Howard, Butler just keep winning

Despite having to field questions about his baggy socks, there is no lack of focus for Butler forward Matt Howard. Brad Mills/US Presswire

Butler is not to be trusted in this Final Four. It pretends to be a guppy but has a piranha's appetite. Underdog? Please. Butler is the favorite now, and a lot of us know it. Whatever you do, don't pet it.

Its cover is blown after last year's Final Four. We all know how it works. Butler wants you to think it's something it's not.

Take its heart, senior forward Matt Howard, who looks more like a geeky band-camp RA than a possible NBA first rounder. If Ichabod Crane played hoops, he'd look like this. He's 93 percent elbow and the rest Adam's apple. He's got so many juts, you could hang tinsel off him.

He's the Academic All-American of the Year in Division I. He's so nerdy, you look at him and think, "What's the worst he's going to do to us? Reprogram our iPhones to Chinese?"

Look at those socks. They lost their elastic years ago. And those sad shoes! If those shoes were your couch, it'd be in the alley now.

"He has six pairs of brand-new shoes in his locker," teammate Shelvin Mack says. "But he won't wear them! He just keeps wearing those ratty old ones."

And what's that on his head? Arugula?

"That's just the hair I woke up with," he says, trying to run his fingers through it and getting stopped by grease. "Whatever it looks like in the morning, that's what I go with for the day." He gets it cut once a year, for free, by a teammate, whether it needs it or not.

He rides a rusted-out bike to Butler's 6 a.m. practices, even in the dead of winter, even through ice storms, even though the handlebars suddenly bent under him the other day catapulting him onto the ice.

"I fixed it," says Howard, who stands 6-foot-8 and 230, most of it bone. "Just poured some WD-40 in there and bent them back. It's a little risky to ride, I guess, but I can't see buying a new one."

Kid, you'd never fit in the SEC.

Not that it matters. Howard has more drive than some GM plants. He's driven Butler to back-to-back Final Fours, a feat never before accomplished by an Indiana school. Not Indiana. Not Purdue. Not Notre Dame.

The Bulldogs wouldn't be anywhere near Houston without Howard. He's the designated floor diver, the insatiable rebounder, the guy who sets the kind of picks that would stop an Amtrak train. He once set a pick on Duke's Kyle Singler that sent Singler bouncing backward 180 degrees and onto his nose.

When the Bulldogs needed a tip-in at the buzzer in their opening NCAA tournament game this year against Old Dominion, Howard gave it to them.

Howard has more drive than some GM plants. He's driven Butler to back-to-back Final Fours, a feat never before accomplished by an Indiana school. Not Indiana. Not Purdue. Not Notre Dame.

When the Bulldogs needed one free throw to win their third-round game against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, Howard gave it to them.

When the Bulldogs needed a monster in the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin, Howard gave them 20 and 12.

And when the Bulldogs needed somebody in the Elite 8 to launch himself headlong into a pile to tie up the ball and win the game against Florida, Howard and his boneyard body gave it to them.

"Matt Howard will be an NBA player," says Butler's bespectacled coach, Brad Stevens. "His team would be winning wherever he went. That's who he is. He makes teams better. He's a winner. Whenever I have to answer questions about what's his real height, how long is he, [I just say], 'He wins. He just wins.'"

Well, not always. Butler looked as confused as Howard's hair for a while this season. It lost three straight games in the anemic Horizon League. Houston looked farther than the moon then. The third loss was 62-60 to Youngstown State on Feb. 3.

"That's why I'd say this trip [to another Final Four] just feels a little better than the last time," Howard says. "Because when you think about where we came from, how far down we were, standing in that Youngstown gym, man, I can't tell you how bad I felt."

Howard is used to getting beat up. He's one of 10 kids of a Connersville, Ind., mail carrier. He's got four older brothers with the same kind of pickax elbows. He knows how it works: You bleed, you find a towel, you play some more. He rededicated himself and the Bulldogs got through it. Since those three losses, they've won 13 straight. Now they're 80 minutes from a national championship.

Through it all, Howard kept on being what Mack calls "the weirdest person I've ever met in my entire life."

"Like, remember that UConn-Syracuse game [in 2009] that went six overtimes?" teammate Ron Nored asks. "Well, after the third one, he texts me: 'Do you think Buffalo Wild Wings had anything to do with this?'"

You ask Howard what's up and he'll say, "The ceiling."

Tell him your name and he'll reverse the letters the rest of your life. Shelvin Mack is permanently Melvin Shack. Together, they'd like to go to Dan Siego someday. Perhaps they'll see girls wearing "skini mirts."

Who cares? On the court, he gets it right. He's the thing you love most in a college basketball player -- a guy who just wants to win and doesn't care who gets the credit. A guy who hits class by day and glass by night. A scabbed-knee grinder who finishes every game with his tank on E.

That's Hatt Moward in a shut nell.

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

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