The University of Connecticut, behind 16 points from All-American guard Kemba Walker and big contributions from forward Alex Oriakhi and swingman Jeremy Lamb, defeated the Butler Bulldogs 53-41 to capture the NCAA title; the third championship for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
That’s the sanitized version of the story.
In related news, UConn—despite shooting 19-55 from the field and 1-11 from behind the arc—was sizzling hot compared to Butler, who connected on only 12 of 64 shots overall, and nine for 33 from three-point-land.
To many, this game will be remembered as much for Butler’s futility as it will for Connecticut’s swarming defense or the contributions of do-everything guard Walker and his versatile, talented teammates.
So, onto Butler’s marksmanship. Let’s get a few lines out of the way.
If Butler’s players were standing on the beach and trying to hit the ocean, the ball would end up dry. Heck, it may have even been devoid of sand.
If they were on the farm and trying to hit the broad side of the barn, they’d only manage to scatter a rooster or two with their errant attempts.
Butler’s program has a very solid foundation, but with all the bricks they were putting up, it looks like they were trying to lay another one at Reliant Stadium.
Can I have a rim shot? Can Butler?
Truly, Butler’s inept shooting was hard to watch—unless you were a diehard fan of the Huskies, and even then it may have been cringe-worthy.
Both teams were ice-cold in the first half, with the Huskies hitting nine of 31, and Butler only converting five of 26. The game was tied at 19 when Butler’s superb junior guard, Shelvin Mack, hit a long three-pointer to give Butler the halftime lead, 22-19.
Certainly, the figurative lid appeared to be off the iron for Butler, who once again found a way to take the lead via in-your-face defense, all-court intensity, unselfish play, and the occasional big hoop.
As it turned out, Butler’s 6-27 first-half shooting was their hot half; in the second half, they hit a measly six of 37. For the game, they shot an atrocious three for 31 from inside the arc.
One should credit UConn’s athleticism and commitment to team defense for a portion of Butler’s shooting woes. Indeed, Oriakhi and freshman forward Roscoe Smith (four blocks apiece) either swatted shots or changed the trajectory of others.
That would explain some of Butler’s travails. Otherwise, it was simply a case of Butler having an off-night—to put it mildly—on the biggest stage in college sports.
How did Butler miss? Let me count the ways.
The Bulldogs were 12-54 (22.2 percent) when their shots were not blocked.
Senior guard Shawn VanZant was 2-10 from the floor; however, he was positively scorching compared to classmate Matt Howard (having previously authored so many late-game heroics for his team), who went 1-13.
The list goes on and on, as Butler missed layups and uncontested threes, as well as its share of shots that were challenged by the Huskies.
But enough of the critique.
To UConn’s credit, they also found a way to win (rebounding and defense, primarily) when they shot a rather poor 34.5 percent.
This game was supposed to be about the electric play of Kemba Walker—the player of March Madness—and he did his part with 16 points and nine boards in a low-scoring game.
Yet Walker hardly put his personal stamp on the contest, as he struggled through a five-for-19 shooting night.
Walker probably played a secondary role in the championship game to that of Oriakhi (who owned the glass and hit five of his six shots) and impressive freshman Jeremy Lamb, who came alive in the second half and posted 12 points (4-8 from the field) and seven boards.
But in the final analysis, UConn—the hottest team in the land with 11 straight tournament wins starting March 8—found a way to win on a night where the basket looked as inviting as the eye of a needle.
A BRIEF COMMENTARY
One would hope that Butler is not somehow disparaged for their horrible shooting last night.
This was not a team that was in over its head (just look at what they accomplished and who they beat in their last two title runs), or a team that was playing without composure. The Bulldogs committed only six turnovers against an aggressive defense that was trying to force the tempo.
Butler is exceptionally coached by Brad Stevens, and they more than earned their right to play in the championship game.
Indeed, anybody that will use this game to criticize mid-major schools is either an apologist for the power conference schools, or totally clueless.
The six power conferences received 30 of the 37 at-large bids—and favorable seeds once selected.
It was a great tourney for the so-called mid-majors, led by the heroics of Butler and VCU, who, between them, ousted the likes of Georgetown, Pitt, Purdue, Florida, Wisconsin and Kansas.
Not too shabby.
And it must be said, that with UConn winning, the Big East won back a large measure of respect, after a pretty dismal tourney overall.
Stevens is a superior coach who knows his team much better than I ever will. Still, was anyone else surprised that Khyle Marshall, who gives them instant energy and rebounding off the bench, did not see more than eight minutes of action?
It is always hard to project how college stars will fare at the next level, but my guess is that Connecticut freshman Jeremy Lamb will have the best pro career of any player that suited up last night. Kemba figures to have a bright future, and I would like to think that Butler warriors Mack and Howard (especially the former) will have a place in the NBA.
It just appears that Lamb, unflappable and quite talented, will be the best of the bunch.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, as well as writing, speaking and interview requests, please e-mail: email@example.com or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.