“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.
Here is Part 3 of “The Cinderella Code:”
When you think about the type of player you find on a mid-major team capable of surprising the college basketball world and making the Final Four, you’re probably envisioning someone like Gordon Hayward.
As a skinny kid barely pushing six feet tall when he entered Brownsburg High School in the western suburbs of Indianapolis, Hayward wasn’t even thinking about college basketball. He even considered quitting the sport to focus on his tennis career. He grew to 6-foot-3, and still nobody was recruiting him. He grew to 6-foot-5, and a small school on the north side of town with a young coach named Brad Stevens offered him a scholarship. That school was Butler.
Soon after he broke his wrist, limiting his ability to play travel basketball in front of scouts, and despite the fact that he had grown to 6-foot-8 with the skillset of a superstar, none of the bigger programs in the area took notice until it was too late. Butler landed a diamond in the rough. After his freshman season there were murmurs about him leaving for the NBA. The following year he won Horizon League Player of the Year and led Butler to the 2010 National Championship game, which coincidentally was played at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
As the final seconds counted down, he heaved up a shot for the championship from 46 feet and came three inches away from authoring the greatest moment in college basketball history. The shot missed, but Butler still went down in history as the smallest school to play for a national title in over 50 years, and the first program from the unappreciated Horizon League to advance past the Sweet 16. A few months later, Hayward was drafted ninth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft.
Butler’s run in 2010 can be easily explained then. They possessed a secret weapon, a player who could’ve been a star on any team at a bigger school but ended up by chance at a mid-major program, and by sheer force of will carried his inferior teammates to victory.
. . .
This sort of thinking lines up perfectly with how most college basketball championships are won, on the backs of one-or-more mega-talented players who team up at a powerhouse school to shine brightest on the sport’s biggest stage. Behind each Cinderella story we expect to find someone like Hayward. We think of Steve Nash or Steph Curry, both of were two-time winners of the NBA Most Valuable Player award, playing for tiny schools Santa Clara and Davidson. Or Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft coming from Weber State. These people didn’t belong at such small schools. But after being overlooked or mischaracterized, they carried their respective teams to glory by their individual greatness. Right?
How then do you explain Lillard’s team never qualifying for the NCAA Tournament? How come Nash never took Santa Clara past the second round? Even Curry going full supernova in the 2008 tournament wasn’t enough to propel Davidson past the Elite Eight, when Kansas bottled him up and his teammates were unable to pick up the slack. Curry opted to return to school the following season and was unable to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Or how do you explain Hayward himself only averaging an unspectacular 15.8 points per game during Butler’s run in 2010? You can’t. And you certainly can’t explain what happened to Butler in 2011.
To be clear, nobody considered the 2010 Butler team a Cinderella. Despite the size of their school and their modest conference affiliation, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 11 in the country in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. With a star like Hayward and all five starters returning from a 26-win team the previous season, everyone knew Butler was going to be good. At season’s end they were ranked No. 12, and their 28-4 record wasn’t sneaking up on anybody. Even though they were undervalued as a No. 5 seed in the West Region, many experts predicted them to make a deep tournament run.
Sure, making it all the way to the national championship game was a surprise, but these victories were far from David versus Goliath.
Butler’s 2011 team was a different story. In early February the Bulldogs were sitting at 14-9 and coming off of three straight losses to pedestrian Horizon League competition. Their only hope of making it to the Big Dance was to win the conference tournament and capture the automatic bid. If they managed to do that, they couldn’t possibly hope to make a run without Hayward.
A new hero emerged. With a head of greasy, curly long hair and a daily wardrobe that included socks so old that the elastic had lost all tension, this hero was the exact opposite of who you’d expect as the leader of a Final Four-caliber basketball team. He probably looked just as ridiculous as David did, descending down into the Valley of Elah to fight a giant without wearing armor or carrying a shield. In comparison to Hayward, sportswriter Rick Reilly said this hero “look[ed] more like a geeky band-camp RA than a possible NBA first rounder.” This hero’s name was Matt Howard.
. . .
The first image that pops into people’s heads when they think of Howard isn’t a celebration, a made shot, or even an epic missed shot the way it is for Hayward. It’s a bloody nose. Ok, a bloody nose is underselling it. During a February game in 2011 against the University of Illinois-Chicago, four days after his team had suffered its third consecutive loss and looked doomed, Howard was fighting underneath the basket for positioning when he was elbowed in the face. He fell to the ground. Play stopped. When he rose to his feet moments later, blood was streaming from his nose and a cut above his eye, painting the entire left side of his face red. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie.
The Bulldogs won the game, and didn’t stop winning for the rest of the regular season, conference tournament, or NCAA Tournament either. Nothing can more perfectly represent all that Howard brought to the Butler program than the fact that he literally shed blood for a victory.
Growing up in Connersville, Indiana as the eighth of 10 children, Howard learned qualities like humility, hard work, and patience at an early age. Connersville is a small town of just over 13,000 people, one of many post-industrial midwestern cities with a boarded-up downtown after the abandonment of a Ford factory, once the town’s biggest employer.
The Howards weren’t rich. In his first childhood home there was just one bathroom. “Can you imagine that with five sisters?” Howard said. “That’s some intense sharing.” His first job was delivering newspapers at age nine, following the example of his father, who worked as a mail carrier for 33 years and only took one sick day. By the time Howard was 16, he saved enough money from the newspaper deliveries and mowing lawns to afford his own car and insurance, all while earning perfect grades in school.
On the basketball court, the 6-foot-8 Howard was a town hero. He could score both inside and outside and was praised endlessly for “playing the game the right way,” scrapping after loose balls and always sharing the ball with his teammates. Yet he was uncomfortable with the celebrity, including one instance where he declined to reenter during the fourth quarter of a high school game in which he needed just two more points to break the school record.
That didn’t stop premier colleges from calling, but eventually Howard became the first top-100 recruit ever to play basketball at Butler. He didn’t much care for the offers he received from larger schools, picking Butler because it had the same “small school, big gym” feel as Connersville, and because he wanted to play with summer teammate Zach Hahn.
Howard’s indifference towards stardom held true in his time at Butler. His impact for the Bulldogs was immediate, winning the conference’s Newcomer of the Year trophy as a freshman, and in his sophomore season in 2008-09 he took home the Horizon League Player of the Year award.
Then, without reservation, he surrendered primary scoring duties to Hayward the following season for the good of the team. In the classroom, he maintained a 3.77 grade point average as a finance major, and in his senior season was named the Academic All-American of the Year. “He’s the best on the court, the best in the classroom. He’s Mr. Everything,” teammate Ronald Nored said. “You’d hate him if he weren’t so nice.”
Off the court, Howard was just as singular. He rode to practices and classes on a rusted out bicycle all year, regardless of snow or icy Indiana winters. He got his hair cut only once per year, by a friend who did it for free. During the 2010 tournament run, he vowed not to shave his patchy mustache until his team lost. Then there were those socks. Howard wore the same pair of socks and shoes every day at the gym, until the elastic had stretched and the socks drooped down to his ankles. Teammates dubbed them the turtleneck socks. “They’re terrible, awful, a complete embarrassment,” said Nored, but Howard didn’t much care. “There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s not like they have holes or anything. They’re not fashionable, I suppose, but then again, I’m not a very fashionable person,” Howard said.
His shoes were in similar condition. “He has six pairs of brand-new shoes in his locker,” teammate Shelvin Mack said. “But he won’t wear them! He just keeps wearing those ratty old ones.” A few teammates called him a minimalist, but he preferred the term low-maintenance.
One thing nobody could ever label him was selfish. Howard scored more than 20 points just eight times during the 38 games of his senior season in 2010-11. But he was a hero for the Bulldogs nonetheless, leading a true underdog into the 2011 NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed. In its opening round game against No. 9 seed Old Dominion, when the game was tied in the final seconds and there was a scramble underneath the opposing basket, it was Howard who ran in and grabbed the ball, scoring on a wild shot at the buzzer for the win.
Two days later, Howard again was called on to make a free throw with the game tied and less than a second on the clock to beat No. 1 seed Pittsburgh. He nailed it. In the Sweet 16 round, when the team needed him to put up a monster performance against No. 4 seed Wisconsin, he responded with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Then in the Elite Eight when Shelvin Mack had the hot hand, Howard backed off, finishing with an efficient 14 points. Under the bright lights of the Final Four he made 11-of-12 free throws to close out VCU, landing Butler once again in the National Championship game against all odds.
. . .
It turns out, the type of player you find on a mid-major team capable of surprising the college basketball world and making the Final Four is someone like Matt Howard. His 16.4 points per game average in 2011 is actually the highest scoring average of any player on any of the five mid-major teams to reach the Final Four. Across all those teams, there have only been four players who have ever suited up for an NBA game. Only two of those got drafted. And none of them ever averaged more than eight points per game in an NBA season. These were not superstars in disguise.
George Mason’s leading scorer was Jai Lewis at just 13.7 points per game. Below him were the four other starters, all of whom averaged between 11 and 13 points.
VCU’s Final Four team had a similar spread, with four players averaging between 11 and 15 points. In fact, the Rams lost two NBA first-round picks in the two drafts prior to the 2010-2011 season. Eric Maynor was taken 20th in 2009 and Larry Sanders 15th in 2010. The farthest either of those two got was the first round of the NCAA Tournament. When they left, VCU went to the Final Four.
Butler suffered the loss of a superstar in Hayward, but returned to the national championship game behind four players averaging between eight and 16 points.
Wichita State had three between 10 and 14 points on its Final Four team of 2013. The Shockers’ roster was a band of misfits, with two transfers from other schools and five coming from junior college, carrying a healthy collective chip on their shoulders.
And finally there’s Loyola in 2018, which also had five players scoring more than 10 points but none more than 13.2 per game.
How can that be?
The Butler basketball program actually has a name for this phenomenon of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They call it the “Butler Way.” The Butler Way originated at a summer coaching retreat in 1995, when the coaches of Butler, Wisconsin, and Bowling Green met to share ideas and philosophies. Butler’s coach at the time was Barry Collier. Wisconsin was led by Dick Bennett. And Bowling Green’s coach was none other than Jim Larrañaga, prior to taking the job at George Mason.
Larrañaga showed up with 107 pages of notes, emphasizing principles “not that you coach by, but that you live by.” From this, Collier adopted five core pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. Collier coached at Butler until 2000, and in that time he built the foundation for applying these pillars to every aspect of the program. The Butler Way governed which recruits were brought in, how much playing time players received, and how the team conducted its business off the court.
In 2006, Collier returned to the school as the new athletic director. He was the one to hire a 30-year-old Brad Stevens in 2007. The next fall, Matt Howard showed up on campus, a living embodiment of the Butler Way.
Michael Lewis, best-selling author of books like Liar’s Poker, Moneyball and The Big Short, has a name for players like Howard. In a 2009 profile of NBA player Shane Battier, the closest equivalent to Howard on the NBA level, he coined the term “No Stats All-Stars.” Lewis said, “Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse.” Put enough players like Battier together on one team, Lewis surmises, and you’ve got a winning team. That’s essentially what Butler did in 2010 and 2011.
A professor of management at the school spent several years studying the Butler Way, and concluded that players like Howard “are literally catalysts - agents that provoke a chemical reaction between substances that would otherwise have no effect on each other. Butler has a higher percentage of catalyst players than any other program in college basketball. Alone they would be just average, but put them on the court and the pieces start fitting together.”
The idea of a basketball player serving as a catalyst is powerful. Catalysts are the unsung heroes of chemistry. Without them a group of individually insignificant molecules, that could form a valuable substance together, never break apart and form as one. The catalyzing agent is not used up in the reaction. It aids in the bonding process and then backs away without taking credit. In basketball, teams from powerhouse programs are filled with superstar talent, like chemicals with enormous potential, but are often devoid of anyone able to surrender their personal statistics or NBA prospects to become a catalyst for the team. On mid-major teams, players like Howard set off a chain reaction that raises the team to heights that are impossible on just the merits of its individual components.
A balanced scoring attack also has more practical advantages. Similar to Shaka Smart’s Havoc defense detailed in the last section, a balanced team is more difficult to scout on short notice.
Take Butler’s Elite Eight opponent in 2011, Florida, as an example. One round before facing Butler, the Gators matched up with Brigham Young University, a mid-major led by a dynamic talent in Jimmer Fredette. Fredette averaged 28.9 points per game that season and was the 10th pick in the NBA draft. He was a superstar on the level of Hayward, Nash, or Lillard. But his dominance made BYU’s offense predictable. The game plan could basically be boiled down to one sentence, “Don’t let that kid shoot the ball.” Florida had enough athleticism and enough talent to chase him around, sending double teams at every opportunity. Fredette was held to 3-of-15 from three-point range, and turned the ball over six times as Florida posted a comfortable nine-point victory.
The game ended around 10 p.m. March 24, leaving about 42 hours before a 4:30 p.m. tipoff March 26 against Butler. The athleticism and talent disparity was just as vast. The Gators had as many top-100 recruits coming off their bench as Butler had on its entire roster. But on such short notice, it’s much harder to explain a complex motion offense where any of the five players on the opposing team can score. Without watching extensive film, how do you convince your big men that the “geeky band-camp RA” with turtleneck socks has three-point range?
Mid-major programs will never reach the Final Four because their rosters are stacked with the best players. For every diamond-in-the-rough talent they get, the traditional powerhouse opponent will trot out four or five players of the same caliber.
But this can actually be a desirable disadvantage for small schools. For one, they won’t need to worry about players leaving school early to chase NBA money. All five of our mid-major teams started at least three players who were seniors, and that experience and continuity became a big advantage during their tournament runs. And without the big egos attached to superstar talent, cohesion amongst players can be built.
Over time, players can become catalysts, and catalysts can set off a chain reaction that raises a team to unforeseen heights. As Butler and Matt Howard prove, you don’t need the best players, you just need the right ones.