What an interesting match up tonight between Uconn and Butler.
Brad Stevens is one of the most celebrated young coaches in the game today thanks to a tournament-tested team that is making its second straight trip to the national title game. Butler came up just short of a national crown last year, falling in a nail-biter to Duke, but looks poised to complete some unfinished business tonight. In Saturday's National Semifinal matchup with new Cinderella team VCU, the Bulldogs used their experience on the big stage and their overall size to distance themselves from the Rams, 70-62, and earn another shot at a national championship. The first school from a non-BCS conference to make back-to-back Final Four appearances, Butler captured the Southeast Region with thrilling wins over Old Dominion (60-58), Pittsburgh (71-70), Wisconsin (61-54) and finally Florida (74-71 OT). Butler enters this game with a 14-game win streak, the third-longest in school history.
While Brad Stevens is a youngster when it comes to the college coaching ranks, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun is a grizzled veteran. Calhoun already has two national titles in Storrs, leading the Huskies to the Promised Land in 1999 and 2004. He is aiming to join a rare group of three-timers that is comprised of legends John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. UConn struggled at times this season in the Big East, finishing the year at a modest 9-9 in-conference, but reeled off an unprecedented five straight wins in five days to capture the Big East Tournament title. The team then used that momentum to race through the West Region with wins over Bucknell (81-52), Cincinnati (69-58), San Diego State (74-67) and Arizona (65-63). In Saturday's Final Four matchup with Kentucky, the Huskies did just enough in the waning moments to secure a 56-55 victory and advance to the title game. It marked the 10th straight win for UConn.
All-American Kemba Walker thinks the grueling Big East slate definitely made this team stronger.
"Just from the regular season, we knew how tough it was. We finished ninth. We were still ranked in the top 25 in the country. We knew it was going to take a whole lot to get through that Big East Tournament. But, you know, we really stayed together. We came together as a team. We fought through it. As we won games, we got a lot more confident. We kind of felt unstoppable. Things just clicked at the right time."
This is the first time that these two teams have ever met on the hardwood.
Despite shooting a mere .356 from the field overall, Butler earned the victory in the semifinals thanks to the play of Shelvin Mack outside and Matt Howard inside. Mack went 8-of-11 from the floor and hit big shot after big shot, finishing with five three-pointers en route to a team-high 24 points. Mack's confidence has continued to rise as the season has worn on.
"I would say I'm just staying positive. The biggest thing is my teammates have confidence in me. If I miss 10 straight shots or if I make 10 straight shots, they just give me the ball and tell me to make a play. I think that's a very important thing to have confidence. Also the coaching staff has confidence in me. They put me in spots to have success. I think it's been working out."
Howard was the perfect complement against VCU, adding 17 points and eight rebounds to the cause, while Shawn Vanzant chipped in with 11 points. The Bulldogs return three players who were in the starting lineup in last year's national title game. This season it has been Howard and Mack that have fueled the attack all season long. Howard is strong both inside and out, averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, while shooting .409 from behind the arc (52-of-127). Mack handles things at the point and finds time to both score (16.1 ppg, team-high 83 three-pointers) and distribute (team-high 130 assists). Help down low comes from Andrew Smith (8.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), while Vanzant (8.2 ppg) provides similar depth along the perimeter.
The Huskies get it done with strong defense and a potent backcourt consisting of the veteran Walker and freshman Jeremy Lamb. UConn enters this contest allowing a mere 65.4 ppg, while holding foes under 40 percent shooting (.398). Stifling defensive play was on full display against the Wildcats on Saturday, as UConn held Kentucky to a miserable .339 shooting effort. It was a much- needed effort, as UConn was not at its best offensively, including a terrible 1-of-12 showing from behind the arc. Walker had a strong all-around game, finishing with 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds against the 'Cats. Joining Walker in double figures was Lamb, who just missed a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds.
"Our defense eventually won it for us, along with the best player in America," UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said, referring to Walker.
Walker has been a force all year long, including this tournament. The junior is averaging 23.7 points and 4.6 assists per game this season en route to First-Team All-American honors and the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation's top point guard. Lamb (11.1 ppg) gives the team another perimeter threat, while sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi (9.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) provides some balance down low. Other youngsters who have valuable roles on this team include freshman guard Shabazz Napier (7.9 ppg) and freshman forward Roscoe Smith (6.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Coach Stevens is definitely wary of UConn's guard play and knows it isn't just containing Walker.
"I think Lamb, Napier, their other guards, really put people in a tough position. I think their three guards, certainly Walker has had a Player-of- the-Year type year, their three guards, along with the activity of the bigs, are why they're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, because those three guards break you down, get inside of you, cause you to rotate, then you're in bad rebounding position."
The job Stevens has done at Butler is certainly admirable, something that has not been overlooked by Calhoun.
"First thing, national championship game last year, Mack was a star, Howard was a great player. When you have on your roster two seniors and starting a junior from a national runner-up, you're probably starting in a pretty good place.
Brad, I talked to him a couple different times. If he's the prototypical of what's ahead in coaching, we're in great shape. We're in great shape. We're in really good shape coaching-wise."
UConn will set the modern day record by playing in its 41st game of the season tonight. Butler is the first national runner up to make it back to the title game since Duke in 1991. While that is quite the accomplishment, the Bulldogs may have to settle for second-best once again, as Walker is the difference- maker here and should be able to do enough to lead his Huskies to a national crown.
Kenpom has UConn winning 70% of the time, by four. The key to the game will likely be UConn's ability to keep Butler off the boards.