Howard, Mack lead Butler to another Final Four
Matt Howard followed his heart. Shelvin Mack took the best offer
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
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
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
”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
But the Bulldogs knew what they had in these two right from the
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
Experience only upped the ante, and Howard and Mack have
responded by taking the Butler program to unprecedented
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,”
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
”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
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