Monday, April 4, 2011
Halftime reaction: Butler 22, Connecticut 19
By Eamonn Brennan
Both Connecticut and Butler are shooting below 30 percent thanks to solid defense by both teams.
HOUSTON -- The court is a glistening pane. The stadium is a pristine artifice. The cheerleaders are smiling; the uniforms are cleanly designed. Everything in Reliant Arena is pretty.
Everything, that is, except the offense.
Instead, these two defenses were the story of the first half of the 2011 national championship game, as Butler and Connecticut played a slogging slugfest caused less by bad offense -- although there was plenty of that -- than flawless defensive rotations, great on-ball pressure, deflections and blocks.
Butler leads 22-19 at the half, and were it not for a last-second Shelvin Mack 3, the first 20 minutes would have ended with the score tied at 19.
The pertinent statistic -- 15-of-58 -- is not hard to locate. That's these two teams' combined first-half field goal mark. Why so bad? It's not just missed shots. The reasons:
Butler is everywhere on defense. The Bulldogs are challenging every inbounds play all the way out to half court, they're jumping on post possessions as quickly as possible and they're rotating to prevent Kemba Walker from gaining any advantage on ball screens.
The same goes for Connecticut. Butler's high-screen offense -- in which the Bulldogs run high ball screen after high ball screen at the top of the key and on the wing -- hasn't yielded anything, because Connecticut is doubling every screen. After that, the Huskies are rotating fast enough and using their superior length well enough to challenge Butler's outside shooters. Things haven't been any easier in the post. Butler forwards Matt Howard and Andrew Smith are yet to get a truly clean look at the basket. Connecticut's size has been too much thus far.
Perhaps the most interesting matchups to watch the rest of the game will be who guards Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Most expected Butler stopper Ronald Nored to spend most of his time on Walker, but for much of the half, Nored shaded the taller, lankier Lamb, and he effectively shut Lamb out of the game. Walker drew combined defensive attention -- Shawn Vanzant, Mack and Nored all took turns guarding him, and as above, Butler was quick to run second defenders at him on high screens. That Brad Stevens went with these assignments is both surprising and, well, not. The man always has something up his sleeve.
Keep an eye on the defensive adjustments on both sides going forward. These two teams have shot the ball poorly, but it's not necessarily about nerves or tight rims or simultaneous off nights. We're watching a thoroughly ugly game in a thoroughly pretty setting. But if you like comprehensive defense, there's nothing ugly about it at all.