HOUSTON—At 9:21 tonight, the NCAA championship game between the Butler Bulldogs and UConn Huskies about to begin inside Reliant Stadium, the Bulldogs will find themselves in the familiar role of under … drum roll, please … dog.
According to early Las Vegas projections regarding this dog-eat-dog showdown, the Huskies will finish best in show by 3.5 points in winning their third national championship in 12 years.
But before the trophy’s handed to UConn coach Jim Calhoun, someone might want to revisit an interview with Butler coach Brad Stevens from earlier in the tournament.
Said Stevens to the Washington Post on the eve of the team’s Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin, “You know, [point guard] Ronald Nored came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I’ve played in 10 NCAA games and nobody has ever picked us to win.”
Never mind that it had actually been nine games to that point. Nored was 7-2 in those contests at that time. He is now 10-2, which means all these experts keep picking the Bulldogs to lose at their own peril.
Especially when it comes to holding down Butler senior forward Matt Howard.
Junior guard Shelvin Mack will justifiably draw the most attention from the Huskies after scoring 24 points in Saturday’s semifinal win over VCU.
A 6-3, 215-pound junior who can score, pass or drive with equal efficiency, Mack has the tournament numbers (22 ppg) to wind up the event’s MVP.
But he’s not the guy who makes the Bulldogs’ bite far deadlier than their bark. Howard is the team’s Cujo, a relentless competitor who’s twice scored the winning points in this tournament, who’s averaging 16.5 ppg and more than seven rebounds, all the while mixing it up inside against taller, more athletic players.
“I can’t say enough about Matt,” said Stevens. “He’s unbelievable. He only wins. His mind and his motor are different. He is an outstanding player and it’s going to translate to any level, I really believe that.”
To prove his point, Stevens spoke of Butler’s three-game sweep through the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii that concluded on Christmas Day.
“There was a [newspaper] piece that talked about the top 10 pro prospects in the [tournament],” recalled Stevens. “Matt Howard wasn’t on it, but he was the MVP of tournament.”
Here’s Howard’s MVP play from Saturday’s win over VCU: With 1:01 to play, the Bulldogs up four, Butler guard Shawn Vanzant misses a 3-pointer. Only Howard gets the rebound, then the putback. Then he corrals a defensive board nine seconds later, is fouled and makes both free throws.
In a span of 10 seconds, Butler goes from a nervous four-point lead to a comfortable eight-point cushion.
“Matt Howard’s a great player,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun on Sunday. “I’d have Mack put on a [UConn] uniform if he wants. Howard can put on that uniform, too.”
The folks in Connersville, Ind., will tell you Howard’s a better person than a player. An economically depressed community of 13,000, more than 1,400 of its residents drove 70 miles west to Indianapolis — where Butler’s located — to honor the eighth of Linda and Stan Howard’s 10 children on his senior day.
“Matt brings a hope for Connorsville that shows if you work hard and do things the right way you’ll be rewarded for it,” said Rodney Klein — Howard’s high school coach — in a New York Times piece last week.
Of course, that could also be because Howard is an Academic All-American who carries a 3.77 GPA in finance.
“I’ve been here four years and nothing’s really changed,” said Howard. “I think that’s really important, whether you don’t make the tournament, you lose in the first round, or you’re fortunate enough to make it to [the title game]. It’s all about staying solid and staying within what you do.”
Tonight it may well be all about how well Howard can continue to do what he’s done throughout this tournament, which is to give Butler a chance to become the first No. 8 seed since Villanova in 1985 to win it all for underdogs everywhere.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...