Sunday, April 3, 2011
Butler and UConn, a tale of two Cinderellas
By Eamonn Brennan
HOUSTON -- Being wrong never felt so right.
Unless you were one of the 881 people who accurately predicted Butler versus Connecticut in the NCAA tournament final -- and there were 5.9 million brackets in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge contest, so chances are you weren’t -- you’ve been shocked, surprised, flabbergasted and flummoxed by this once-in-a-million NCAA tournament.
If you’re anything like us, you’ve also been thrilled. So what if your bracket is torn to shreds? During March Madness, there’s nothing quite as beautiful as anarchy.
This holy mess has whittled itself down to two teams and coaches divided by dozens of years (Jim Calhoun is 68, Brad Stevens is half that), thousands of miles and millions of dollars in athletic budget revenue. For the second straight year, Butler -- the small Midwestern school with the too-cute Bulldog mascot -- will play an East Coast elite with college basketball’s greatest prize on the line.
In the next 24 hours expect these differences to get plenty of attention. But these teams also share a few similarities, too.
And Monday, once the ball is tipped and the flashbulbs pop, all of those things will fade away. The Game will be, well, a game. The only contrasts that matter will come on the court.
As we wrap our heads around this national title game -- and prepare for two days of in-depth analysis -- let’s take an early first look at Butler, Connecticut and the storylines, matchups and dynamics that jump out from this chaotic 2011 tournament bracket.
How will Butler defend UConn's Kemba Walker-led offense?
In some ways, these teams are both Cinderellas. Butler is an obvious Cinderella. The No. 8-seeded Bulldogs still deserve the mid-major label, which is less a pejorative than a handy way of describing teams that enter the NCAA tournament with a wave of inherent, long-term disadvantages at their face. Connecticut, on the other hand, is less obvious. But if “Cinderella” has anything to do with expectations, then UConn has spun its own fairy tale in dramatic fashion. The Huskies were supposedly down and out in October. Calhoun was under investigation by the NCAA. The annual truckload of talent had stopped arriving in Storrs. The Huskies lost several talented players after an NIT season, and most expected Calhoun’s team to have another down year.
Instead, Kemba Walker morphed into one of the nation’s best scorers and all-around leaders. The Huskies got huge contributions from previously unheralded freshmen. Calhoun had one of his finest coaching seasons ever. Even after a brief stall in the Big East -- when everyone assumed the Huskies had “come back down to Earth,” and so on -- Connecticut now finds itself one win away from a national championship. The Huskies may not be the plucky mid-major with the quirky likability, but they’ve been on a magical ride of their own for five months, and that ride has led them to the precipice of history.
Oh, and in case you needed more evidence both of these teams deserve Cinderella status: Butler and Connecticut together form the highest combined seeds (11) and most combined losses (18) in any title game in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Butler might be the bigger surprise. But UConn isn’t too far behind.
Hopefully you didn’t stop watching these teams in early February. On Feb. 3, Butler lost at last-place Youngstown State to move to 6-5 in the Horizon League and 14-9 overall. For its part, Connecticut went 4-4 in February, with a fifth loss nearly coming to 13-18 Seton Hall. Butler was soul-searching. UConn was plummeting back to Earth. Both teams were having struggles at what seemed like the worst possible times.
Since then? Connecticut has won its past 10 games, including five in five days on the way to a Big East tournament championship. Butler has won its past 14 games, including the Horizon League tourney title. About two months ago, you could have been excused for writing off Connecticut and Butler as first-weekend NCAA tournament exits. Heck, you could have been excused for writing off Butler as an early exit-goer in the NIT. How wonderfully wrong you would have been.
The two strongest chins in college hoops. You don’t put together postseason runs like these two teams have without having an iron chin. In other words, you’ve got to be able to take your opponent’s best punch without faltering, and you’ve got to seize the moment to deliver your own blow right back. No two teams have been better able to withstand the brute force of NCAA tournament momentum than these two.
Will Brad Stevens have his Butler team prepared for Monday's championship game?
To wit: UConn gave away its 10-point halftime lead in six minutes Saturday night. The Huskies could have folded and let a suddenly hot Kentucky team assert its superiority. Instead, Kemba & Co. just kept coming right back -- getting stops, making blocks, hitting shots and never allowing UK to build a lead or take hold of the game. Likewise, Butler took the first big blow from Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday -- the Rams hit three straight 3-pointers to take an eight-point lead in the opening minutes, which has spelled doom for all five of VCU’s NCAA tournament opponents to this point. But the Bulldogs calmly adjusted, started closing out on 3s, and never let VCU control the pace of the game again.
These two abilities are functions of both team’s leaders. Stevens is the cerebral coach whose calm demeanor reflects the quiet confidence of the well-prepared. Calhoun is resilient and has the killer instinct. He's the kind of competitor who perceives every criticism as disrespect and every doubt as a motivating impetus. Those attitudes are miles apart in theory but the end result is the same: Neither team is easily, if ever, rattled. That should make for a fascinating dynamic Monday night.
The offense-defense matchup of the tournament. Connecticut is not only an offensive team. The Huskies play pretty great defense, too. Butler is not only a defensive team. The Bulldogs are fantastic on offense as well. Still, UConn’s offense (specifically that of Walker and Jeremy Lamb) has been this team’s defining feature in the NCAA tournament, while Butler’s defense (specifically the lockdown perimeter defense led by guard Ronald Nored) has been the most important component of the Bulldogs' second straight Final Four run.
That Nored-Walker matchup is a doozy. When healthy, Nored is arguably the best perimeter defender in the nation. And you don’t need me to tell you how good, and how difficult to contain, Walker has been. How Butler devises a strategy to contain Walker, and how Nored guards the UConn star, is the most immediately obvious, intriguing and ultimately important matchup we’ll see in Monday night’s surprising -- and surprisingly exciting -- NCAA tournament final.