Nearly 350 teams start practice on October 15 with a single goal — to play on Monday night. UConn and Butler are the two teams left standing; it promises to be another epic national championship game for the annals.
#3 Connecticut vs. #8 Butler – National Championship (at Houston, TX) – 9:21 pm ET on CBS.
A year ago, when Butler advanced to the championship game against Duke, they were an unmitigated surprise, the very essence of the Cinderella story that gets talked about every March. One look at the personnel changes since that team (losing Gordon Hayward as an NBA Lottery pick, along with all-glue guy Willie Veasley and big man Avery Jukes to graduation), coupled with the Bulldogs’ struggles early in the season this year (starting 4-4 on the season and 6-5 in Horizon League play), and most people would consider this year’s run to the championship every bit as surprising as last year. But a closer look reveals a Butler team that is now riding a 14-game winning streak, a team that has turned things around on the defensive end. After allowing more than a point per possession in their first 23 games, they’ve trimmed that number to under 0.96 points per possession by locking down opponents and cleaning the defensive glass. Coupled with their capable offense, highlighted by key veterans Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard and newly efficient contributors like Andrew Smith and Shawn Vanzant, while it is still a remarkable accomplishment for the Bulldogs to be in the championship game, it is not nearly the shocker that last year’s run was. Conversely, while the average fan will see the name UConn in the championship game and barely bat an eye, the fact that the Huskies have made it this far is a bombshell. At the start of the season, they were picked by Big East coaches to finish tenth in the conference, and only improved upon those projections by a single slot (9-9 Big East), despite being in and out of the national top ten all season. The Huskies dropped seven of their last 11 conference games and it looked like their overreliance on All-American guard Kemba Walker was taking its toll. But as they have done all season with their backs against the wall, Jim Calhoun’s club has come back swinging, winning five games in five games to take the Big East Tournament title, and backing that up with five more consecutive wins in the Tournament. While Walker has continued to be excellent, it has been the emergence of freshman wing Jeremy Lamb and sophomore center Alex Oriakhi as consistent contributors that have allowed the Huskies to flourish. Lamb has scored in double figures in every game in that winning streak, while Oriakhi has averaged just under ten rebounds per game in that stretch, acting as perfect complements to Walker’s 25.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Freshman point guard Shabazz Napier has also been an important spark off the bench. As with any team that faces UConn, slowing Walker will be priority number one. Junior defensive specialist Ronald Nored should get plenty of up-close-and-personal time with Walker, but Brad Stevens has made it clear that containing Walker is not a one man job. Expect the Bulldogs to try to clog the lane and make it more difficult for UConn to get penetration, while still making sure to keep an eye on Lamb – the Huskies’ best three-point shooter – on the perimeter. UConn will counter offensively with a veritable ton of ball screens for Walker, and off-the-ball screens for Lamb. The Huskies will also try to get guys like Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu and Roscoe Smith involved inside, hoping to take advantage of a relatively foul-prone Butler interior players Howard and Smith. On the offensive end, Butler will look to Mack and Howard for their offense most often, but a hallmark of the Butler Way is balanced offense, with players up and down the roster called upon at various times throughout the game. In the end, expect this game again to be tight throughout. However, the Huskies have shown the ability time and again throughout this tournament to weather a big run by the opposition, change momentum on a spectacular play by Walker, and then couple efficient offensive execution with steely defense down the stretch to eke out a nailbiting win. While it is awfully hard to pick against Butler given what they’ve done, it says here that UConn has one Kemba too many for the Bulldogs. Unless, of course, they find the range and some better luck on their halfcourt bank shots at the buzzer.
The RTC Certified Pick: Connecticut 61, Butler 60.