Final Four Daily Diaries: Championship MondayPosted by rtmsf on April 5th, 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.
Monday, April 4 – Houston, Texas
- The Sunday between Final Four Saturday and Championship Monday night is always a relative snooze. Fans tend to walk around aimlessly not really knowing what to do with themselves, and the media events at the venue seem a little anti-climatic after the drama of the previous night. Hence, there wasn’t much to write about given that we were stuck so far from the action in Houston (a proposition which seems tenuous already, that there actually is some action in this town). So let’s jump right into Monday night’s title tilt.
- Fill in the blanks: Butler threw up more bricks than a _____ in a _____. The numbers are stark — worst shooting percentage in a title game for a single team ever; fewest points scored by a team in the title game in a hundred years (or thereabouts); fewest two-point field goals, etc., etc., etc. The Bulldogs went 12-64 from the floor for a putrid 18.8% tonight, and it felt worse. Nine of those makes were threes, which means (doing the math) that Butler only managed a total of THREE two-point field goals in the entire flippin’ game. Three of 31 from inside the arc amounts to 9.7%, and the last time we remember something this bad in a Final Four was the 3-33 stinker that Kentucky threw up in a half during the 1984 Final Four versus Georgetown. Yuck.
- Brad Stevens and the players all pretty much said the same thing after the game: the shots were there, they just didn’t fall tonight. And there’s truth to that. Sometimes missing becomes contagious, and when Andrew Smith (2-9 FGs) and Matt Howard (1-13 FGs) were blowing easy layups and short jumpers that they normally make, we wondered if the pressure of shot after shot clanging off the iron had started to creep into their heads. After a 22% first half where we thought, ‘surely this will improve,’ it didn’t. Butler proceeded to hit a marginally worse 16% in the second, eliminating any chance of a comeback after taking a short-lived lead a minute or so into the second half. When Stevens is tossing and turning in his bed in Indianapolis later this spring, he’ll surely be awakened with recurrent nightmares of his team’s shooting tonight. What with the blown layups, the threes rattling out, even the mediocre foul shooting (8-14 FTs), he’ll look back at a major opportunity lost. During a stretch from the 16:00 mark of the second half to the 7:30 mark, Butler tried just about everything and nothing would drop for them. It turned out to be the defining period of the game, as UConn went from up a single point to essentially putting the game away (up thirteen).
- When I saw Connecticut win the Maui Invitational back in November, I thought that they had a chance to be pretty good but would struggle against the familiarity of the Big East schedule. I never envisioned just how much they would struggle (9-9 in the conference), nor how well they would perform against everyone else on their schedule (23-0, including 14-0 in knockout tournament situations). The Huskies may not be the proverbial “best” team in America, but I’m not sure you can argue that anybody else is more clutch. When I asked the players on Friday about being 12-0 in tournaments this season, they answered that they play better when they know that it’s a “win or go home” situation, and every time they were faced with that scenario all season long, they beat the team put in front of them. In the sport of basketball at every level from peewee up to the NBA, that’s how champions are crowned, and UConn proved over and over again that they were more than capable.
- The development and growth of Kemba Walker from cocky NYC penetrating point guard with little knowledge of how to run a team to cocky NYC shooter with a knack for making his teammates better has been a remarkable transformation to observe. I’m not sure I’ve seen a player like him make such drastic strides in such a short period of time. But there should be no question after the last month of basketball (all due respect to The Jimmer), Walker is the best player in America and deserves the NPOY trophies to go along with the national championship one headed to Storrs. I admit that I fell for the Jimmer’s long-range bombs and must-see television when I put my USBWA ballot in a month ago, but for the RTC awards which will be coming out later this week, I had no choice but to vote for Kemba. He’s been that good, enough to surpass Jimmer in my mind.
- Jim Calhoun has now won three national championships in thirteen seasons, and although this wasn’t his best team, it may have been his best coaching job. As Kemba said afterward, Calhoun gave him “the keys and told me to drive,” and he steered this Husky team through and around numerous pratfalls and oil slicks before landing in the winner’s circle tonight. With title #3, Calhoun joins the pantheon of great coaches at that level — Wooden (10), Krzyzewski (4), Rupp (4) and Knight (3). That’s it — he’s the fifth to join that list, and even though he’s still not at the tip of people’s tongues when they speak of the best modern coaches, he said it best in the presser: “You’re known by the company you keep; that’s awfully sweet company.” Whether he’ll retire or not is on open debate, but personally I’d be surprised if he did; he seems to really love coaching and I don’t think that winning a third national title is enough to make him hand up the whistle yet.
- I got a sense in listening to Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi speak after the game on the podium that they really don’t know what they’ve just accomplished. Particularly the freshman, Lamb. Kemba seemed to hold it in a little higher regard, but as I’ve talked about before, he seemed to expect that UConn would cut the nets down all along. Whether Oriakhi and/or Lamb ever see the Final Four again is questionable, but if they return (even without Kemba), the Huskies should again be very good next year. The hard part is that Kembas don’t grow on trees, and even with the maturation of all the talented young Huskies, they’ll need to find a reliable scorer beyond Lamb (assuming KW is gone, and he’d be crazy not to).
- I was seated behind the Butler student section, and again, I have to give it up to the wholesome midwestern kids from Indiana. They practically filled both of their sections of seats, and for a school with 4,000 students located a thousand miles away, that’s devotion. They remained into the game until the bitter end, losing hope steadily but continuing to cheer for their team and show their school pride throughout (best sign: Once You Go Mack, You Don’t Go Back). There were some tears and devastation at the cruelty of losing consecutive national title games, but when these kids later look back upon their collegiate years, they’ll realize just how lucky they were. People go to major basketball schools for four years and sometimes never sniff the Final Four — this year’s BU sophomores have already been to two.
- A final note on the ugly game tonight. I can already hear the national sports media guffawing about “worst title game ever” in the morning on their radio and television shows, and they’ll have a point, but a potential argument that Butler’s poor shooting performance proves that they didn’t belong will be the wrong one. Teams don’t make consecutive national title games through luck; look back through the historical record to see what I mean. The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that teams have to bring their best game almost every night to advance because one off night will have you packing for home. Butler’s defense almost always gives the Bulldogs a chance to win, and on most every other night, holding UConn to 53 total points would be right in their sweet spot. But on most other nights, they wouldn’t miss a dozen layups and fail to convert on just about everything else. These things sometimes happen, but in the same way that VCU’s NCAA success doesn’t invalidate their weakish resume coming into the Dance, Butler’s performance tonight doesn’t mitigate what has been an astonishing (and deserving) two-year run of success in this tournament. Those who argue otherwise are simply trying to stir the pot for easy sound bites.