INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Howard followed his heart. Shelvin Mack took the best offer he had.
So many people thought these two guys 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 make 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 this 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, hit 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, hit 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 it 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.
Or for the one who heard the minions deriding his choice from the outset.
“When I first committed here, there were a lot of people who were not exactly happy that I didn’t go to Indiana or Purdue,” Howard said. “But it’s not always about the name.”
The Bulldogs (27-9) have 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 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 League’s regular-season title and earn an NCAA tournament bid.
Experience only upped the ante, and Howard and Mack have responded by taking the Butler program to unprecedented heights.
The Bulldogs are now one of three teams to defeat a top-seeded team in consecutive years before reaching the Final Four. If they beat Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, Butler will become the seventh team in tourney 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.
Nobody, other than Howard, has done that better than Mack.
Mack set a school tournament record with 30 points in the upset of Pitt, barely escaping be the goat after fouling Pitt’s Gilbert Brown with 1.4 seconds to go. Howard bailed him out by drawing a foul and making the winning free throw.
Then Mack almost single-handedly carried the Bulldogs past Florida, scoring 27 points and making the 3-pointer that gave Butler the lead for good with 1:21 left in overtime.
What the nation sees in this tandem is a pure shooter and a pesky scrapper.
“Matt Howard comes to play every day. You never have to ask if Matt is going to show up today, and he doesn’t care about the credit,” Nored said. “Shelvin’s the same way. We’ve rode them to this point. Without them, this would be a different team.”
What the nation hasn’t seen is how these two made this remarkable run possible.
Back in February, after losing a third straight game, it was Mack, Howard and guard Zach Hahn who spoke up during a team meeting. Stevens told the players he needed to do a better job coaching. Hahn told the players they needed to do a better job focusing.
Mack made it more personal.
“After the Youngstown State game, I thought we had a little bit of a big head,” he recalled Monday. “So I started out by telling them everything I was doing wrong, and then told them we all need to play better and get back to playing our roles.”
Butler responded with seven straight wins to claim a share of its fifth consecutive regular-season title, two more wins in the conference tourney to earn a fifth consecutive NCAA trip and four more wins in the NCAAs to move within one game of playing for a national championship — again.
Even the big school teams couldn’t dream of a better ending.
“I don’t think that I would have just said, ‘I know that we’re going to make two Final Fours in a row and be playing for a national championship,”’ Howard said, reflecting on his decision to come to Butler. “I think that you would have thought I was crazy if I would have said that. I just knew we had a really good team.”