Unranked to unparalleled. The UConn Huskies, after winning 5 games in 5 days to win the Big East Tournament, have won 6 more over the course of a few weeks to become the National Champion.
In one of the ugliest games -- let alone championship games -- in recent memory, Connecticut held Butler to 18% field goal shooting and used their superior length to win 53-41. UConn only shot 30%, but it was enough to carry them over the Bulldogs and win Jim Calhoun his third national championship since 1999 and make him the oldest coach to ever win a title. But if you ask him, this is his most rewarding.
"They're so special. Our players, our university, our fans. It may be close to the happiest moment of my life."
After being down 3 at halftime thanks to a Shelvin Mack buzzer-beating three, Calhoun made some of the best halftime adjustments in championship game history to give his team the edge. They started using the baseline to their advantage and got Jeremy Lamb involved, which immediately resulted in a change of momentum. Lamb proved to be most difficult for Butler to cover because they didn't have anyone who could physically match up with him. Khyle Marshall could have done a decent job, but Brad Stevens decided to stay with guards on him, which didn't really work. Lamb scored 12 big points on 9 shots, all of which came in the second half.
But the most valuable player on the night was UConn big man Alex Oriakhi. He scored an efficient 11 points and 11 rebounds, mixing in a few inside moves with a couple nice jumpers. Where he was most effective was on defense. He was responsible for 4 of the team's 10 blocked shots and threw a huge wrench into Brad Stevens' game plan. With he and Charles Okwandu patrolling the lane, Butler completely abandoned the inside - to the extreme of not scoring a point in the paint until halfway through the second half. They forced Kentucky into a terrible shooting night and did the same to these Bulldogs tonight. It continues to prove the theory that if you live by the outside shot, have a backup plan before you die by the outside shot. Butler did not have a contingency plan tonight.
While UConn got the win, a guy who did not play well is Kemba Walker. Though he graduates on May 8th in three years with a championship to boot (as Jim Nance reminded us again and again), he showed poor shot selection and a real inability to initiate the offense. Both defenses were swarming, but for a Most Outstanding Player candidate, 5-21 is completely inexcusable. He didn't record a single assist on the night. It's basically a foregone conclusion that he has played his last game at UConn, but for his pro prospects this game was not the best. He had a terrific year and this team would be under .500 if it weren't for him, but Kemba Walker was not the reason they won this game.
For Butler, it's a very tough pill to swallow. Brad Stevens may be the classiest guy in the world and continues to say all the right things that could get him elected President of the World, but he made a few really bad coaching decisions in this game. He needed to keep taking it to Oriakhi and Okwandu and get them in foul trouble or else they'd have to find a way to get outside shots to fall. And they didn't. Even though their defense was not the problem, with about 8 minutes to play, Stevens went to a zone defense, something he hasn't done much all season. The players were out of sorts and let up a quick, easy bucket to Oriakhi because they weren't covering the backdoor. Definitely had a white flag feel to it, as Clark Kellogg noted. It was a rare flustered moment for the normally cool Brad Stevens.
Once that happened, UConn did an outstanding job taking time off the clock, using at least 20 seconds of the shot clock and shortening the game. Then Butler started pressing and the shots kept bricking. It was all over too soon for the underdogs.
It's difficult to point out any Butler player who did well, because they all shot so historically bad. Matt Howard had the worst game of his college career, going 1-14 and getting completely manhandled on the inside. For a normally tough, gritty player, Matt looked soft and confused all game long. That was exemplified by his injury with 2 minutes that left him hobbled on the court until he was pulled by the refs for bleeding. He and Mack couldn't get anything going, and though they had a few good looks from the outside, the rim was sealed and they didn't do anything to break through.
Butler will lose seniors Matt Howard, Shawn Vanzant, and Zach Hahn, but will get bigger contributions next year out of promising freshman Khyle Marshall and sophomore Andrew Smith, who looked totally overmatched tonight. If Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack return, they could be making a similar run next season. Brad Stevens will be getting offers from everywhere on the planet and it remains to be seen what will play out with him.
UConn will celebrate for a few days or a few weeks but next season comes soon, and next season will be without Kemba. If Calhoun decides to put off retirement for another year, he'll have to rely on Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, and Alex Oriakhi to take on a leading role in bringing the Huskies back to the promised land. You can't say enough about the role Kemba Walker played in carrying this team throughout the season. He's done some of the most impressive work in college basketball history here.
But the story is tonight, and tonight UConn was the better team. Are they the best team in the nation? Probably not, but they got hot at the perfect time and rode that wave all the way to cutting down the nets on the biggest stage. On a game when Butler was hitting shots, everything would've been different. That doesn't take anything away from either team because they're both spectacular in their own right. Congrats to UConn and Butler, Jim Calhoun and Brad Stevens, Kemba Walker and Shelvin Mack, and everybody else involved.
The countdown to the 2011/12 season begins....now.