NC State and Kansas are set to meet in the Sweet 16 and forward Richard Howell knows that he is going to need to be on the floor for heavy minutes in order to give his team a chance to win.
Howell, C.J. Leslie and reserve DeShawn Painter will be tasked with neutralizing the Jawhawks' elite front court duo of 6-foot-10 forward Thomas Robinson, a National Player of the Year candidate, and seven-footer Jeff Withey, who averages 3.3 blocks per game.
"It's definitely different when I'm not in foul trouble," the 6-8 Howell said. "I feel like it gives my team the extra boost because when we have people tired, I can come in and pick them up if I'm not in foul trouble."
Staying out of foul trouble has been no easy task for the big man, though, and the impact when Howell is on the bench next to coach Mark Gottfried is noticeable. Nine of the team's 12 losses have come when Howell picked up four or more fouls and there was a stretch in January where he fouled out in three straight games.
"It's very frustrating," he explained. "It seems like I'm in foul trouble every half. I think for my whole junior year, I've been in foul trouble, but I don't let that stop me from being aggressive and trying to get my team the 'W.' I'm going to come out no matter what and I'm still going to go as hard as I can."
Howell has been complimented by his teammates and coaches for having quick hands, a trait that he says he has always had, although it is one that gets him in trouble from time to time.
However, the junior said he is starting to learn when he can be aggressive and when he needs to dial it back and stop himself from picking up the whistles. He has a plan against Kansas because he knows his presence on the floor will be paramount against Robinson and Withey.
"I'm going to start playing defense with my hands up, especially in this game right here," he said. "It's key for me to stay out of foul trouble with the size and strength that Kansas has."
When pressed about his actual size on Tuesday after practice, Howell first joked that he was 6-9 before insisting that he is every bit of the size listed in the program next to his name.
"6-8, I'm not going lower than that," he said with a big grin before adding, "I can be as tall as [a guy like Withey] on some nights."
While Howell admitted that the Kansas front court has size on the Pack's post players, he thinks he and his teammates have an advantage, as well.
"I don't think their big men can actually run with us," he said. "They are in shape, but I feel like we can definitely get up and down the floor a lot quicker and stay in the game a lot longer."
Despite Howell banging down low with taller guys on a regular basis, he ranked fourth in the ACC in rebounds per game with 9.1 and second in offensive boards with 3.5 per contest. If the season ended today, Howell's rebounding average would be the best mark for a Pack player since Todd Fuller had 9.9 in 1995-96, and NC State is 11-4 this season when the forward reaches double-digit boards.
"It's just my heart, I feel like if I want it more than whoever I'm going against then I'm going to get it," Howell said. "Size definitely has a lot to do with [getting rebounds], but if I want the rebound, I'm definitely going to go get it or try my best to."
The Atlanta, Ga. native had one of the best games of his college career in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against San Diego State. Howell shot 10 of 12 from the field en route to 22 points, the second-highest tally of his career. The shooting performance drew rave reviews from sharpshooter Scott Wood, who compared the post man to New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony after the game.
"He was probably just playing, he knows that's my favorite player," Howell said. "Coming out of high school, I felt like I could be compared to Carmelo, but I got here and turned into Dennis Rodman, which is still cool."
Was it hard for Howell to go from a player who viewed himself as a player like Anthony to one that took pride in taking care of the dirty work?
"Definitely, it's very hard just to make that type of transition, especially when you are the man at your high school, but I came to college and changed my role," he said. "Sacrifices are good, especially when you're winning like we are."
Howell said that the coaching staff has believed in the team all year long and now the players are starting to hear some members of the national media try to jump on the bandwagon, as well. He said the key to success is to not let the compliments change the players' mindset and to continue doing what has gotten them to the Sweet 16.
"The whole season, [Gottfried] has been telling us to keep our heads up," he said. "I feel like Coach's confidence is unbelievable, and he tells us that if we go out there and play hard, the sky is the limit to what we can do. It definitely shows, not only on the offensive end, but on the defensive end, as well. I feel like that's something we were definitely lacking last year.
"It's good to see your team on TV a lot and hear [the media] talk about you, but it can kind of go to some people's heads and they let it get to them. For us, we don't want to be like, 'they're talking about us on TV, we're good enough.' We want to go out there and actually prove it."
The team is focused on getting past Kansas, but Howell did allow himself to briefly look ahead to what could await the Pack in the Elite Eight - another chance at North Carolina.
"That's one team we definitely want to get back," he said of the team's ACC rival. "We feel like they got away with two of them. We definitely want that rematch, but it's one game at a time and we want to take care of Kansas first."