- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- Before two magical runs to the national title game, before Brad Stevens became a star, before the sports world knew Butler as the best story in college hoops, and before Matt Howard's droopy socks became nearly as famous as Blue II, the school’s ubiquitous mascot -- before Butler became the Butler we know today -- three high school seniors had a decision to make.
In 2007, with then-coach Todd Lickliter leaving to become the newest head coach at Iowa and a young, unproven assistant taking over the reigns, did Howard, as well as guards Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant, still want to come to Butler?
That’s when the three did something that would come to define their class, their team, and the philosophy of Stevens' program. They acted together.
"We got on a three-way phone call," Hahn said. "And we all were asking, you know, 'Are we going here?' And I told them, 'Whatever we're doing, we're doing it together.'"
On that very same call, a decision was reached: Howard, Hahn and Vanzant would give Stevens a shot. They would play together at Butler.
"We’ve never looked back." Hahn said. "We’ve only grown and improved since. And we’ve been best friends the whole time."
If it was impossible for the three to realize the bond they would form in Hinkle Fieldhouse, they could never have predicted the success that was to come. Four years later, Howard, Hahn and Vanzant have won four Horizon League titles, three Horizon League tournament titles and 117 total games. With a win Monday night, the trio -- along with unsung career reserves Alex Anglin and Grant Leiendecker -- will tie the class of 2010 as the winningest in Butler history.
Of course, a win Monday night would accomplish something far greater: It would make the Butler Bulldogs, 2010 national runners-up, the first non-major conference national champion in more than two decades and one of the most unlikely underdog stories in the history of the sport.
Not bad for three guys on a conference call.
“Those guys mean a lot to me,” Howard said. “We’ve been through a lot together. This whole thing has been a lot of fun to do with them.”
Howard has become the de facto star of the class, which wasn’t hard to predict. The Connersville, Ind., native was a three-star recruit -- practically a blue-chip prospect by Butler standards -- and even received interest from Indiana and Wake Forest, among others.
Vanzant and Hahn were more typical Butler recruits: two-star guys recruited by Stevens and the other members of Lickliter’s staff as much for their intangibles as their pure ability.
Before their commitments, Hahn and Howard shared similar backgrounds. For one, both are Indiana natives borne of the big-gym basketball culture that still thrives throughout the state, even in small towns and struggling post-industrial exurbs. Hahn’s hometown of New Castle, Ind., is home to the largest high school basketball gym in the world, Chrysler High School’s New Castle Fieldhouse. (The gym seats 9,325 high school -- yes, high school -- basketball fans. And in case you wanted another classic Indiana-loves-its-hoops statistic: Nine of the nation's 11 largest high school basketball gyms reside in the Hoosier State.) The two played with and against each other in high school, and knew each other before deciding on their Butler futures.
Vanzant, on the other hand, grew up in Tampa, Fla., miles away from small-town Indiana -- both geographically and emotionally. Vanzant’s mother passed away before he was 2. His father encountered medical and financial difficulties and his brother was imprisoned for seven felonies, including the sale of cocaine. After the arrest of his brother, the guard was close to moving to Cleveland to live with relatives when a mother of Vanzant’s high school teammate took him in.
Since then, Vanzant -- who has since settled on a post-hoops career of counseling troubled youths and is eager to deflect pity about his childhood -- has formed a special bond with his coach and his classmates.
“Coach and I have a special bond,” Vanzant said. “In a lot of ways I feel like he’s part of the senior club, too, because that was his first year as coach and he’s been here four years now. He’s been there for me through a lot of family issues, and he’s someone I’ll talk to long after he stops being my coach.”
Hahn said Butler was, in so many words, a family -- not only for Vanzant but for all of its players.
“I think it’s that way for everyone, whether you’ve had hardships in your life or the most perfect childhood imaginable growing up,” Hahn said. “This is a well-grounded team, and a team that you can really rely on, and that’s been important not only for him, but for everybody.”
Though Howard, a former Horizon League Player of the Year, has been the most important piece in Butler’s run, Hahn and Vanzant have played key roles throughout these two dream seasons. That was the case Saturday night, when Hahn -- who scored nine combined points in the Bulldogs’ first four NCAA tournament games -- hit two 3-pointers and made a gorgeous reverse layup in quick succession to give his team a one-point lead with less than 15 minutes to play.
Meanwhile, Vanzant hit arguably the biggest bucket of the game -- a corner 3-pointer that gave Butler a seven-point lead with three minutes to play. VCU never closed the gap again.
Thanks in part to those plays, Stevens’ first freshman class has a chance to make history Monday night. Frankly, with back-to-back Final Four runs under their belts, not to mention an unprecedented growth in the stature of Butler basketball, they already have.
And whether Monday ends in a victory or not, this class will always share a unique, common bond: underdogs, heroes, teammates, best friends, brothers.
“You think about [the end of your career] a little bit,” Hahn said. “You’ll see your guys in the morning after a game, or on the bus and in the locker room. But we’re not done yet.”