Final Four Daily Diaries: SaturdayPosted by rtmsf on April 3rd, 2011
RTC is at the Final Four in Houston, our sixth as a fan but our first as a member of the working media. What that means, exactly, we’re still trying to figure out, but we think it has something to do with wearing a rectangular piece of plastic with our mug on it and nodding approvingly at the people in the NCAA blazers walking around the innards of Reliant Stadium. Or maybe it means dropping dime on one of the coaches at the dais for one thing or another — we’re not sure. Anyway, over the next four days of collegiate basketball activity here in H-town, we’ll be providing a daily diary in much the same way we’ve done with our correspondents throughout this year’s Tournament — equal parts observation and analysis, with a hint of the absurd.
Saturday, April 2 – Houston, Texas
- For my money, of which I will have very little after this trip to Houston, the moments prior to the start of the first game at Semifinal Saturday are the absolute best of the entire season. The anticipation, buzz, nervous vibe, whatever you want to call it… is off the charts, as all four schools dare to dream the impossible. Bands are playing, fans are screaming, media are flittering, and the whole place contains an electricity that is only captured in my opinion at the collegiate level of sports. There’s something peculiar about schools and fandom that makes this so, and it’s different than what you see with fans in the various professional sports leagues around the country and world. At any rate, if I could bottle that energy in the air in those fifteen minutes prior to the first tipoff, I’d strap a nipple to that thing and drink it down as a part of my daily regimen. No question.
- That said, my seating arrangement in the pressbox of Reliant Stadium (remember, this is a football stadium by design) left a little to be desired. The worst part actually wasn’t the view — I could see the players and the ball going through the hoop fine, and so forth — rather, it was the giant windows that kept the noise of the stadium below from reaching all of us within the box. It muffled everything to the point where I felt I wasn’t actually watching the game live inasmuch as viewing it as a tourist observes the sharks as the local aquarium. It was more like watching the game on television rather than being there, even though I didn’t have a high definition screen in front of me and the PA announcer was clear as day (piped into the room).
- Seriously, UConn students? Take a closer look at the above photo from the satellite circling Reliant Stadium. Behind each basket is the student section, and all of them are filled to the gills… except the one on the bottom right (ed: corrected) — Connecticut’s. How does a self-professed basketball school not send enough fans down here to fill a rather paltry student section ON THE FLOOR? We’re talking, what, five hundred seats? From a school with 28,000 students? This makes me want to root against the Huskies on principle alone — if that section isn’t absolutely stuffed on Monday night, I may just go down there myself and sit in it.
- I’ll jump ahead here to say that the two-year Butler run of back-to-back championship game appearances is absolutely unprecedented in the modern era of basketball. Think about it. They’ve beaten #1 seeds, elite programs, mid-majors, johnny-come-latelys and everything in between en route to consecutive trips to Monday night. The only non-power conference teams to have made it to that game since John Wooden retired? Here’s the list aside from Butler (2010-11) — Memphis (2008), Utah (1998), UNLV (1990), Louisville (1980, 1986), Houston (1983-84), Indiana State (1979), Marquette (1977). Of that list, perhaps only the Sycamores of Indiana State are comparable in relative scope of their program, and they happened to have a guy named Larry Bird on their roster.
- The list of repeat finalists in the modern era is even more pedigreed: UNC in 1981-82, Houston in 1983-84, Duke in 1991-92, Michigan in 1992-93, Arkansas in 1994-95, Kentucky in 1996-98, Florida in 2006-07, and now Butler in 2010-11. The obvious theme among most of these teams is continuity, but only the Houston teams and the Kentucky teams lost a lottery pick level player between years as Butler did with Gordon Hayward — UH with Clyde Drexler in 1983, and UK with Antoine Walker in 1996, and Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson in 1997 — yet was still able to get back to the following season’s title game. Even in an environment of college basketball where youth is served to water down the best programs year over year, it’s simply astonishing that Brad Stevens and his Butler Bulldogs will again be playing on Monday night.
- As for tonight’s game against VCU, Shaka Smart’s team learned the hard way that it’s really hard to out-Butler Butler. The Bulldogs have been doing the Cinderella thing for years, so VCU wasn’t going to sneak up on Butler like they did a few other teams in this year’s Tournament. In my mind, the Rams needed to hit 10+ threes to have a chance to knock off the Bulldogs in this one, and they ended up only hitting eight, two of which came after the game had been salted away. After an initial flurry knocking down three in a row in the first five minutes of the game (one from Jamie Skeen; two from Bradford Burgess), the Rams only nailed three more during the next 34 minutes of action, as Butler slowly and methodically locked the shooters up. Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell, both so consistently good throughout the five-game streak, combined to shoot 2-13 from the field and 1-8 from three. This is one reason why, even though both teams shot in the 30% range, Butler was able to scratch together enough points to win the game. VCU wasn’t able to make its patented runs.
- The second key to the game was the ability of Butler’s guards, most notably Shelvin Mack and Zach Hahn, to step up in the clutch time and time again. That’s skill, obviously, but it’s also related to experience, knowing when to take charge and make plays. Hahn’s individual eight-point run in the mid-second half was absolutely essential because Butler was having a terrible time handling VCU’s Jamie Skeen inside at the time. Had the Bulldogs gone cold there, they probably would have faced yet another comeback situation in the last 8-10 minutes rather than the relatively even game they found at that point. After Hahn’s contribution to keep BU afloat, it was then Mack’s turn. The senior guard knocked down consecutive bombs followed by a layup and another tough jumper, which allowed Butler to build a lead down the stretch, a situation they’re very adept at protecting. Finally, Shawn Vanzant got into the act; even though he’d struggled shooting the ball all game (3-11 FGs), he saved his only trey of the game for a spot where Butler really needed it — a corner three with just over three minutes to play that pretty much took the wind out of the sails of the VCU players and fans. They knew it was over at that point.
- Moving on to the marquee matchup of the evening, Kentucky and UConn made up for generally poor play with more than enough drama to titillate the senses. After a poor-shooting first half for the Wildcats, they started finding the range in the second, hitting four threes to storm back into the game. UConn answered with what Jim Calhoun described after the game as “one for ten,” meaning that from around the 7:19 mark until the final meaningless three made by Brandon Knight at the buzzer, the Husky defense shut down the Wildcat attack. The score went from 48-all to 56-52 UConn in that span, with a DeAndre Liggins three and foul shot representing the only UK points. It may have been a combination of the UConn defense and tired Kentucky legs (the play from 8:30 to 2:09 was without a television timeout), but the fact of the matter is that UConn did just enough down the stretch to win the game.
- For the umpteenth time in this Tournament, a team (here, Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins) has taken a three to win the game when a two to tie was all that was needed. The only time it worked that I can recall was in the Morehead State opening round upset of Louisville. It’s the easier shot to fire up there and there has to be an element of hero-want, but I hate this trend and hope it goes away. Smart teams go to the rim in those situations, and in two previous end-of-game situations this Tournament, Brandon Knight had done just that (well, at least got his shot off within the three-point line). After the game, Liggins said that the three he took that was a shade short was not in fact the play that they expected to run, but he didn’t elaborate on what was supposed to happen.
- The other item worth discussing is that, once again, the John Calipari statement from 2008 about free throws being relatively unimportant came back to bite him in a Final Four game. The Wildcats were a miserable 4-12 from the line, with Terrence Jones‘ 0-5 the biggest offender. There weren’t many fouls in this game, but there weren’t many points either, and UConn hitting 9-11 from the stripe while Kentucky was far worse can effectively be argued as the biggest statistical difference of the contest. Afterward, Cal shook his head and said he didn’t know what the reason for it was, only that his team had “been shooting them really well.” He’s right, of course, as his team hit 71.2% on the season and even Jones was at 66% this year. Perplexing.
- A Kemba in hand is worth two or three in the bush, but it was interesting when Jim Calhoun was asked after the game about whether it’s good for college basketball for mid-majors like Butler to have a shot to win the national title. He said he was all for it, but maybe “in 2012 or 2013.” Assuming he doesn’t retire after Monday night, though, the New Englander has a hell of a nucleus on his team returning with Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Alex Oriakhi and others. I was at the three Maui games back in November, and although UConn looked good, it was without question the Kemba Show (with a sprinkle of Oriakhi). No longer. Napier’s huge rebound after the Liggins miss and calm to step up and ice the game is something that you can’t be taught (remember, the kid was 1-7 from the field and 0-4 from three, so it’s not like he was on fire). People have made the Kansas/Danny Manning comparison, but I don’t really like that one; “the Miracles” weren’t all that good. I liken this UConn team to the Ed O’Bannon UCLA champion in 1995, as the NPOY had a wondrous supporting cast of talented freshmen to help him win his title that year.
- So it’s UConn vs. Butler on Monday night for the 2011 national championship, and the talk around the media room was whether anyone would actually show up. Butler being a small, private school and UConn’s failure to travel to Texas contribute to this thinking, but this was going to be true as soon as Kentucky was eliminated this weekend. VCU did the best that it could with its smallish fanbase, but they probably weren’t going to pack the place. Such is the reality of the NCAA Tournament — it’s beauty in allowing and encouraging smaller schools the stage to compete with the big boys will sometimes result in situations like this. Still, UConn fans need to step it up here. Seriously.