On Monday night, Butler and UConn will square off for the right to be named 2011 college basketball national champions.
One of them returns a roster full of players that have national title game experience, the other missed the 2010 NCAA Tournament. One of those two teams was ranked coming into the season. One of them has had a player picked in the lottery in the 2010 NBA Draft. One of them was actually expected to make the NCAA Tournament this season.
The one is Butler. The other is UConn.
And who is the underdog?
That is only part of what makes this Final Four so intriguing.
The Details: Butler is the small school. Coming out of the Horizon League, the Bulldog’s back to back trips to the national title game are one of the most impressive feats in the history of college basketball. On the other hand, you have UConn, a team that has won two national title and been to three Final Fours in the last twelve years. The Huskies have earned the right to be labeled one of the best programs in all of college hoops.
Perhaps the most interesting — or easiest — storyline heading into the title game is the difference in perception of these two schools. The Bulldogs are the Golden Boys. They are headed up by the next great head coach in Brad Stevens, a guy that will be in the conversation as greatest ever by the time he is all said and done in this profession. They are the mid-major that has a roster full of upper-classmen playing for their degree, and not a higher ranking on the NBA Draft boards.
UConn, on the other hand, will be cast as the bad guy, as the team that embodies everything wrong with college sports. They have an old, curmudgeonly head coach that doesn’t care for the NCAA’s rules. They just had a punishment handed out for NCAA violations committed during the recruitment of Nate Miles, and with Miles opting to speak to the media and the NCAA now, more hammers may end up dropping.
Key Matchup: Kemba Walker vs. Shelvin Mack
There are two things that are ironic about this matchup. On the one hand, Mack and Walker are friends. They played and worked out together the past two summers in Vegas with Team USA. They texted throughout the season, congratulating each other on big games, and things of that ilk. The only ironic part is that, while both players are excellent defenders and both play the same position, it is unlikely that they will actually be guarding each other tomorrow night.
Butler’s best perimeter defender is Ronald Nored, with Shawn Vanzant following closely behind him. In his Sunday press conference, Brad Stevens said that he wouldn’t be defending Kemba with “just one guy”, but it will be Nored that does the heavy lifting trying to slow down Walker. Walker struggled a bit last night dealing with the length and athleticism of DeAndre Liggins, and Nored is a much different kind of defender. He’s got terrific feet and really understands the intricacies of one-on-one defense, things like positioning, how to get around screens, and the like.
As far as UConn is concerned, they will likely have Shabazz Napier guarding Mack. Napier is a bit like Nored in that he’s not all that big and not all that strong, but he understands how to defend and how to avoid getting out of position. He did a terrific job slowing down Brandon Knight last night, but Knight and Mack play a different style of basketball.
Mack and Walker are both so important to what their teams do offensively. If either can be somewhat contained, it will be a huge advantage.
X-factors: Matt Howard and Jeremy Lamb
It sounds weird calling the second best player on these two teams the x-factor, but they could very well end up determining who wins the national title.
Jeremy Lamb is going to be a very difficult cover for the Bulldogs. At 6’5″ with a ridiculous wingspan, Lamb is going to have a size advantage over whoever ends up guarding him. As good as Butler is, they don’t have a small forward on their roster this season. Lamb will be able to shoot over any of butler’s back court players, and if he puts the ball not the floor, he should be able to get into the paint at will.
Howard is going to e a difficult cover for the Huskies. While Howard is not the athlete — and, frankly, not the player — that Derrick Williams is, they have similar skill sets. Both can score in the post, both have perimeter skills, and both are very good three point shooters. Howard is too strong and crafty for Roscoe Smith on the block, but putting Alex Oriakhi or Charles Okwandu on him on the perimeter is a just as much of a mismatch.
Key Stat: Fast break points and offensive rebounds
In terms of half court execution, UConn is not a great team. There is a reason that they ranked in the 200’s in effective field goal percentage. The reason that UConn is able to be a top 15 team in offensive efficiency is that they get themselves easy looks at the rim.
UConn is terrific on the offensive glass. Alex Oriakhi is a beast in the paint, carving up space and earning extra possessions. He not only grabs offensive rebounds, but he is able to tip them out to UConn’s guards. The Huskies back court is also very good on the glass. Combine the offensive rebounding with UConn’s ability to protect the ball, and the Huskies make up for their lack of efficiency with more opportunities and shots at the rim.
The other thing UConn does is score in transition. Their pace on Kenpom’s site is going to look slow, but UConn really does like to get out in transition. But if they don’t end up getting an easy basket, the Huskies are terrific at pulling the ball out and running their offense. I hate to sounds like Jimmy Dykes here, but UConn is either going to score in the first five seconds of the shot clock or the last 10. They look for quick points, and if that isn’t there, they are a very patient team.
If Butler is going to win the national title, they need to limit UConn’s easy baskets. The Bulldogs are much better than the Huskies at executing in the half court, so if they can make every UConn basket tough to earn, they will win this game.
And the winner is?: UConn Huskies
Kemba Walker is not going to be stopped right now. The kid is playing with the look and the determination of a champion. Believe me, I love Shelvin Mack. I love his game, I love his toughness, and I love his “intestinal fortitude” when it comes to big shots late in a game. But there is no one in the country who I would rather see with the ball in his hands late in the game.
The other issue is that I think Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb will be too much for Butler. Oriakhi is a warrior on the block, and I’m not sure Butler has anyone with the strength to keep him off of the offensive glass. Lamb is going to be a difficult matchup for Butler’s small guards.