Butler's two Final Four bids reward Matt & Mack's faith

INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Howard followed his heart. Shelvin Mack took the best offer he had.

So many people thought these two 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 reach 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 the 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, made 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, made 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 (Kentucky) 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.

Howard's choice to schools was derided from the outset.

"When I first committed here, there were a lot of people who were not exactly happy I didn't go to Indiana or Purdue," Howard said. "But it's not always about the name."

Butler (27-9) has 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 Horizon 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's regular-season title and earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

Experience only upped the ante, and Howard and Mack have responded by taking the program to unprecedented heights.

Butler has become one of three teams to defeat a top-seeded team in consecutive years before reaching the Final Four. If the Bulldogs beat Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, they will become the seventh team in tournament 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.