Mop-top Howard best symbol of Butler Way

HOUSTON -- Brad Stevens was asked Sunday to define the Butler Way, to give some context to the principle that fuels the college basketball team America has fallen in love with the last two NCAA Tournaments.

"It's not rocket science," Stevens said. "It's a valued-based organization driven by a mission and a vision. It begins with selflessness and accountability. Humility is very important. The key is adhering to those standards and trying to live up to the standards. It's hard to do and easy to talk about."

The head coach could have shortened his remarks to this: Matt Howard.

Think of Samson in high tops. Howard's hair might not be where the senior forward derives his strength, but the mop atop his head has gained nearly as much attention as the Bulldogs advancing to a second straight national championship game.

Howard is sort of messy looking. Sort of unkempt.

But beauty in this case is in the eye of the next box-out.

Butler plays Connecticut for the NCAA title at Reliant Stadium tonight and if the Bulldogs are to have any chance at creating a different outcome than the one they endured against Duke last year, the son of a 33-year mail carrier in a family with 10 kids must play up to and above his highest level.

Which isn't that high, inches wise; the Bulldogs had no dunks in their semifinal victory over Virginia Commonwealth here Saturday.

Butler is all about kids who grew up in Indiana shooting jumpers with acres and acres of fields as their backdrop, about players sitting around a locker room at the Final Four chiding one another on what defines a real farm. (You apparently must own chickens).

Howard is one such player, all of 6 feet 8 inches, 230 pounds, with matching bruises and floor burns to go with averages 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds.

He was raised in rural Connersville, Ind., (population 13,000) in a three-bedroom house with his parents and nine siblings. His father has taken one sick day in more than three decades from a mail route that includes 700 homes.

They once called the town Little Detroit. It used to include a Ford factory, but the plummeting economy didn't spare much of anything. High unemployment and boarded-up storefronts downtown are now its face.

Which is why Butler's success has been so important the past two years, why around 1,400 (more than 10 percent of the town's population) drove the 70 miles east to attend Senior Night and honor Howard at Hinkle Fieldhouse, why those on his father's route handed over cash and checks so the entire family could attend the Final Four.

Here's the thing about Butler: It's really good at defending without fouling, at perfecting the skill of proper positioning and using just enough contact to alter shots and not hear whistles. Howard does this as well as anyone. He will make an NBA team because he is physical, but mostly because he never stops. He is relentless.

"There is a reason Matt is standing in all these tournaments, a reason he continues to play and play and play," Stevens said. "He wins everything, you know, all the way throughout the year, every day in practice. It's his motor. He has a nonstop will to succeed. Nothing else matters to him. He is terrific."

This was the scene in Indianapolis a year ago tonight: Duke led Butler 61-59 when a missed free throw gave the Bulldogs one final, desperate chance.

Howard set a brutal blind-side screen on Kyle Singler, knocking the Duke star to the ground. It allowed Gordon Hayward to launch a shot from inside the midcourt line as time expired, the ball descending toward the basket with the hopes and dreams of so many that the school not 7 miles from Lucas Oil Stadium might actually win, that David's final sling of the orange rock might slay Goliath.

The rock hit rim and bounced away.

"I didn't see the shot initially because I was turned around," Howard said. "I wouldn't say I thought it was going to be that close, so maybe it made it hurt a little more that it was. The high and low of that moment ... That's what I remember most.

"I don't think it's inevitable that a (small school) will eventually win it all because we know how hard it is to get here. It's not an easy task. Hopefully, we can take care of business. Either way, we won't change what we do. We never have. You stay within your vision and system. Stay solid in what you do."

Stay with the Butler Way.

Or the Matt Howard Way.

It's the same thing.