HOUSTON -- After nearly five months of the 2010-11 season, it has all come down to one game. Before Monday night's tipoff between Butler and Connecticut, five of our writers in Texas take one last shot at a few questions and predictions.
What are you most looking forward to in the title game?
Eamonn Brennan: How Butler schemes to stop Connecticut's offense. One of the thrills of this tournament, beyond Butler's improbable, second straight appearance in the Final Four, has been watching the analytical brilliance of coach Brad Stevens play out on the floor. His game plan against VCU -- pressure shooters, control rebounds and race back on defense whenever possible -- was flawless and flawlessly executed. For his trouble, Stevens gets to construct a game plan to stop one of the nation's least stoppable forces of nature: UConn guard Kemba Walker. It will be fascinating to watch.
Pat Forde: I can't wait to see whether Butler can seize the brass ring on its second storybook swing. This is an unprecedented story in college basketball history, a two-year run that could help remake the model of what it takes to succeed in this sport. I fully expect the Bulldogs to be even more poised and prepared than they were last year, when they lost by two points to Duke and had a shot to win at the end. If you love a good story, this is a must-see game.
Andy Katz: I want to see Kemba Walker and Shelvin Mack shine on the grand stage. I'm banking on both of them showing no fear in taking the big shot. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Sunday that he expected the respective role players to negate each other, but not Walker and Mack. I tend to agree. They have been two of the top players in the NCAA tournament during the past two weeks. It will be only fitting if Mack and Walker go shot-for-shot in the final possessions. I don't expect either one to be rattled. They both likely will celebrate this stage and grab hold of the moment.
Diamond Leung: I'm most looking forward to seeing how Butler responds to its return trip to the championship game. Will the Bulldogs, even with their postseason experience, start this game tight because of the big stage? At the first sign of adversity, will their veteran leadership carry them through? The underdog is getting a rare second chance to redeem itself. A Brad Stevens-led team should be prepared and poised, but will that be enough?
Dana O'Neil: It's pretty simple: Can Butler make history? That the Bulldogs, a team without the deep pockets of the big boys, are back in the national championship game after losing the best player to join their program is historical. But if Butler can win a national championship, the tectonic plates of college basketball's landscape will shift, and the Bulldogs will join the likes of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team as sports' most amazing stories.
At the end of the day, who or what will we say was the X factor?
Brennan: Offensive rebounding. Butler isn't a great offensive rebounding team by choice: The Bulldogs prefer to get back on defense than to crash the glass. But they did get key rebounds and putbacks at opportune times against VCU, and strangely enough -- although UConn is one of the nation's best teams on the offensive glass -- the Huskies are not great on the defensive end. Can Butler exploit that? And on the other end, can Andrew Smith, Matt Howard and Khyle Marshall do enough to keep the bigger, stronger Alex Oriakhi away from the rim?
Forde: Butler's defense coupled with Connecticut's fatigue. The Bulldogs take away an opponent's strengths. They rotate and help expertly. They devour scouting reports. They excel at the small details of successful defense. In short, they make everything difficult for an opposing offense -- and UConn might not be up for 40 difficult minutes at this point. The Huskies appeared close to tapped out physically against Kentucky on Saturday night, especially star guard Kemba Walker. This will be their 11th exhausting game in 27 days, and it's overdue to catch up with them.
Katz: Offensive rebounding. Matt Howard has a knack for keeping a possession alive or finishing one off with a putback. The same could be said for Alex Oriakhi. One of the two will shine in this game. The scoring or shooting percentages may not matter for either one, but the timely rebounding ultimately will decide this game. If it's not one of those two, it may come down to someone unexpected like Roscoe Smith or Jeremy Lamb for UConn or Andrew Smith or Khyle Marshall for Butler. Someone will come up with the key offensive rebound to help win this game.
Leung: Butler has the Final Four experience from last season, while UConn's roster is fairly young, but the emergence of the Huskies' freshmen has really taken this team to another level. Jeremy Lamb has developed into a reliable scorer alongside Kemba Walker, and Shabazz Napier's ability at point guard allows Walker to play off the ball and really do some damage. Connecticut's first-year players might be the difference in this one.
O'Neil: Ronald Nored. People don't talk too much about guys who play defense because there is no easy way to show their skills on your highlights. After this game, that may change. If Nored can contain Kemba Walker, as he has so many other great players in his career, it will be the difference in the game and the reason Butler cuts down the nets.
Butler-Connecticut: Who wins and why?
Brennan: First of all, I have no idea: After this NCAA tournament, editors should never be allowed to ask their writers for predictions again. But because that's less likely than a VCU Final Four run, I'll take Butler. I think Brad Stevens will have a coherent plan for stopping, or at least slowing, Kemba Walker and the Huskies, and I think that plan will be simple enough for the Bulldogs to carry it through with supreme confidence. It'll be a close one -- you'd better believe Kemba's not going out without a fight -- but in the end, Butler seals this magical two-year run with a Disney finish.
Forde: Butler wins 65-60. Because the Bulldogs will hit timely 3-pointers. Because they'll never lose their poise or get rattled. Because they'll battle inside to neutralize any disadvantage on the boards. Because they'll guard as though their lives depend on it. And because they're driven, determined and due to finish off a story for the ages.
Katz: Butler. Kentucky defended the Huskies well, but they made a few winning plays. Butler may do an even tougher job on the Huskies, even though the Bulldogs struggle to score at times. Their toughness, their ability to make winning plays and, let's face it, the unbelievable karma that is flowing toward them at this juncture make it hard to pick against this team. This is not a David versus Goliath situation; Butler is hardly an underdog. The Bulldogs have as many NBA-caliber players on their roster as the Huskies. They are also the more experienced team in this moment and won't be fazed. They have earned an incredible second chance to win a title with a collection of players who were one shot off a year ago. I don't think they'll let this moment pass.
Leung: Sorry, the underdogs will have to wait for at least another year. I think Connecticut, behind Kemba Walker's scoring and Alex Oriakhi's ability to control the paint, will win this one. The Huskies should have what it takes to contain Shelvin Mack and neutralize Matt Howard. That doesn't mean the game won't be close, but I think UConn will pull it out in the end.
O'Neil: Butler will win for the same reason it has won each of its past five games: its defense. Connecticut knows of tough thanks to playing in the brutal Big East, but the Huskies looked tired to me -- Kemba Walker admitted he was gassed waiting for the final media timeout against Kentucky -- and handling the relentless tenacity of the Bulldogs will be too much for the Huskies.