Most of the pretty players are gone now. Jimmer and Jared and JaJuan and the rest.
One by one, the gifted ones have packed their sneakers, and they have said their goodbyes, and they have walked away from the gym. Nolan and Marcus and Kawhi and those guys.
They were the flashy ones, the ones who made the scouts drool. They were the ones who had the NBA scouts all atwitter, the ones who gathered as the All-America teams were announced. Brandon and Derrick and Tristan and the rest of the chosen ones.
Gone. All of them.
Instead, this guy remains.
He is goofy and geeky and gawky, and when he walks, he kind of clanks. They could line up every player from the NCAA Tournament around the court, and you might not glance twice at him. He didn't make first-team All-American, or second or third. A recent ESPN draft rating has him rated No. 50 … among power forwards. Overall, it suggests there are 157 better options in the upcoming NBA draft.
Poor Matt Howard.
All he is is the best by golly player in the NCAA Tournament. Just that.
Two years in the national spotlight, and still, Howard is the stealth weapon of college basketball. No one outside of Butler seems to acknowledge him, and no one seems to appreciate him. Before every game, writers keep asking Howard about the talent on the other team, and after every game, they keep asking him about the key play he made in victory. Funny how that keeps happening, isn't it?
"There is a reason why he's standing in all these tournaments, a reason why he's playing and continues to play," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "He wins everything in practice. He wins everything, you know? It's because of his motor. I mean, he just has a nonstop will to succeed for his team, and that is it. There is nothing else that matters to him. He's terrific."
Here's a question: What, exactly, is talent? Is it only speed and height and strength?
Isn't relentlessness a skill? Isn't competitiveness a gift? Isn't the willingness to do the little things, to hit the big shot, to lead a medium-sized team to a championship game an asset? Let everyone else rave about the shooters and the slashers and the guys who treat a year of college basketball as if it is the NBA's waiting room.
Tonight will be no different. The analysts will open up by talking about UConn's magnificent Kemba Walker. After that, they'll talk a bit about Butler's Shelvin Mack. Howard? He might not get mentioned until the final two minutes of the game.
Stevens tells a story about competing in this year's Diamond Head Classic. Before the tournament, someone handed him an article about the top 10 pro prospects who were playing in the tournament. Howard's name wasn't on it.
Three games later, and Howard was the MVP.
"I can't say it enough," Stevens said. "He's unbelievable. He only wins. His mind and his motor are different."
And yet, when the observers of the sport get together to mention the best players in the game, the ones who make the biggest impacts, it usually takes a long time to get to Howard's name. For crying out loud, Moe Howard got more All-America consideration than Matt.
All of which bothers Howard, well, not at all.
"That's not what drives me," Howard, 6 feet 8 and 230 pounds, said Sunday. "I'm more intrinsically motivated. It's more that you don't let your team down. It's more that you don't want to have any regrets. That's the worst thing in the world.
"That's how you have to play the game. I don't worry about what people say from the outside. I really don't."
On the inside, what teammates say about Howard includes a lot of punch lines. About the way his old, faded socks flop around his ankles. About the way the hair resembles a creature nesting on his head. About the old bicycle he rides around campus. About all the empty Gatorade bottles he keeps. About the fact he hasn't been in a movie theatre since high school, because he figures the movies will be on TV for free someday. About how much he resembles Saturday Night Live comedian Andy Samberg. About what year it happens to be back in Howard's small hometown of Connorsville, Ind.
"He's a little different," said grinning teammate Shawn Vanzant, the Wharton grad who has become one of Howard's best friends.
"I've been trying to figure out why he doesn't get mentioned (with great players) myself. Who wouldn't want Matt Howard, the way he hustles, the way he rebounds?"
More than anyone else, this tournament has belonged to Howard. He was the player who hit the winning field goal against Old Dominion. He was the player who hit the winning free throw against Pitt. Against VCU on Saturday night, it was a four-point game with a minute to go when Howard got a rebound, put the ball back in, made a defensive stop, got a second rebound and hit two free throws. In 14 seconds, the lead went from four to eight.
Yes, there are players who look better getting off the bus than Howard. There are faster players, and bigger players and better shooters. Soon, a lot of them will be richer than Howard, too.
Howard? He wins.
Funny, but at the moment, it seems like enough.