2011 NCAA National Championship: Breaking Down Butler and UConn
And then there were two.
One of the wildest NCAA Tournament's in recent memory will come to a conclusion tonight with a championship game that almost no one picked to happen.
It's easy to see the names Butler and Connecticut and get drawn into the David vs. Goliath storyline that's been written ad nauseum over the past 24 hours. But make no mistake, this isn't a battle of David vs. Goliath.
It's a battle of David vs. David.
In ESPN/USA Today's first preseason poll, Connecticut didn't receive a single vote.
Yes, you read that right.
UConn was a complete afterthought. It was only after an amazing start that saw them upset Kentucky and win the Maui Invitational that anyone took them seriously. As their season wore on, UConn came back to the pack and when the Big East Tournament started, UConn was the 9th seed and faced a major uphill battle.
After beginning the season ranked 18th, Butler fell out of the Top 25 by week three. On February 3rd, they walked off the court after losing to lowly Youngstown State. They had hit rock bottom.
At one point or another, both of these teams were completely written off by the pundits. But then something funny happened to them.
They figured out how to win.
We all know what happened next. Butler hasn't lost a game since that night in Youngstown, and all UConn did was go on a run of epic proportions to win the BIg East Championship and earn a spot in the national championship game.
Wow. Is it Monday night yet?
Let's break down this game.
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This game is absolutely loaded with great guards. Two of the best players of country, Kemba Walker of UConn and Shelvin Mack of Butler, will be called on to carry their team to victory tonight. Both are excellent decision makers with the ball. Both are capable of taking the game over at a moment's notice. And both have an assassin-like ability to knock down clutch shots in crunch time.
Shelvin Mack is tailor made for the NCAA Tournament. His ability to create space in the lane with his body, hit the step-back, mid-range jumper and knock down shots from behind the three-point line make him almost impossible to defend. And that's just the Shelvin Mack you see during the first 35 minutes of the game.
When the game is on the line in the last five minutes, he elevates his game to a level few can match. Look for him to have a huge game tonight.
Joining Mack in Butler's backcourt rotation are Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored. Vanzant was huge in Butler's win over VCU, and is a great two-way player on the perimeter.
Nored didn't score a point against VCU, but did a great job shutting down Joey Rodriguez on the defensive end.
Look for him to get a lot of minutes guarding Kemba Walker, where his job will be to defend him hard on the perimeter and make him work for his points.
Kemba Walker has been enemy No. 1 for opposing defenses since he torched everyone he faced at the Maui Invitational nearly five months ago. No one has figured out how to stop him yet. Walker will get his points tonight, but I have a feeling that the Butler defense will do a better job than most in making it difficult on him.
Perhaps the most important development for the Huskies during their great run has been the emergence of Jeremy Lamb. He played fantastic against Kentucky and could the the X-factor for UConn if they pull it out.
This one is too close to call, both teams are stacked in the backcourt.
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While this is likely to be a guard heavy game, each team will need solid efforts by their big men if they want to be champions. Both teams out-rebounded their opponents in the semifinal round and will work hard on the offensive glass to earn second chance opportunities.
Matt Howard just keeps doing his thing. It's not always pretty, but the guy gets it done.
He struggled shooting against VCU (3-10 from the field, 0-5 from beyond the arc) but came up huge on the foul line, shooting 11-12. He finds a way to be around the ball in big situations, and when he is, good things usually happen. He will need to shoot it better tonight to take some of the pressure of Mack, however.
Butler will also look for strong efforts, especially defensively, from forwards Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall. They will need to be huge in the lane, redirecting shots and pulling down rebounds.
UConn is led in the middle by Forwards Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu. Oriakhi is more of an offensive threat, and is coming off an 8 point, 10 rebound game against Kentucky that was better than the stat line would suggest.
He poses a serious matchup problem for Butler, as they don't have a post player that can match Oriakhi's quickness and athleticism. Okwandu is a load at 7'0" but his offense is limited and will be relied on for defense and rebounding.
UConn has an advantage in athleticism up front, but they don't have a player like Howard.
Style of Play
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I am huge believer that, in games like this one, the biggest battle on the court is over how the game is actually played.
I talked about this in my piece previewing Butler and VCU, and I think it's true for this game as well. The pace of the game will likely determine the winner.
Once again Butler will play in a game where on paper they appear to be overmatched athletically
It's been true for every game they have played in this tournament, save perhaps the Wisconsin game.
To combat this, Butler will try to slow the game down and limit UConn's possessions. It's a strategy that has been remarkably effective so far, and will need to be again tonight.
They will need to get back in transition quickly to prevent UConn from getting easy baskets on the break. Butler wants this game to finish in the 50s or 60s.
Like VCU on Saturday, UConn will try to turn this game into a track meet. They know Butler can't handle their speed in the open court, so look for Walker to push the ball at every opportunity. They want this game to finish in the 70s.
UConn will do a better job than VCU, but I think this is a battle Butler will win.
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Experience vs. youth.
Old school vs. new school.
However you want to compare them, Brad Stevens and Jim Calhoun are worlds apart. But while their styles may differ, both have their teams playing their best basketball at the right time. That's what makes a coach great.
I've said it before, I'll say it again. No one can do more with less than Brad Stevens.
He has proven time and again to be an unequaled game planner, and will surely have his team ready to slow down Kemba Walker and the Huskies. Look for him to use a variety of players on Walker, and be ready to respond to problems on the court with different looks.
Jim Calhoun has a much easier job than Brad Stevens. He is loaded with individual talent, and has a floor general in Kemba Walker he can call on to carry his team down the stretch.
Calhoun's job tomorrow will be to make sure that Walker is able to get good looks at the basket, so watch out for a lot of high ball screens to free Walker up from pressure.
Calhoun is a great coach, but right now Stevens is the best in the business.
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It will be tough to live up to the drama of last year's championship game, but this game has all the makings of a classic. Two teams who were never supposed to make it this far are one win away from a championship, and a place in the history books.
UConn is loaded up and down their roster, and will have the best player in the game in Kemba Walker. They are comfortable in the spotlight, and capable of pulling out wins down the stretch.
If they can speed the game up and take advantage of their superior athleticism, it will carry them to victory. Vegas loves them, and they will enter tonight's game as the favorites.
But I just can't pick against these Bulldogs.
UConn has the best players, but Butler is the best team.
Great teams have always found ways to beat great players, and tomorrow will be no different. As long as Butler can keep its composure and stick to their game plan, they will walk away champions.
Final Score: Butler 67 UConn 62