Howard was good enough for the elite Indiana basketball schools, the ones with merchandise in every Walmart and a fan in every house. And he chose Butler?
“I had to really trust my instincts and what felt right, because it wasn't the popular decision at the time,” Howard said. “You could say it's getting more that way now.”
You could say that.
You should say that.
As Butler prepares to play Wisconsin on Thursday in its second straight Sweet 16 appearance and third in five years, two truths have emerged over the past decade:
1. Butler is an elite Indiana program.
2. Butler has an argument for being “the” elite Indiana program.
If you'd have told me 10 years ago that Butler would supplant Indiana as the team most likely to make NCAA Tournament noise, I'd have said you must be a Butler graduate. Now, I'd just say you're right. And then I'd wonder aloud if Howard has more last-second game-winning put-backs and free throws in his repertoire. Butler has a decent shot at a second straight Final Four.
Butler's record over the last five years easily puts the Bulldogs on top as the state's best, whether you judge by overall wins or NCAA Tournament success. Stretch it out to the last 10 years and the numbers still tilt toward Butler.
There are arguments to be made about regular-season records. Some would argue Butler's 24 wins per year would drop if the Bulldogs played in the Big Ten instead of the Horizon League. Maybe that's true or maybe Howard's 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game translate just fine.
Regardless, if you measure by the postseason, Butler's NCAA success, including falling one shot short of beating Duke in the title game a year ago, surpasses the state's other teams. The Bulldogs are 12-5 in the postseason since 2002, with four Sweet 16 appearances and a national runner-up. Purdue has two Sweet 16s and Indiana has one and a championship runner-up (both in 2002). Notre Dame has made six NCAA tourneys, with one Sweet 16.
“I think sometimes you're completely judged by what you do this time of year,” Howard said. “Maybe it should be that way, maybe it shouldn't, but we've been pretty fortunate the last few years.”
Purdue comes closest to Butler over the last five years, making the tournament in each season and reaching the Sweet 16 twice. Notre Dame has been in four of the last five tourneys, but never advanced past the first weekend.
Indiana, of course, is in a Kelvin Sampson-induced slump of epic proportions. The Hoosiers' hierarchy, since replaced, brought this pox on themselves by the mind-boggling hiring of Sampson. Tom Crean is passionate about reviving the traditionally great program. A few more blue chippers would help.
Butler sent Gordon Hayward to the NBA last season, and most expect Howard will get his chance after this season. For the most part, however, Butler is getting it done without NBA-caliber players.
Butler coach Brad Stevens would surely love to have more NBA-bound players, but that's easier said than done even after becoming a perennial NCAA impact team.
More recruits know of Butler's name these days than ever before.
“Getting them to say, ‘I'm coming to Butler' is a whole different story,” Stevens said.
If Butler sends a second straight player to the NBA, it will provide an extra layer of recruiting cache.
“It's an interesting quandary,” Stevens said. “Do you talk about the individual in recruiting but then want them to think only about team when they get here? We want team-first guys, but I don't think there's any doubt, individually, you look at Matt Howard and say, ‘Did Matt Howard maximize his four years?' I don't think you'd find another place he could have done better.
“He's the reason why. It's not what I do or we do, but he's going to make a lot of money playing the game. He's won 114 games and his life's going to be OK.”
Stevens downplays his own role in Butler's success. That's his personality. But his demeanor should continue to be attractive to young players looking for a bright, knowledgeable coach who represents the new-era breed of being demanding without being demeaning.
“He's never getting down on you, telling you that you suck or anything,” Butler guard Shelvin Mack said. “He's always thinking positive about ways to step your game or your effort up. …It helps you out a lot to have confidence in your coach and that he can relate to you on a lot of different topics.”
Winning remains the universal language.
Nowhere in Indiana is it spoken as fluently these days than at Butler.
More coverage♦Butler guard improves play of late, Page 5S.
♦Purdue player, coach honored, Page 5S.
♦Boilermakers fall to NCAA power in women's tourney, Page 6S.