Butler-UConn Championship Preview
Mitch Light previews tonight's big game.
By: Charlie Miller | 4/1/11, 12:02 PM EDT
Houston — We’re told this is one of the more improbable National Championship games in the history of the sport. We have two teams that lost a combined 18 games in the regular season — the most ever in a title game. We have a No. 3 seed that went .500 in the Big East and a No. 8 seed that lost five games in the 11th-rated conference, according to the RPI.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe this is what we should have expected. Not back in late January or early February, when UConn and Butler were struggling, both looking like teams that would have trouble winning a game in the NCAA Tournament — if they even got that far. But maybe we should have expected this matchup when the Field of 68 was announced. By that time, both of these clubs had hit their stride, with UConn winning five games in five nights en route to an amazing Big East title and Butler capturing the Horizon League Tournament title on the home court of top seed Milwaukee with surprising ease, 59–44.
Should we be surprised when the best player in America, UConn guard Kemba Walker, has his team in the national title game? Should we be surprised when the defending national runner-up is back in the title game, even with the loss of its best player, Gordon Hayward.
We are surprised, but we shouldn’t be.
So who is going to win? Well, the boys in Vegas have made UConn a 3.5-point favorite. But don’t expect that to concern Butler, who was an underdog in its first four NCAA Tournament games. The Bulldogs have grown accustomed to winning on the biggest stage in the sport, with an amazing 10–1 record in the NCAA Tournament over the last two years. Butler isn’t overly talented, but the Bulldogs do have some very good players — most notably point guard Shelvin Mack and do-everything forward Matt Howard — and they have a great coach in Brad Stevens. Butler’s strength is its defense. The Bulldogs’ five opponents in the NCAA Tournament have combined to shoot 41.8 percent from the field, and that includes Pitt’s 26-of-46 performance in the second round.
UConn can play a little defense, as well. In the national semifinal, the Huskies held Kentucky to 33.9 percent shooting overall (33.3 percent form 3-point range) en route to a season-low 55 points. Star point guard Brandon Knight, who had been fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, converted only 6-of-23 from the field.
A key Monday night will be the play of each team’s respective star point guards, Mack for Butler and Walker for UConn. Walker scored a game-high 18 points against Kentucky, but he was not his usual, sensational self. He needed 15 shots to get his 18 points, and hit only 1-of-5 from three. The Huskies will be very tough to beat if Walker scores more than 20 points and does so in an efficient manner.
Butler will need Mack to duplicate his sterling effort against VCU, when he scored 24 points on 11 shots, thanks in part to 5-of-6 3-point shooting. But also key for the Bulldogs will be to keep Howard out of foul trouble. Fouls were an issue vs. VCU, but Howard still managed to stay on the court for 31 minutes. If he is forced to spend significant chunks of the game on the bench, Butler will be in trouble.
Prediction: UConn is favored for a reason. From a pure talent standpoint, the Huskies are probably the better team. But Butler is more experienced and is getting big-time performances from its best players.
Butler 66, UConn 61
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