INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Butler's Matt Howard still savors all those precious moments he shared with his teammates over the last eight months.
There was the team trip to the Indianapolis 500, the introduction at Manning Bowl II, the chance to see Gordon Hayward's name called in the NBA draft and, of course, the unveiling of Butler's first Final Four banner.
Yes, it's been an incredible ride since Butler and Duke last met in April's national championship game _ a game that has opened a whole new world for the small school from Indianapolis that pushed the Blue Devils to the final seconds before losing 61-59.
"It used to be when you told people you played for Butler, and they weren't from Indiana, you had to explain where that was," Howard said. "Now, they all say, 'You have a chance to win the national championship here.' A lot of what happened last season has really helped our program."
Somehow, the Bulldogs have enjoyed the spoils of winning a national championship without actually winning it.
Players and coaches have earned celebrity status in this basketball-crazed state, and many fans still insist the Bulldogs won something more important than a national title _ the hearts and respect of the college basketball world.
Suddenly, opponents that once feared losing to Butler would ruin their reputation don't view things the same way now.
On Saturday, Butler and Duke meet in a rematch in East Rutherford, N.J. The last time these teams met in the regular-season, 2003, Duke wouldn't play anywhere but Durham, N.C. Two weeks from now, Stanford visits Butler in the first regular-season game ever televised by CBS from historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Louisville asked Butler to be the opening act when the Cardinals opened their new arena last month in return for a trip to Hinkle, and next season, Butler will play Indiana's two most prestigious basketball schools, Purdue and Indiana.
"We're close to where we want to be," coach Brad Stevens said. "What we're trying to do is maybe play a few more home games that we don't have to return."
Better scheduling wasn't the only measurable windfall Butler got from its astounding NCAA tournament run.
Stevens spent two days in San Antonio this summer working alongside national coach of the year Jim Boeheim, Jeff Capel and Bruce Weber at the under-18 USA Basketball Team Trials. Two months after Stevens' wife negotiated a 12-year contract extension, his services were in such demand that he signed with IMG Worldwide, the sports media and marketing powerhouse.
Guard Shelvin Mack also was one of 20 players selected to the USA Basketball Select Team that practiced against America's National Team.
The tourney run also helped Butler with recruiting.
Cody Zeller, the favorite to win Mr. Basketball this season, listed Butler, Indiana and North Carolina as his finalists. He eventually picked the Hoosiers.
But these Bulldogs understand that just being in the ballgame with someone like Zeller or on the schedules of Indiana and Purdue aren't just a reflection of them.
"The opportunities we have as a program have gotten us a lot of great stuff," point guard Ronald Nored said. "But what I hope people are seeing is that we've done it together, we're growing as a program, that they see the value of the program and why Butler has had the success we've had for the last 10 to 15 years."
The program is built on three key components: Teamwork, humility and work ethic.
Butler's players are quick to credit others for their success and are just as quick to acknowledge last season's rewards will be short-lived if they don't follow the same script this season.
It's a message that resonates with non-BCS basketball programs around the nation, and one that's been there since former coach Barry Collier built the foundation for this program years ago.
"Our success was a long, long process, it wasn't just a 5-game run in March," Stevens said. "It was a long, long run of good teams and good players."
That consistency, Stevens believes, is the reason Butler is playing No. 1 Duke (7-0) in Saturday's championship game rematch with the Blue Devils heavy favorites again.
But the Bulldogs are a different team from the one that played in April.
Hayward, whose half-court heave nearly upset the Blue Devils then, gave up his final two years of college eligibility to enter the draft. Avery Jukes and versatile swingman Willie Veasley, who had big games at the Final Four, have graduated. And Nored, the junior point guard, has missed two straight games with a concussion and is still iffy for the rematch.
The Bulldogs (4-2, 1-0 Horizon League) also have struggled early, just as they did last season. Two November losses, at Louisville and at home, in overtime to Evansville without Nored, dropped Butler out of the Top 25.
A year ago, it was almost the same thing.
Butler lost to Minnesota and Clemson in November, twice more in December and fell out of the rankings for five weeks. It didn't lose again until facing Duke, a game that cast Butler in a far different light than others had previously saw the program.
"I think it's really important that we stress how important it is to prepare right for games like Michigan State, games like Butler, because those are the teams you're going to be playing later on in the season when it's one-and-done," forward Kyle Singler, the most outstanding player in last year's tourney, said after beating the Spartans on Wednesday. "These are great preparation games for later on in the season."
And that might be the greatest reward of all _ respect.
"I don't know that things have changed for me, but things have changed because we've gotten a lot more recognition," Howard said. "A lot of things last season really have helped our program and, hopefully, we can take Butler basketball to another level of excitement."