Butler Basketball’s NCAA Success – Is it the ‘Butler Way’ or ‘Matt Howard’s Way’?

by Kent Sterling

From the first NCAA Tourney in 1939 through 2009, Butler advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice and the Elite Eight exactly zero times.  In Matt Howard’s junior and senior years, they have done both twice, and are 40 minutes from their second straight trip to the Final Four.

This is not to diminish the importance of seniors Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant, but focusing on Howard only makes sense given his production over his career, and in the three tourney wins this year.  You can bet that Zach’s burning need to compete fuels the Bulldogs’ work in practice, and there is no doubting the benefit of Vanzant’s recent offensive production (11 ppg) and defensive excellence as reasons contributing to Butler’s success.

But it’s Howard who is the face of this team.  He’s not Jimmer Fredette, but than again, Jimmer is already back in Provo.  Outplaying better known and regarded players is nothing new for Howard, who outplayed Kevin Love every time the two matched up in summer ball.

People like to talk and write about the quirks that make Matt good copy, but the fact is that he is a hell of a good basketball player with a weird skill set and surprising strength.  He’s two-handed around the bucket, and has a very strong core.  Where a lot of big guys have the cut up arms and chest, Howard’s upper legs and trunk are rock hard and thick.  He roots out defensive players and gets to the block exceptionally well.  He also blocks out exceptionally well.

Howard has always flunked the eye test.  Kids from the Atlanta Celtics and dozens of other teams in summer ball would watch his team go through warm-ups and scoff.  Down 12-2 after the first two minutes, their coaches always called a frantic timeout.

Always underrated, and always productive.  Especially in big games, Howard has always come through.  Even Butler fans look at the future with a smile.  Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, and Andrew Smith return and Howard’s numbers can easily be replaced.  If they start rattling off statistics and measurables, they just don’t get it.

If George Clinton and the P-funk All-Stars bring the funk, Matt Howard brings the clunk.  He is clunky personified, and it’s worth a laugh until you go up against it.  Unlike any big in college basketball, Howard does nothing by the book, and everything productively.  For opponents, Howard is the face of their frustration.  They can’t figure out why they can’t outplay him, but they don’t.

In “Friday Night Lights”, coach Eric Taylor’s chant is “Clear eyes, full hearts – can’t lose!”  No one’s eyes are clearer, and no one’s heart is more full than Howard’s.  He believes in his teammates, and that fuels the supposed upsets that Butler notches one after another.  Teams don’t go 8-1 over the past two NCAA Tourneys without believing they should win those games and Matt is the kool-aid that fuels that belief.

Teammates say he’s weird.  People write that he’s quirky.  Matt believes so completely that it convinces others to believe, and pretty soon that thing they believe in becomes reality.

After last night’s win, coach Brad Stevens said, “I don’t believe this group goes into games not believing,” and he’s right.  Matt Howard believes – always.  Prevailing wisdom does not invade Howard’s mind.  Howard believes completely in what he believes, and the supposed experts and their opinions aren’t granted access to Howard’s doubt center.

Basketball for Howard isn’t about hope; it’s about work.  It’s about figuring out a way to win every possession.  That is becoming a significant part of the Butler Way, but it was Howard’s way long before he got to Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Butler will tee it up Friday, trying to post their ninth NCAA win in 13 months after winning eight total in their history prior to that.  They will be the eighth seed playing the second-seeded Florida Gators, and the Bulldogs will once again be the underdogs in all but the minds of 20 guys, and that belief starts with Matt Howard.

It will be interesting next year to see whether this unprecedented run of success is because of a team playing the Butler Way, or the Matt Howard Way.

Click here to follow Kent on Twitter @kentsterling

9 thoughts on “Butler Basketball’s NCAA Success – Is it the ‘Butler Way’ or ‘Matt Howard’s Way’?

  1. AH

    Every team has “driving force” of some kind. Kemba Walker, Jimmer, etc. and while Matt may be that for Butler, I don’t think that’s what has propelled them so far the last few years in the NCAA tourney. They play some nasty, dirty, dirty (see dirty: good; not dirty: cheating) defense in the post season. You can make up for some pretty mediocre shooting if you have one hand in the face and the other up a guys shirt the whole game.

    Defense is also one of the reasons Purdue has had a good amount of success the last few years too. I hope quick, tenacious players like Sheehey and Oladipo will be providing that kind of D for IU in the near future.

    1. Phil Cooper

      Don’t try to compare these type of ballplayers to Matt Howard because Matt Howard is a team player not a showboat. Matt Howard is Matt Howard and Butler is Butler. Not Purdue plus IU should not be mentioned in the same breathe as either of these teams. You should have saved the word cheating in your post to describe IU’S program.

  2. BulldogPaul

    Kent, I really enjoy the website and the great insights you provide about Butler basketball. I am a huge fan of Matt Howard so this is not a slight towards him. The Butler Way has been around for a long time, was lost for a while and has been going strong again for the last 15 years or so. It’s built on timeless principles. Matt is a great example of a team and a player being right for each other. The Butler experience has made Matt a better person and Matt has made Butler a better place.

    In just the last 10 years I have been blessed to see Butler beat Purdue at Mackey, IU in their holiday tournament, a sweet sixteen berth in 2003, a pre-season NIT championship where they beat IU and Notre Dame, a Great Alaskan Shootout championship, a win against Purdue in the Wooden Tradition and a sweet 16 berth in 2007. All of that took place before Matt arrived on the scene. Butler is not a flash in the pan story.

    Having said that, we are going to miss Matt (and Shawn and Zach) next year in a huge way. Butler basketball won’t seem the same way without Matt. (I remember thinking the same thing after A.J. and the gang graduated.)

    Go Bulldogs

  3. steve thelil

    Great article!

    Last night, between the amazing hustle, great D, fierce rebounding, constant smart movement and long rainbow jumpers, Matt really reminded me of Dave DeBusschere!

  4. Zephyr

    The year before Howard arrived at Butler they were in the Sweet 16.

    Theyve average 24 wins a year for 16 years.

    So, I guess the answer to your question is “Dude, come on.”

    1. kentsterling Post author

      You could be right. Butler may roll on and continue to make runs to the second weekend of the tournament without Matt, Shawn, and Zach. Is it Brad? Is it Matt? Is it the Butler Way? We are going to find out in 50 weeks.

  5. Tina

    Matt Howard is a winner . Larry bird did not have cut arms and a six-pack
    But he was amazing . He out hustles everyone on the court . Makes clutch free throws , and plays defense like a mad man . I have enjoyed every game I have watched him play . Great leader , smart kid that will be successful in any path he chooses . It will be difficult to replace him . He does so many things on the court that can’t be measured by statistics .

  6. Phil Cooper

    The man said they were in the sweet 16 before Matt Howard arrived. How many final fours were they in before Matt Howard arrived? I said How many final fours were they in before Matt Howard arrived? Believe what ever you want too as I am not trying to change your mind.
    The fact is Matt Howard is a winner and makes everyone winners around him. Come on be honest!!Dude come on!! How many final fours were they in before Matt Howard arrived? Huh ? What?


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