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July 20, 2010
The most famous mustache in college basketball is missing.
Butler forward Matt Howard decided to grow some facial hair during the postseason as a bit of a lark to help build team camaraderie for the postseason. Little did he know the mustache would develop a cult following during the Bulldogs' improbable run to the NCAA tournament final.
Howard's mustache remains the subject of three separate Facebook pages that totaled nearly 20,000 fans.
Alas, Howard shaved the mustache as soon as he returned to campus after Butler's 61-59 loss to Duke in the national championship game.
The 6-fot-8 senior forward also got his long hair cut short earlier this summer. Howard, a finance major, is spending the summer interning for Merrill Lynch in downtown Indianapolis, and he couldn't show up for work looking as if he'd stepped out of a John Mellencamp video from the "Scarecrow" era.
"If you looked the way I did that last game, I don't know if I'd condone anyone walking into an internship or a job like that,'' Howard said. "I had to make some changes."
Consider that just one example of the way Howard and his teammates are turning the page after their storybook season.
People approach Howard almost every day to talk about Butler's Final Four run, but he is trying to focus on next season rather than dwelling on last season.
Butler seemingly had the pieces in place for a second consecutive Final Four run until sophomore forward Gordon Hayward decided to enter the NBA draft, where he was taken by the Utah Jazz with the ninth overall pick. Even without Hayward in the lineup, Butler still looks like a top-25 team that could make a long tournament run if it gets the right kind of draw.
The Bulldogs' chances of living up to those expectations depend in part on whether Howard avoids foul trouble and recaptures the form of his 2008-09 season, when he was named the Horizon League's player of the year.
Howard's production dropped across the board last season. His scoring average dipped from 14.8 to 11.6. His rebounding average fell from 6.8 to 5.2. His field-goal percentage dropped from .550 to .481.
Howard didn't have to do quite as much last season. Hayward was playing his way into the lottery, while point guard Shelvin Mack made the leap from quality starter to emerging star. But part of the problem was that Howard struggled to stay in games. He fouled out nine times and picked up four fouls in 13 other games.
Foul trouble limited him to 20 minutes in the West Regional final against Kansas State, 15 minutes in the NCAA semifinal win over Michigan State and 19 minutes in the Duke game.
"It's been sort of a problem the last three years -- it would happen on and off -- but it became a major issue and more of a focus probably for the last month of our season," Howard said.
Howard considers it a mental issue more than anything else. He might be a first-team Academic All-America selection, but he admits he committed stupid fouls on numerous occasions. He cited Butler's second-round victory over Murray State, in which he was charged with his second, third and fourth fouls in a span of 32 seconds.
"Evidently, I lack smarts in that category," Howard said. "It is what it is. Instead of maybe picking up something stupid -- which has happened from time to time -- I've got to play more under control and maybe let something go once in a while. It's basically all mental.
"It's not something you can sit there and really practice, [but] a little bit of it you can practice. Maybe I got there a little late and a charge is a block. Maybe the next time down, you're just in the wrong place in the wrong time. ... It's just little things that can pile up."
Butler coaches admit they face a delicate situation in trying to keep Howard out of foul trouble. Although they need Howard on the floor as much as possible, they don't want him to lose the aggressiveness and tenacity that make him so valuable.
"Matt's nature is to play at 100 percent at all times," Butler assistant Matthew Graves said. "It's just a balancing act with knowing when to really make an extra effort to get that loose ball or that rebound and when to know you've already got one foul and you have to play maybe a little more conservatively.
"It's just continuing to learn and grow as a player and being able to pick your spots a little differently. As coaches, we just love how hard he goes. Sometimes you're going to live with a foul or two."
The play that best epitomizes Howard's tenacity came when Butler trounced Wright State 70-45 in last season's Horizon League championship game. The Bulldogs already owned a commanding lead late in the second half and easily could have coasted to victory.
Howard refused to think that way. He made a diving save to a teammate that led to a basket. The play reflected the never-say-die approach that helped Butler scratch and claw its way to the NCAA final.
"That's a play that will be shown for the next 20 years," Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the Wright State game. "And the teaching part is that we're up 20 points, and [Howard] plays the right way to win the possession. I think it speaks to who he is, but it also speaks to who we all want to be every day."
Butler needs Howard to continue showing that kind of hustle. The Bulldogs might not have Hayward anymore, but they still have high hopes for the upcoming season.
Mack should be even better this season from his experience with the U.S. Men's Select Team. Guard Ronald Nored's tournament performances against Syracuse's Andy Rautins and Kansas State's Jacob Pullen showed that he's one of the nation's top perimeter defenders. The arrivals of 6-6 forward Khyle Marshall (the No. 118 player in the 2010 recruiting class) and 6-1 guard Chrishawn Hopkins (No. 124) give Butler its first two top-150 prospects since Howard arrived on campus as the No. 91 recruit in the 2007 class.
Howard expects Butler to enter this season with the same goals it had last season.
"Before last year, Coach sat down and said, 'I'm not going to hold you guys back. Let's expect to get to the championship game. Why not try to go as far as we can and have that as a goal and aspiration?' " Howard said. "Just simply doing that changes the way you focus. It changes the way you play on the court, the way you practice and how you go through your weekly routine. I think that was a really big adjustment. ... Why not prepare that way and think that way?
"I'm sure the expectations will be the same. Obviously the external expectations are going to be higher, but internally we're going to prepare and think the same way we did last year."
If Butler goes as far as it did last season, maybe it would even inspire Howard to bring back his tournament mustache. Then again ...
"I can't say anything for certain," Howard said, "but there's probably a good chance nobody will ever see that again -- for the good of everyone."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.