Matt Howard leads Butler to Sweet 16

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- They look harmless enough, just sitting there in a heap on the locker room floor next to a pair of sneakers.

A little gray maybe, but otherwise a fairly innocuous pair of socks.

"Those are them right there," Butler guard Ronald Nored says, his face scrunching up as he points to the offending items as if a detectable odor was emanating from the pieces of cotton. "They're terrible, awful, a complete embarrassment."

Across the room, Shawn Vanzant offers his assessment.

"The turtleneck socks?" he says, shaking his head. "They're disgusting. They don't stick to his legs anymore because they're stretched out. They bulge out and just kinda hang there."

"Turtlenecks, they look like turtlenecks," freshman Chrishawn Hopkins offers without prompting.

The owner of the objects of scorn shrugs his shoulders when confronted about his choice in hosiery.

"There's nothing wrong with them. It's not like they have holes or anything," Matt Howard says without apology. "They're not fashionable, I suppose, but then again, I'm not a very fashionable person."

No, it would be all wrong if Howard cared about something so superfluous as socks. There are college basketball players who are built on flash and style and then there are guys like Howard. His game is not necessarily beautiful but in this case, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Howard's pragmatic, bullish approach to couture and basketball has Butler back in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs, written off after a January swoon left them at a pedestrian 14-9, instead have won 11 in a row as they head to New Orleans for a Thursday tip against Wisconsin.

In a frenetic first weekend, last year's Cinderella twice waved the magic wand, pulling off two of the most stunning finishes of this NCAA tournament.

Both times it was Howard converting the pumpkin. Just before the buzzer sounded against Old Dominion, he corralled a deflection to score the winner, and in the upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, the senior calmly swished the winning free throw.

Neither result comes as a surprise to people who follow Butler.

This team is tough because Matt Howard is tough.

-- Butler guard Ronald Nored

In Indianapolis, there is talk about retiring Howard's jersey and no one is putting up much of an argument. Gordon Hayward was the transcendent talent that officially moved Butler from mid-major darling into legitimate power. Yet it is neither offensive to the early entry first-round draft pick nor hyperbole to say that Howard is the foundation for this Butler program.

"He's made Butler better," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. "How many guys can say that? That they've made a whole university better?"

The funny thing is, the kid who has made such an indelible mark on his university is about as pretentious as a doorjamb. He is nuts and bolts basic, the quintessential Midwestern kid from a big family (he's eighth in line in a family of 10) who was raised to be selfless and doesn't consider himself terribly exceptional.

Yet Howard is the very definition of the word. On the court, he leads the Bulldogs in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (7.7) and is both a former Horizon League newcomer of the year and player of the year.

And the finance major, who carries a 3.77 grade point average, recently was named the Academic All-American of the year.

"He's the best on the court, the best in the classroom. He's Mr. Everything," Nored said. "You'd hate him if weren't so nice."

Decidedly quirky off the court -- he pedals around campus in a rusty bike regardless of the weather, shamelessly grew what could only be quantified as a porn mustache last season, and sports a head of curls that belong on a 1970s Tiger Beat heart throb -- Howard is all business on it.

The image of a bloodied Howard, looking like he was on the losing side of a fight with Mike Tyson, is still a click away online.

Howard still hasn't seen the video that went viral after he took an elbow during a game against Illinois Chicago, but he's seen the pictures.

"It's amazing your head can bleed so much," he said. "It was kind of crazy."

Crazy enough to force Howard to wear a mouth guard every game now.

He used to try to pick his spots, guessing which games might be more physical and require the extra protection, but he's come to realize that, with the way he plays, every game is physical.

Howard is capable of swishing a 3 (he has 48 on the season and shoots 43 percent from the arc), which makes him a matchup headache for opponents, but it is in the dirty work area of the post where Howard is most lethal.

His oven-mitt hands seem doused in stick-um. He catches everything hurled his way, including a fortuitously tipped ball by Andrew Smith in the second-round game against ODU, and if he doesn't catch it, he'll go after it in a fight to the death.

Once that ferociousness got Howard into trouble. As a junior he nearly logged as many minutes on the bench as on the court, fouling out in eight games, drawing four fouls in 13 more and limited to just 19 minutes in the national championship game against Duke.

This season he's fouled out only four times and is averaging 30.4 minutes per game.

"This team is tough because Matt Howard is tough," Nored said. "He's never going to be outworked and we're never going to be outworked. He's relentless."

Howard has massaged this team more than browbeaten it into his personality.

The Bulldogs are blessed with invaluable experience -- Vanzant and Zach Hahn are also seniors and Nored and Shelvin Mack are juniors -- but also have had to groom a crop of critical underclassmen along the way.

"I think it helps to have someone who always has energy and is there to lift up your team and I try to be that person," Howard said. "I wanted to make sure I encouraged them all the time and kept them in the right mindset, so I try to help however I can."

And because of that rare mix -- superior talent partnered with an unassuming personality -- Howard's teammates follow his lead.

Well, in most instances they do.

"I don't get the thing with the socks at all," Nored said. "I think they're always clean, but they're nasty. He's had them since like his freshman year. It's not like we don't get new ones but that's just Matt. That's Matt Howard."

As Nored talks, he looks over in Howard's direction. He's in his practice uniform, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, wearing a pair of low-top sneakers.

Sockless, of course. The turtlenecks are on the floor.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.