Sunday, May 22, 2022 |
Share this story
With 62 of 63 games in the books, the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been one of the best in recent and not-so-recent memory. The only game left pits an 8-seed against a team that finished ninth in its conference, so to say it has been unpredictable isn’t exactly groundbreaking.
Amazingly, the Butler Bulldogs are in the championship game for the second straight season. After captivating the country as last year’s tournament darlings, what Butler is doing this season is even more amazing.
In 2010, the Bulldogs went 28-4 and were a 5-seed that got hot behind future NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward. With Hayward now playing for the Utah Jazz, this year’s team started the season 14-9 and appeared to be looking at a much more subdued postseason, until finishing on a nine-game win streak and a win in the Horizon Conference tournament to secure a bid to the dance.
As an 8-seed, not much was expected of Butler, but a pair of last-second wins in the opening week put them back in the spotlight. Those thrillers over Old Dominion and top-seeded Pittsburgh were followed by a big win over Wisconsin, an overtime survival against Florida and a dream-dashing win over VCU, which have now put coach Brad Steven’s Bulldogs in position to win it all. This time around, he and his team are expecting to complete the journey, rather than coming up just short of the finish line.
In Connecticut’s case, the Huskies have had an up and down season. They started 10-0, then evened out once Big East play rolled around. A young team with only one proven player, UConn entered the Big East tournament as losers of four of its previous five games to finish 9-9 in conference play.
What has transpired since has been truly remarkable, as Kemba Walker has averaged 25.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the past 10 games, all UConn victories. Many thought that the tournament would be a short one for coach Jim Calhoun’s team, expending so much energy to get those five wins in five days for the Big East championship. What it has shown over the past few weeks has been amazing, especially for a team that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament last season.
The youth may be a saving grace, as this team seemed to be naive enough to remain unfazed by what it was doing. Having now gotten past Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona and Kentucky, UConn can end this roller coaster of a season with Calhoun’s third national championship.
Today’s game pits a pair of guards who were at one time NBA afterthoughts, but are now on the radar of many scouts in Walker and Butler’s Shelvin Mack. Mack began to show his potential in last year’s run as a clutch performer alongside Hayward, but now owns the backcourt spotlight and was phenomenal in Saturday’s win over VCU.
But the true catalyst for the Bulldogs is forward Matt Howard. As a junior last year, he showed what he meant to the team, but was rarely able to stay on the floor due to foul trouble. Now, he’s become the rock for Butler. He had the buzzer-beater to beat Old Dominion in the first round, the free throw to beat Pitt in the second round and has averaged 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in the five wins.
Savvy in the post and skilled enough to handle the ball and knock down jumpers, Howard’s presence gives Butler the chance to beat anyone, including UConn. The Huskies would be wise to try to attack him early and hope he moves back into 2010 mode by picking up some early fouls.
If they can, Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi can get into the interior and create some havoc.
But the Bulldogs’ defense is one of the nation’s best, so Stevens will have a plan for containing Walker, at least as much as the star guard can be contained.
A tight, low-scoring game is expected. Anything less after this tournament would be a shock. UConn currently sits as a 3.5-point favorite, but Butler hasn’t shown any reason to think it can’t run the table this time around. Bulldogs for the win!
Pick: Butler 65, UConn 60
• David Simon, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
By participating in online discussions you
acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful
discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments
are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines,
send us an email.