 11 opponents in that run to under a point per possession. In the five games before that, four of which were losses, Butler had been lit up to the tune of 1.10 points per possession. The difference has been worth about seven points a game. It's worth noting that Butler won its two NCAA games last weekend by a total of three points.
Off the court, Howard hardly looks the part of a basketball star. His gait is slow, his demeanor is aww shucks, and his body doesn't exactly hint at the impact presence he is. On the floor, in the heat of battle, though? There's no question about the effort you're getting for 40 minutes, especially when the lights are the brightest, and little debate as to whether Howard, again leading the team in scoring (16.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.7 rpg), is this team's best player.
"Matt's relentless. When he wants to, he's basically unstoppable," Smith said. "These moments? He loves these moments. If we're in a situation where there's not a lot of time and we need a big shot, the ball's going in Matt Howard's hands. The other team knows that, the whole nation knows that, but the ball's still going in Matt Howard's hands."