National Championship Game Preview - (8) Butler vs. (3) Connecticut

Monday, 9:23 PM ET – CBS TV
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The Butler Bulldogs bring the more remarkable storyline to the 2011 national championship game of Division I men’s college basketball, and the Connecticut Huskies own one very special narrative in their own right. Yes, while Butler wears the “little guy” label and has certainly done something amazing in the world of college hoops, it needs to be noted that the kids from Connecticut have also fashioned a full-distance run of epic proportions. Two overachievers, not just one, are on display against the massive and imposing backdrop of Reliant Stadium’s full-capacity seating setup.

It would be a disservice to either one of these national title game participants to oversell them or pigeonhole them. Butler is not a member of college basketball’s upper class, but the Bulldogs are not a Cinderella, either. Butler can rightly claim national-title-game chops and the stature of a program that has made back-to-back journeys to the final Monday night of the season. If 2010 witnessed a fortune-laden joyride, 2011 has represented a back-it-up affirmation of all the program’s most central virtues. After 2010’s narrow loss to Duke on an April Monday in Indianapolis, a lot of hoops junkies said something along the lines of, “What a unique one-year story these Bulldogs have authored.” Now, after 2011’s duplicate five-game path to Championship Monday, the BU program has to be seen in a substantially different light. Shelve the talk of glass slippers and midnight and fancy gowns at the ball. This team has earned an entirely new degree of legitimacy in the college basketball cosmos.

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Connecticut, for its part, is not a member of the sport’s lower class (which Butler still inhabits on certain levels), but the Huskies didn’t arrive at this championship showdown from a lofty perch. Connecticut finished ninth in the 16-team Big East Conference, getting roughed up by a league that sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. Connecticut was a team in search of an identity, a rhythm, and a source of swagger entering the Big East Tournament, but that’s precisely when the switch flipped. The Huskies won five games in five days – an unprecedented feat – to transform themselves into a confident, loose and endlessly energetic team that proceeded to win five NCAA Tournament games. Superstar guard Kemba Walker, with huge assists from big man Alex Oriakhi on the offensive glass and guard Jeremy Lamb in the realm of perimeter shooting, has taken this team through the entirely of the NCAA bracket. Walker’s uncanny ability to hit shots precisely when opponents make a run or threaten to establish control of the game flow has been an essential feature of UConn’s rise to renewed prominence. Walker wasn’t the difference maker for Connecticut in its Saturday win over Kentucky (Oriakhi was with his bothersome length near the basket), but he did hit multiple baskets when the Wildcats made a strong push in the first few minutes of the second half. Walker shields the Huskies from danger, and in the closing minutes, Oriakhi usually grabs a clutch offensive rebound while defending the tin against opposing pivot men and penetrating guards. That’s UConn’s formula for victory, and it hasn’t gone wrong since March 5 against Notre Dame.

A very interesting subplot of this Butler-Connecticut collision is that UConn has won its past two games by surviving game-winning three-point attempts from opponents in the final five seconds of regulation. Coach Jim Calhoun – in search of a third national title – has walked off the court a winner against Arizona (in the West Regional final) and Kentucky (Saturday’s second national semifinal) because both of those Wildcats, down by two points, missed a three in the final five seconds. How utterly fascinating it is, then, that a Butler team which came one missed three from stunning Duke in the 2010 national title game will try to hit that final extra shot. The Bulldogs haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game by more than eight points and regularly play close to the vest. Butler and head coach Brad Stevens do not blow opponents out of the water; instead, they grind them down and shrink a given adversary’s margin for error. Butler is designed to play close games; Connecticut owns the kinds of performers – Walker, Oriakhi and Lamb – who are built to win close games. Which side will claim one more triumph and earn championship praise after a full month of overachievement?

All that’s left to do is find out. We’ll see if Butler – one shot short of immortality against Duke a year ago – can take one small step for mid-majors and one giant leap for the history of men’s college basketball.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer




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