Previewing the 2011 championship game: Butler vs. UConn


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.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.