Butler shows the heart of a Bulldog

They rarely, if ever, pass the “look test.” Maybe against one of those small Horizon League teams, but that’s about it.

“Last year I didn’t do us any favors by having that mustache,” Butler senior Matt Howard joked. “Some teams would look at me and think that there’s no way that kid can play.”

The cheesy mustache is gone, but the lack of intimidation is not.

“Sometimes even I look at them and laugh,” Butler junior guard Shelvin Mack admitted of his frontcourt teammates. “I look at Matt all the time and laugh.”

Old Dominion came into the matchup against Butler on Thursday afternoon with grown men. Big, strong, athletic men. There was Frank “The Tank” Hassell and fellow 6-foot-9’er Chris Cooper. Even guards like Kent Bazemore were imposing when the teams gathered on the court prior to tip-off.

The Monarchs led the nation in rebounding margin, and it’s easy to see why. These guys were going to give Pittsburgh a run for their money in the next round, being able to match up with the Big East brawn due to their stature.

Old Dominion was taking it to Butler’s big men early, imposing their size and strength on the Bulldogs. It looked bleak for last season’s Cinderella, the ultimate mismatch. But sometimes we don’t give Howard enough credit.

All we do is talk about his lack of intelligence while picking up ill-advised fouls that land him on the bench, but this kid may have as much heart as anyone in college basketball.

“There’s no one I’d rather have on my team in the country,” Butler point guard Ronald Nored said a few minutes after watching Howard’s putback give the Bulldogs the 60-58 victory over Old Dominion. “He’s the toughest, most unselfish, most deserving player I’ve ever been around in my life.”

That wasn’t just a line, either. Howard is the ultimate teammate. He’s the poor man’s Tyler Hansbrough.

Shortly after he was, in his words, “in the right spot at the right time,” he immediately ran over to his frontcourt mate, sophomore Andrew Smith, and delivered a high-five.

“Without Andrew, we don’t win that game,” Howard said.

“That’s Matt,” Smith said. “He never wants any of the credit.”

Smith was the one who tipped the ball off the Shawn Vanzant miss and Howard had a clean path to toss in the game-winner.

It was only fitting that Howard, a blue-collar type of player who has been allowed to expand his perimeter game this season due to the presence of Smith in the paint, won it with a rebound.

And just like that, last year’s darlings move on to face top-seeded Pittsburgh on Saturday.

“This game mirrored last year’s first-round game,” Nored said. “We were down in the first half, but then came back in the second half.”

This isn’t the same Butler team as the one that came within a bucket of knocking off Duke in last year’s national title game. There’s no Gordon Hayward, no Willie Veasley. But as long as Howard’s around, these guys have a shot.

His relentlessness has rubbed off on his teammates. Now Smith rarely, if ever, takes a possession off.

“You can’t,” Smith said. “Not with Matt around.”

Even reserve Garrett Butcher, who is coming off a pair of knee surgeries and rarely practices, never stops.

“Those guys have heart,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the victory.

And toughness.

Mack was making shots early, but cooled off and finished just 5-of-14 from the field for 15 points. But it didn’t matter because Butler’s unathletic-looking big men were dominating ODU on the glass.

Butler 32, Old Dominion 29. That was the final rebound tally. No one would have predicted that.

“That was the difference in the game,” Howard said.

“People forget we’re a pretty good rebounding team, too,” Mack said.

It was clear that the Bulldogs, which endured their share of pressure last season en route to their run to the national title game, wouldn’t be rattled. And while Stevens’ even-keeled mentality rubs off on his players, that’s not what made the difference and got Butler yet another win when it counts most.

“Those guys may not look like players,” Mack said. “But one thing you can’t measure is their heart.”

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