Howard, Mack lead Butler to another Final Four

Matt Howard followed his heart. Shelvin Mack took the best offer

he had.

So many people thought these two guys could have done better

than playing basketball at Butler.

Better than three league championships, three straight NCAA

tournament appearances and the first Indiana team to make

consecutive Final Fours?

”Has Matt Howard maximized his four years here?” coach Brad

Stevens said. ”I don’t think there’s anyone that can doubt

that.”

Howard and his sidekick have done things most never thought

possible at this small Indianapolis school.

A year ago, it was the three-headed monster of Howard, Mack and

Gordon Hayward that nearly gave Butler its first national title.

When Hayward left early for the NBA, most thought Butler’s

heartwarming, underdog story would just fade away.

Instead, the Matt & Mack Show has emerged as the hottest

late-game act in the NCAA tournament.

Howard, the senior forward, hit the buzzer-beating shot to knock

off Old Dominion in Butler’s first game, and the free throws to

close out the crazy finish against top-seeded Pittsburgh in its

second. Mack, the junior shooting guard, has averaged 21.3 points,

hit every big shot Howard hasn’t and raised his stock among NBA

scouts.

Not a bad apprenticeship for a kid who turned down a late

scholarship offer from Kentucky.

By the time the Wildcats finally woke up to the guy making waves

in their own backyard, it was too late.

”I didn’t think it was the best offer for me,” said Mack, who

admits he’d like a shot to play his hometown team for the national

title next week.

Or for the one who heard the minions deriding his choice from

the outset.

”When I first committed here, there were a lot of people who

were not exactly happy that I didn’t go to Indiana or Purdue,”

Howard said. ”But it’s not always about the name.”

The Bulldogs (27-9) have proven that repeatedly over the last

two seasons.

But the Bulldogs knew what they had in these two right from the

start.

Howard became an immediate starter as a freshman, a rarity at

Butler, and won the league’s top newcomer award in 2008. The next

year, he was conference player of the year and is closing out his

career with two Final Four trips.

In 2009, three more freshmen – Mack, Hayward and Ronald Nored –

joined Howard in the starting lineup and all the Bulldogs did was

win the Horizon League’s regular-season title and earn an NCAA

tournament bid.

Experience only upped the ante, and Howard and Mack have

responded by taking the Butler program to unprecedented

heights.

The Bulldogs are now one of three teams to defeat a top-seeded

team in consecutive years before reaching the Final Four. If they

beat Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, Butler will become the

seventh team in tourney history to lose a title game one year and

return the next. The others: Ohio State, North Carolina, Houston,

Michigan, Duke and Kentucky.

But as much as everyone wants to label this a two-man show,

Howard and Mack are content playing their roles.

”I just look at myself as a leader, and my teammates do, too –

just being a dude they can count on at crunch time during a game,”

Mack said.

Nobody, other than Howard, has done that better than Mack.

Mack set a school tournament record with 30 points in the upset

of Pitt, barely escaping be the goat after fouling Pitt’s Gilbert

Brown with 1.4 seconds to go. Howard bailed him out by drawing a

foul and making the winning free throw.

Then Mack almost single-handedly carried the Bulldogs past

Florida, scoring 27 points and making the 3-pointer that gave

Butler the lead for good with 1:21 left in overtime.

What the nation sees in this tandem is a pure shooter and a

pesky scrapper.

”Matt Howard comes to play every day. You never have to ask if

Matt is going to show up today, and he doesn’t care about the

credit,” Nored said. ”Shelvin’s the same way. We’ve rode them to

this point. Without them, this would be a different team.”

What the nation hasn’t seen is how these two made this

remarkable run possible.

Back in February, after losing a third straight game, it was

Mack, Howard and guard Zach Hahn who spoke up during a team

meeting. Stevens told the players he needed to do a better job

coaching. Hahn told the players they needed to do a better job

focusing.

Mack made it more personal.

”After the Youngstown State game, I thought we had a little bit

of a big head,” he recalled Monday. ”So I started out by telling

them everything I was doing wrong, and then told them we all need

to play better and get back to playing our roles.”

Butler responded with seven straight wins to claim a share of

its fifth consecutive regular-season title, two more wins in the

conference tourney to earn a fifth consecutive NCAA trip and four

more wins in the NCAAs to move within one game of playing for a

national championship – again.

Even the big school teams couldn’t dream of a better ending.

”I don’t think that I would have just said, ‘I know that we’re

going to make two Final Fours in a row and be playing for a

national championship,”’ Howard said, reflecting on his decision

to come to Butler. ”I think that you would have thought I was

crazy if I would have said that. I just knew we had a really good

team.”