THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Who’s Howard? Answer man

Senior forward Matt Howard does the little things for his Butler team. Senior forward Matt Howard does the little things for his Butler team. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 4, 2011

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HOUSTON — An Indiana kid never can get through an NCAA Tournament news conference without at least one question pertaining to the most important topic in the state — high school basketball.

Q: Did it hurt you that your high school team in Connersville never got out of the sectionals?

A: “Yeah,’’ said Matt Howard with a sigh, “it really did. Because basketball is really big at Connersville and we had some really good teams. It’s why you play, to get in those games and win championships. It hurts. It was tough on the town.’’

Four years removed from that last bitter high school defeat, Matt Howard is a Butler University senior who is involved in the pursuit of something of more surpassing interest to more people than winning an Indiana state championship. God love the fine people of Connersville, but if Butler defeats Connecticut for the national championship in men’s basketball this evening, he and his teammates will make a lot more people happy than live in Connersville, or, for that mat ter, in the Butler community.

Butler has become a national darling, and its three key faces belong to coach Brad Stevens, guard Shelvin Mack, and, yes, forward Matt Howard. Stevens is the organizational genius. Mack provides needed pizzazz. Howard is the repository of basketball industriousness and common sense.

Howard has had a sensational tournament, in ways both obvious and subtle. His contributions far transcend the 16 points and seven rebounds a game to be found on the stat sheet. His ultimate value is not in putting up gaudy numbers (season highs of 29 points and 16 rebounds in a regular-season game against Green Bay). Howard just makes plays throughout the 40 minutes that win you basketball games.

Game 1: Old Dominion. Who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to grab an offensive rebound and sink a layup a tick ahead of the buzzer to give Butler a 2-point victory?

Game 2: Pitt. Who grabbed the rebound of the missed free throw, got fouled, had the presence of mind to make it look like a 90-foot shot (request denied), and sank the winning free throw with 0.8 seconds left?

Game 4: Florida. Who just happened to be strategically stationed for a long rebound of a Florida miss in the waning seconds of overtime, and who just happened to outfight half of North America for a traffic rebound that led to the clinching free throws by Mack?

Game 5: Virginia Commonwealth. Who grabbed the rebound of a Butler miss and sank a putback to put the Bulldogs ahead by 6 (63-57), with 58 seconds left, and who hauled in the next defensive rebound and swished two free throws to put the game away?

Do you really need a PhD in Hoopology to figure out the answers?

Howard is 6 feet 8 inches and 230 pounds of elbow, knee, chin, cheekbone, and gristle. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was a farmboy who grew up wearing overalls and who walked around barefoot with a long piece of straw hanging from his mouth.

He is smalltown, but no farmboy. He is the eighth of Stan and Linda Howard’s 10 children. Stan Howard is a letter carrier. The Howards are here in Houston because the townsfolk took up a collection to get them here. C’mon, isn’t that exactly what we would expect the people in Connersville to do?

He had the requisite Indiana high school star résumé: All-conference, all-state, member of the Indiana squad for the hotly contested postseason games with Kentucky. He listened to the recruiting pitches, and the one that rang true was the one from Butler.

“It was all built on team and togetherness,’’ he said.

Coming from a family of 10, he had great experience in the arts of sharing and making do. People have fun at his expense because he cares not a whit for fashion. He has his hair cut annually, he says, and he basically dresses from the clean pile (presumably).

This doesn’t bother him in the least. “If I cut my hair and styled it, I wouldn’t look a whole lot better,’’ he said with a shrug.

It’s been an interesting career. He was the Horizon League Player of the Year as a sophomore, but he took a step back, at least statistically, as teammate Gordon Hayward won that honor last year en route to becoming the first-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz. Now, as a senior, Howard has reasserted himself, playing an all-around game beyond the capability of most bigs, and he is once again the Horizon League Player of the Year.

People around the Butler program still are waiting for the manifestation of an ego. It is left to his coach to fight his publicity battle. “Matt has clearly been one of the best players in college basketball, whether anybody has labeled him that or not, for the last four years,’’ said Stevens.

He does not have the raw physical talent of Arizona’s Derrick Williams because no college forward does. But Howard is as complete a player as any forward in America. He can beat you by hitting a three, making a cut on the baseline, grabbing a traffic rebound and making a key putback, making a block from the weak side, setting a pick to salvage a broken play, beating everyone on the other team for a loose ball, and — here’s a real bonus — being Mr. Dependable at the free throw line.

Butler lost in the national title game last season to Duke. Tonight Howard gets a second chance, something that is never promised to a Butler player during the recruiting process.

“I don’t remember anyone ever talking about winning a national championship while I was being recruited,’’ he said. “But I knew Butler had been to Sweet 16s, and they did talk about the opportunity to compete with the very best. So, you think to yourself, you have as good a chance to win the national championship as anyone.’’

If he wins, people in Connersville might stop fretting about Howard’s high school team’s inability to get out of the first round, for at least an hour or so. If not, he always can move to Indy. He and his mates would be able to dine out forever in that town.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.