INDIANAPOLIS -- Butler's national championship-game starters went their separate ways over the summer. Gordon Hayward entered the NBA draft as a sophomore and landed in Utah. Willie Veasley, the lone senior, signed to play with a team in Japan. Shelvin Mack earned rave reviews on the summer-camp circuit and as a member of the college "select" squad that scrimmaged Team USA. Ronald Nored rehabbed from surgery and coached an AAU team. Matt Howard, a finance major with a 3.88 GPA, shaved his mustache, cut his hair and worked internships at Merrill Lynch and Butler's on-campus Business Accelerator.
Much of the appeal of covering college basketball is that it exposes a writer to a wide range of characters. Some subjects are on a fixed path to the NBA, or pro leagues elsewhere. Some will inevitably fall off the map. Some will use the experience as a launchpad into leadership roles. Some have off-court personas that are fascinatingly divergent from what they present in games. Take Howard, for example. He averaged 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds last season while playing a blue-collar, rural-Indiana game in the post, throwing his body everywhere, often with reckless abandon. The two vivid images I have of him from the Final Four are:
2. Howard suffering a mild concussion against Michigan State by hitting his head on the floor, then getting elbowed in the head ... and shaking it off to appear in the title game.
It seemed peculiar, then, that the conversation we had after Butler practice on Thursday led with the most academic, white-collar topic I expect to discuss with any college basketball player this season: diversifying investment portfolios. He explained, with genuine pride, how he'd researched a Delaware Emerging Markets fund for Merrill that had holdings in Brazil, Russia and China. "They implemented it into [the client's] portfolio," he said. "So I guess I was able to make some kind of difference."
He also has a minor in Management of Information Systems (his battle to learn UNIX programming was another topic of discussion) but would like to be a financial advisor after his basketball career concludes. "The only challenge is, on the front side you have to sell so that you can advise," he said. "And I'm not really the best salesman yet."
This, perhaps, is the place where Howard's business goals converge with his basketball goals: In both places, he needs to do a better job of selling. College referees, especially during '09-10, were not buying his defensive methods in the paint. He was so frequently in foul trouble that he averaged 25.2 minutes when he would've liked to play 30, missing key stretches of NCAA tournament games. As a freshman, he joked with former teammate Drew Streicher about the potential impact of delivering a fruit basket to the referees before tip-off; as a senior, he's getting realistic about how to keep himself on the floor. "For the most part, it's about positioning," he said, "me being in position a half-second earlier could be the difference between a foul and not drawing a whistle."
Howard has taken a non-linear career path, going from Horizon League Player of the Year as a sophomore to more of a role player as a junior, when Hayward and Mack emerged as the Bulldogs' new stars. But the 6-foot-8 senior from Connersville, Ind., will be more important than ever this season. Butler's defensive success was in no small part due to it ranking 18th nationally in defensive rebounding -- and the since-departed Hayward grabbed a team-high 23.3 percent of those boards, compared to Howard's 16.5.
Butler coach Brad Stevens said the defensive rebounding solution will have to be "by committee," with guards chipping in, but it all starts with Howard continuing to seal off opposing big men without committing fouls. He freed up Hayward for plenty of boards that way in '09-10, but, Stevens said, "he may have a dual purpose of not only getting his guy off the block, but also pursuing."
Howard will be looking for defensive help from a host of unproven big men whose development will be necessary for a repeat Final Four run: 6-11 Andrew Smith, who played a promising stretch during the Elite Eight win over Kansas State; 6-7 junior Garrett Butcher, a physical presence who missed the NCAA tournament due to injury; 6-7 Khyle Marshall, an intriguing freshman who is the favorite to start at the other forward spot; and 6-9 freshman Eric Fromm, a sweet-shooting big man whose early impact may be more on the offensive end.
In last Thursday's practice, Howard mostly had his way with the young forwards. At one point, after Howard used a power move to re-position Fromm and easily lay the ball off the glass, Stevens turned to longtime Miami (Ohio) coach Charlie Coles, who'd driven two hours from Oxford to observe, and said, "Not every 18-year-old is going to be able to guard that."
Few players of any age in the Horizon League, or elsewhere, can stop Howard's power game when he's unburdened by foul trouble. Much of Butler's season will depend on how well he positions -- and sells -- himself.
1. Stevens said things were "very inconclusive," lineup-wise, after seven practices. "I'm not opposed to having a seven-man starting rotation, even though it goes against what I've done before," he said.
The most likely starting lineup, in my mind, would be ...
1: Nored; 2: Mack; 3: Shawn Vanzant; 4: Marshall; 5: Howard
... with Zach Hahn being swapped in for Vanzant in times of greater offensive need, and either Smith or Butcher being swapped in for Marshall when more size is necessary in the post. I suspect Vanzant and Marshall will get the initial nods, though, because they give Butler its most athletic/versatile defensive look.
2. Nored had bilateral tibial surgery in the offseason, getting metal rods inserted into his shins and screws in his knees. That kept him away from full-speed hoops for much of the summer, but he did have time to work on his major weakness: three-point shooting. He's tried to eliminate what he called a "dip" in his mechanics (he would lower the ball after catching it) while also focusing on following through with his wrist. If the 19.6 percent (9-of-46) shooter could up his percentage by double-digits, it would really help spread the floor on offense and prevent some double-teams on Howard. "I shot 30 or higher all through high school," Nored said, "so I don't think it's out of the question."
3. If you visit a Butler practice (at least 25 high school coaches attended last Thursday, despite the 6:15 a.m. start time), you won't hear much yelling from Stevens, but you will hear some insightful commentary. He stopped one drill after seeing a few somewhat-sloppy passes from the freshmen, and singled out senior walk-on Alex Anglin, who was doing everything right.
"There's a reason why Alex got offered a job before his junior year even started," Stevens said to the team. "He takes pride in every little thing he does. Having that kind of attention to detail is really important."
Stevens said that Anglin plans on working for PricewaterhouseCoopers after graduation. He previously interned there, as well as at the Butler Business Accelerator -- just like Howard.
4. Howard doesn't seem especially keen on bringing his "trash 'stache" back, despite the fame it gained during the NCAAs. I told him I thought it would be a good idea to re-grow it, to which he replied: "There's no way you can say that with a straight face. Because that mustache was awful. I know for a fact it was terrible."