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:
1. Howard setting a bone-crushing screen on Kyle Singler to free up Hayward for the final shot against Duke. The screen was so hard that Singler did a backwards 180 and fell face-down; it might've become the most famous pick in college basketball history, had Hayward hit the shot.
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."
Heart and soul: Nored. Statistically, he won't lead the Bulldogs in anything other than assists. But he was their motivational/vocal leader all through this past NCAA tournament, and he epitomizes "The Butler Way," a code of conduct that, in part, says players must "put the well-being of our teammates before individual desires." One example from last week's practice: I asked Marshall what he was learning from the Bulldogs' veterans, and he immediately spoke in glowing terms about Nored. "Ron is the type of guy who'll communicate with you -- if you make a mistake, or if you do something right," Marshall said. "Especially from a defensive standpoint, whenever I make a mistake, he won't just bottle it in, or just yell at me. He'll pull me aside, give me the details on what to do, and say, 'Don't worry about it. Just come back on the next possession and do it right.' "
Most improved: Mack. He was already Butler's best returning player, but he took his game to another level this summer while on a whirlwind tour of elite camps and workouts against USA Basketball's senior national team in Las Vegas and New York. He was mentored by Chauncey Billups and Rajon Rondo, and Mack learned how to be more efficient with his steps and more effective at sealing off defenders and finishing in traffic. He should be a legitimate All-America candidate this season, and as Stephen Curry said to me after one of those USA Basketball scrimmages, "I told [Mack] to enjoy this next year in college, because I'm pretty sure it'll be his last."
Glue guy: Nored already is one, and Vanzant is ready to contend for a spot on Seth Davis' All-Glue Team. The 6-1 senior had immense value as a defensive reserve in the NCAA tournament ("If you watch the tapes," Stevens said, "he played probably his best six games of his career") and could very well earn a starting spot as Butler's third guard. He's a high-energy role player who's capable of scoring in spots if defenses focus too much on Mack and Howard.
X-factor: Marshall. The 6-6 Floridian is a sleeper recruit whom assistant Micah Shrewsberry discovered on the 16-and-under squad of Team Breakdown, whose 17U crew featured Brandon Knight (and thus received all the attention from major-conference coaches). Marshall is a hybrid 3-4 forward whom the Alabama-born Nored said "has SEC-type athleticism." Just how versatile Marshall is on defense -- can he effectively guard 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s? -- will go a long way in determining whether Butler can remain a top-five defensive team.
Lost in the shuffle: Chrishawn Hopkins. The 6-1, homegrown freshman could very well be the next great guard at Butler, but it'll be tough for him to earn major minutes as a freshman. Nored and Mack have the top two guard positions locked down, Vanzant and Hahn have the next two spots in the rotation, and even Grant Leiendecker and Chase Stigall (two lesser-known shooters) may earn occasional playing time. Once the roster opens up in 2011-12, Hopkins will have more of an opportunity to shine.
Bottom line: This will be a more conventional defensive team without Veasley and Hayward, who were both versatile athletes that could guard four positions. And with Hayward gone, the Bulldogs no longer have a true matchup nightmare on the perimeter -- or a killer defensive rebounder to crash from the wing. I saw nothing in practice to dissuade me from ranking them in the top 15 in the preseason, though. It's a team that still has the vibe of a winner, but a lot would have to happen for them to ascend to top-five status: Vanzant and Marshall becoming huge defensive assets; Mack and Howard having monster offensive years; and one of the auxiliary big men (Smith or Butcher) having a breakout season. If all those things fall into place, they have as good of a shot as anyone -- outside of Duke and Michigan State -- to reach Houston.