The 2010 NCAA runner-up Butler punched their ticket to the Big Dance Tuesday night, capping a nine-game win streak to finish the regular season. Just a month ago, the Bulldogs' chances looked bleak at returning to the tournament, despite making it the previous four seasons out of the Horizon League. Maybe it was the loss of star forward Gordon Hayward. Maybe we overlooked the impact of versatile forward Willie Veasley. Or maybe it was just time for the clock to strike 12 on this Cinderella, but Butler appeared down and out with four losses in five league games to start the month of February. To put that in perspective, Butler had only lost five league games in the past three years combined.
Butler lacked the dominating player that they had boasted for so long in the Horizon; the program had four of the previous five players of the year in the conference. Matt Howard, the 2008-09 league player of the year, saw his numbers dip across the board last year in a support role to Hayward mostly due to foul troubles and an inability to score around the rim. But he trimmed down his slight frame to give him a quickness edge against opposing big men and added a perimeter shot to his arsenal. Not only did he lead the team in points per game (16.7), rebounds (7.8), blocks (0.6) and a tie for steals (1.2), but he was second on the team in 3-point field-goals.
Howard, as well as the shooting of guard Shelvin Mack, will be essential to win any tournament game this year, especially if Brad Stevens' squad expects to make another run this year.