Seeing Brightness on the Horizon

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Butler Dancing

Butler went dancing -- literally -- after locking up the Horizon League\'s automatic bid on Tuesday at Hinkle Fieldhouse. (AP)

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a case of differing interpretations. When Butler lost 72-65 to Georgetown on Dec. 8, nearly everyone in the press -- myself included -- perceived the game as the third in a series of early indictments against the Bulldogs. They began 2009-10 as the nation's mid-major darling, ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, then failed in the role of giant-killer, losing to Minnesota and Clemson in Anaheim, and the Hoyas in New York to fall to 6-3. They're blowing their chance at an at-large NCAA tournament bid, we all said. They don't even look like a Top 25 team.

Butler's coach, Brad Stevens, had the opposite view of the Georgetown result. "It was a great thing for us," he said. "We would have liked to have played a lot better, and we only lost by seven, and had a chance to win the game. So what I felt when we left that gym was, 'We've got a chance to be pretty good.' Meanwhile, everybody else was taking the expectations off."

The Bulldogs fell out of the poll for part of December and all of January, and were, to a degree, written off as a tourney threat. But over the past two months, Stevens was vindicated. As the Bulldogs celebrated winning the Horizon League's automatic bid on Tuesday by thrashing Wright State, 70-45, they were ranked higher (at No. 11) than they were in the preseason. With a 20-0 record in conference regular-season and tournament games, they were the lone team in the country to go unblemished in its league. To see them play at Hinkle Fieldhouse in March was an entirely different experience than seeing them at the Garden in December, when star forward Gordon Hayward hinted that they were playing selfish basketball -- behavior that was very un-Butler-like. Guard Shelvin Mack said on Tuesday that they had gotten back to playing the Butler Way -- "doing the right thing all of the time." No one is heading into the NCAA tournament with more positive momentum than the Bulldogs, due to three crucial factors:

Matt Howard

Matt Howard scored 14 points in the Horizon League title game and was named the tournament\'s Most Valuable Player. (AP)

• Matt Howard is a force once again. Last season's Horizon Player of the Year couldn't stay out of foul trouble at the start of '09-10, getting DQ'd from four of Butler's first five games. He's fouled out nine times this year, but not once since Feb. 4, harnessing his aggressiveness into more production than silly whistles. He was a beast on Tuesday (with 14 points and nine rebounds), winning the tournament's Most Valuable Player Award and delivering the game's most memorable play:

With 9:38 left in the second half, and the Bulldogs up 24 -- a point at which most people not named Matt Howard would go on cruise control -- he single-handedly kept a possession alive by tipping an offensive rebound on the right side of the rim, and chasing it all the way into the front row of chairs beyond the left wing. He cleared out two seats with his dive, but ball he saved landed in the hands of Shawn Vanzant, who dished to Willie Veasley, who sunk a three-pointer. "That's a play that will be shown for the next 20 years," Stevens said. "It speaks to who [Howard] is, but it also speaks to who we all want to be every day."

Howard went five rows deep into the stands after the game -- to shake the hands of as many denizens of Butler's student section as he could before cutting down the nets. "It's spring break," he said. "I just wanted to thank them for staying."

• They have one of the country's best one-shot-and-done Ds. This is the best defensive team of Stevens' tenure at Butler, ranking 24th in efficiency in large part because it allows the ninth-lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the country (27.1). The player most responsible for this may come as a surprise: it's Hayward, who's mostly hyped for his offensive versatility and potential as an NBA shooting guard. He happens to be one of the college game's best defensive rebounders, pulling down 24.3 percent of available boards -- a tenth of a percent more than glass-master Luke Harangody does at Notre Dame. "It's remarkable how well he flies in above the rim and cleans up," Stevens said of Hayward. "Sometimes you base your matchups on the fact that you want him to go get balls for you."

• They get high-quality minutes out of everyone in their top six. The Horizon All-Tournament team was four-fifths Bulldogs: Howard, the hustle machine MVP; Mack, who hit three treys in the first eight minutes and finished with 14 points; Hayward, who had a double-double against Milwaukee in the semifinal, and defended all five positions against Wright State; and unsung point guard Ronald Nored, who had a robust stat line of nine points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals. Sixth man Zach Hahn didn't get any hardware, but he hit three dagger threes, and is a scary shooting threat (at 42.9 percent from long range) off the bench.

After the game, Howard seemed concerned that their starting wing guard (and lockdown artist), Willie Veasley, hadn't received any love. But Butler beat writer David Woods was quick to note that Veasley actually had been recognized on Tuesday -- as a first-teamer on Seth Davis' All-Glue squad, which is possibly more prestigious than an All-Horizon tourney nod. As Mack said of the team's progression since that Georgetown loss, "Everybody has gotten back to doing their job, instead of trying to do things they couldn't do."