When most people look at the Penn basketball team, a couple players stand out. 6-foot-11 big man Darien Nelson-Henry stands out for his size and ability to score around the rim. Freshman Jackson Donahue and junior Sam Jones stand out for their uncanny ability to shoot the ball. Tyler Hamilton’s unique box cut also may catch a few eyes. However, although he may not be their most flashy player, soft spoken star Matt Howard has been Penn’s most steady and dependable player.
“Since Tony [Hicks] left earlier in the year and Antonio [Woods] is no longer with us and Darien has been up and down with injuries, Matt has been someone we relied on,” commented Penn head coach Steve Donahue. “I thought the last two weekends he’s been terrific. He does a little bit of everything -- he scores, guards, rebounds, offensive rebounds. Going forward, he is someone we’re going to really rely on.”
Coach Donahue is not wrong. Matt Howard has gotten it done on the offensive end by averaging 11.8 points per game, which is second on the team. His ability to hit the three, but additionally take the ball to the basket with authority, which he says is his “biggest strength,” has proved him to be one of Penn’s top perimeter scorers. Thanks to added aggressiveness, he has also been able to put the ball on the floor, thread the defense, and hit floaters over the big defenders, which has given him a full toolkit to score the ball.
As a result, Howard has had 11 games in double digits and also posted 20 or more points in 3 games. Against the Ivy League’s top scoring defense, Yale, Howard compiled 17 points on 7-10 from the field. A day later, he endured 40 minutes of work and managed 20 points in a road game versus Brown.
However, the South Carolina native has not become complacent because of his success. He often avoids taking bad shots, as he buries 51% of his attempts from the field, and has only had 6 games where he has taken double digit shot attempts.
“Matt does as good of a job as anyone of not forcing any issue,” added coach Donahue. “We have to do a better job of figuring out where his strength is.”
Howard’s offensive talents recently drew Harvard’s best defender, Agunwa Okolie, who was called one of the best defenders in the nation by ESPN commentator Cory Alexander. Still, the junior was able to shoot 5-7 from the field and gather 12 points, including many big plays in the second half when the game was close.
After only averaging 8.4 points per game last season, Howard’s newfound ability to hit the three has helped to significantly expand his offensive game.
“With the new coach, the system calls for more three point shooting,” Howard said of the added aspect, “so I made sure to implement that into my game.”
He’s already taken 21 more threes this season than he did all of last season and despite a slow start from beyond the arc, he’s beginning to find the bottom of the net. Since the Drexel game, where he shot 0-4 from three, he has shot 15 for 29, including a 5-7 three point effort against Binghamton.
“He’s a really good shooter,” added coach Donahue. “He makes them a lot. I think it’s just getting comfortable in the game and getting used to that feeling when he’s going to be open, setting himself, and letting it fly.”
However, the most impressive aspect of Howard’s game has been his defensive ability. Often tasked with matching up against the opposing team’s best offensive players, regardless of size, he has handled many defensive responsibilities.
Against Princeton, he had the job of stopping the Ivy League’s fourth highest player in points per game, Henry Caruso. Howard held the star guard to 8 points and 3-11 shooting. A couple games later, he even had to stick Dartmouth’s top player, 6-foot-8 freshman power forward Evan Boudreaux.
Now, Howard just wants to keep up with his success.
“[An improvement] would be with my mindset. Staying aggressive the entire game.”
As for coach Donahue, he feels like there is so much more room for Howard to grow.
“I think he’s just starting to scratch the surface because he is versatile.”
But even with just scratching the surface, Matt Howard has quietly turned himself into one of the most consistent players in the Ivy League.
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament