Previewing the 2011 championship game: Butler vs. UConn

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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.

VIDEO: Mykhailiuk’s late 3-pointer lifts Kansas over Huskers 73-72

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Kansas snapped a two-game losing streak in dramatic fashion late on Saturday night, getting a three from Svi Mykhailiuk with 23 seconds left to give the Jayhawks a 73-72 lead at Nebraska:

The real hero of the game, however, was not Svi.

It was Udoka Azubuike.

For a team that has been surviving on jumpshooting for far too much of their offense, Azubuike’s arrival could not have come at a better time. The 6-foot-10 center went for 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting – oddly enough, he didn’t get to the foul line a single time – and added nine boards, five of which were on the offensive end.

Azubuike also made the game-saving play in the final seconds, blocking a shot by James Palmer and tracking down the loose ball to preserve the win.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: Trae Young shines, comebacks galore, five ranked teams lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

Trae Young is well on his ways towards becoming college basketball’s best and most exciting story this season. Entering Saturday, he was leading the nation averaging 28.8 points and third nationally in assists, averaging 8.8 per game. Those numbers are going to go up, as the diminutive freshman went for 29 points and 10 assists as Oklahoma went into Intrust Bank Arena and knocked off No. 3 Wichita State, 91-83.

That gym is one of the toughest gyms in America to leave with a win. And Wichita State, traditionally, is one of college basketball’s toughest teams, one of the best defensive units in the sport.

And Young torched them.

He had 21 points and seven assists by halftime, as the Sooners jumped out to a 54-39 lead. What was billed as a matchup between two of the nation’s best point guards devolved into Young’s coming out party on national television. Here’s the big question to ask now: Just how good is this Oklahoma team if Trae Young is college basketball’s latest superstar?

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: The lone big man on the Kansas roster played his best game as a collegian on Saturday night. He finished with 26 points – on 13-for-17 shooting, he didn’t even attempt a free throw – and nine boards, but more importantly he blocked a James Palmer shot with less than ten seconds left to help Kansas hold on to a 73-72 win in Lincoln.
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana: Morgan had a career-high 34 points to go along with 11 boards as the Hoosiers came-from-behind to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Morgan scored Indiana’s last 12 points in regulation and eight of their 15 in overtime. With 11 seconds left, he scored an and-one with Indiana down three, and after the Hoosiers got an offensive rebound, threw down the game-winning dunk.
  • TYUS BATTLE and OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Battle finished with 29 points and Brissett scored 24 of his career-high 25 points and grabbed 10 of his career-high 14 boards in the second half and overtime of an 86-79 Syracuse win. The Orange were down by as many as 13 points in the second half on the road and still managed to get a win over their rivals.
  • QUADE GREEN, Kentucky: Green had 17 points and five assists as No. 8 Kentucky knocked off Virginia Tech, 93-86, in Rupp Arena on Saturday, but what was most impressive is that Green did it while wearing a sweet pair of shades to protect an injured eye.
Quade Green (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

TEAM OF THE DAY

For the first time in four years, Rutgers is the pride of New Jersey. Playing in front of a packed house at the RAC, Rutgers came from 13 points down to knock off No. 15 Seton Hall, 71-65. Corey Sanders led the way with 22 points for the Scarlet Knights, who used a 17-2 run to close out the game after the Pirates took a 63-54 lead with six minutes left.

GAME OF THE DAY

There were a number to choose from today. Virginia Tech-Kentucky was unexpectedly thrilling. St. Bonaventure won on a buzzer-beater.

And then there were the comebacks.

North Dakota had a buzzer-beater force overtime at No. 12 Gonzaga after the Zags erased a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes. Indiana’s comeback against No. 18 Notre Dame was wild, even if much of the game itself was boring. Syracuse was down 13 in the second half and won in overtime. Rutgers was down nine with six minutes left and won. And No. 10 Xavier? All they did was erase a 22-point deficit in the final 14:25 to win.

Should I mention the insanity of what happened with No. 19 Florida State and No. 22 Florida, losing by a total of three points in the same building on the same day to unranked opponents?

But for my money, the best game that we saw on Saturday was between No. 13 Kansas and Nebraska. The Huskers desperately needed a win at home to bolster their non-conference résumé while the Jayhawks were looking to snap a two-game losing streak.

They did.

Thanks to Svi Mykhailiuk:

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Have you ever seen an arena get evacuated in the middle of a game that is being broadcast on national television?

Because that is precisely what happened on Saturday at Value City Arena as Ohio State was playing Appalachian State. Early in the second half, an exhaust fan at a concession stand failed, which resulted in the fire alarm getting triggered and the arena being cleared.

It was a scary moment, but it was also an incident that was handled precisely the way it is supposed to be handled.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

It was a good day for the guys that can’t shoot in the state of Kentucky. Kentucky, ranked No. 8 in the country and last in the percentage of points they get from beyond the arc, went 11-for-22 from three as they knocked off a good Virginia Tech team that leads the nation in three-point percentage. Then there’s Louisville, who beat Memphis in Madison Square Garden on the back of a 14-for-26 three-point shooting performance.

Saturday was not a good day for the basketball teams in the Sunshine State. It started with No. 19 Florida State, who suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of Oklahoma State in the first game of a double-header. In the second game, No. 22 Florida lost for the fourth time in their last five games, as they allowed Clemson to pick up their best win of the season.

It looked like it was going to be a really bad day for No. 10 Xavier, who trailed East Tennessee State at home, 51-29, with 14:25 left on Saturday afternoon. The Musketeers proceeded to go on a 39-15 run to end the game, winning 68-66 and leaving with nothing more than a warning for why it’s dangerous to take any team lightly.

Kyle Washington had 19 points and Gary Clark chipped in 10 points, 11 boards, four assists, three steals and three blocks for No. 25 Cincinnati in a 77-63 win at UCLA.

No. 23 Arizona cruised to another road win, this time at New Mexico, thanks to 24 points from Rawle Alkins, playing his second game since returning from a broken foot.

No. 18 Purdue cruised to an 82-67 win over Butler in the opener of the Crossroads Classic. Carsen Edwards led the way with 18 points.

VIDEO: St. Bonaventure beats Vermont on Matt Mobley buzzer-beater

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St. Bonaventure outlasted Vermont in Olean, NY, on Saturday afternoon, winning 81-79 thanks to this buzzer-beating three from Matt Mobley.

It was the only shot that Mobley, who is averaging 19.6 points on the season, made on the day:

Vermont guard Trae Bell-Haynes missed a layup on the previous possession, but Payton Henson was there for a put-back to give Vermont a 79-78 lead with just five seconds on the clock.

Jaylen Adams scored 17 points and had five assists to lead St. Bonaventure. Courtney Stockard added 14 points, and Amadi Ikpeze and Izaiah Brockington each chipped in with 13.

Anthony Lamb led the Catamounts with 27 points.

VIDEO: Arena evacuated during Ohio State-Appalachian State game

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There was a weird scene on Saturday evening as Ohio State hosted Appalachian State.

Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off as the game as being played, which was followed by an announcement played over the PA asking everyone to evacuate the arena.

And it was all captured live on the Big Ten Network:

The game was eventually continued, and it appears that the incident was nothing more than the fire alarm working the way that it is supposed to. From a statement released by Ohio State: “Tonight’s event was interrupted by a failure on an exhaust fan. The fan shut off and allowed the smoke from a concession stand to enter the fresh air return on one of our air handlers and activated one of our smoke detectors. The building systems worked as they were designed and we were able to reset the alarm, repair the exhaust and return to normal operations.”

Clemson rallies past No. 22 Florida 71-69

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Marcquise Reed threw a 75-foot pass to Elijah Thomas for a dunk that put Clemson ahead to stay with 37 seconds left, and the Tigers rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half Saturday to beat No. 22 Florida 71-69 in the Orange Bowl Classic.

With Clemson trailing 68-67, Reed rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by KeVaughn Allen and threw a football-style pass from one free-throw lane to the other, hitting Thomas on the run for an easy score.

Clemson (9-1) beat a ranked team for only the eighth time in school history and continued its best start since 2008. Florida (6-4) lost for the fourth time in the past five games.

The Tigers won despite having a point taken off the scoreboard with 4 seconds left. Thomas’ free throw put Clemson ahead 70-68, but the point was wiped out when the officials realized it was Reed who had been fouled.

Reed then made two free throws to help seal the win. He finished with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds.

Gabe DeVoe added 19 points and six rebounds for the Tigers, who shot 51 percent. Clemson coach Brad Brownell earned his 300th victory.

Jalen Hudson scored the Gators’ first 12 points and finished with 23.

Egor Koulechov sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Gators a 40-33 halftime lead, and they were up 47-35 early in the second half. Clemson took its first lead since 4 minutes into the game when DeVoe sank a 3-pointer to make it 67-66.

The meeting was the first between the teams since 1957.

No. 19 Florida State lost to Oklahoma State 71-70 in the first game of the doubleheader.

BIG PICTURE

Florida coach Mike White has been unhappy with his team’s transition defense. The Gators allowed only seven fast-break points, but that included Thomas’ decisive dunk.

UP NEXT

The Gators play host to James Madison on Wednesday.

Clemson plays host to South Carolina on Tuesday.