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.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.

VIDEO: New Mexico loses game on blown call by officials

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Nothing like a nice, controversial finish to get the blood flowing.

New Mexico was on the receiving end of a rule misinterpretation on Saturday afternoon, and that interpretation likely cost the Lobos a win over San Diego State and, arguably, a shot at the MWC regular season title.

Here’s the situation: New Mexico is up by three with 12 seconds left and the ball under their own basket. Their allowed to run the baseline, so Craig Neal calls a play where the inbounder throws the ball to a player running out of bounds.

Totally league as long as the player establishes out of bounds before touching the ball. The referee rules that he doesn’t.

Here’s the video:

The problem?

According to the rules, Xavier Adams — the player receiving the pass from Cullen Neal — only needed one foot on the floor out of bounds in order to establish himself as an inbounder that was able to catch that ball. He got one foot down (see the picture above), but the referees appeared to rule that he needed to have both feet down.

That was incorrect, according to the Mountain West office.

“While this was a very close judgment call made at full speed, it has been determined after careful review of slow-motion video replays the call was in fact incorrect,” the league said in a release. “The New Mexico player did get one foot down (two feet are not required) out-of-bounds before receiving the ball, thus establishing his location in accordance NCAA Basketball Playing Rules 4.23.1.a and 7.1.1.  By rule, the officials were not permitted to go to the monitor during the game to review this play.”

And here’s the kicker: When SDSU got the ball back, they hit a three to send the game into overtime, where the Aztecs won. But if New Mexico had won this game, they’d be sitting at 8-2 in MWC play, one game behind SDSU in the loss column with a return game against them in The Pit.

Instead, they’re now three games back with seven to play, meaning that the race is effectively over.

It’s tough to blame the referees here — it was a bang-bang call that is only clear in slow-motion replay — but man, that’s a big call to miss.