Since October, championship favorites were getting tossed around like water balloons at a carnival. Ohio State. Duke. Pittsburgh. Kansas. UNC. Syracuse. BYU. Villanova. Texas. Notre Dame. Purdue.
At number 17 was last year's runner-up Butler. With 8 votes were the Connecticut Huskies. Two less than NC State which finished the season 15-16. Realistically, neither of these teams was supposed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, much less the National Title Game.
But here they are, basking in the unlikely glory of March's shadow, the final two teams vying for a chance to cut down the nets in Houston. One of these teams will be your national champion. Before we get to who that will be, a quick scouting report on both teams.
Coming off a national title defeat at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils, the Horizon League champion Butler lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA and Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes to graduation. They weren't supposed to be as good as last year's team, and they weren't. And when tournament time came around, most people had them losing to Old Dominion in the first round. And if they did beat the Monrachs, surely they'd fall to the #1 seeded Pitt Panthers. No chance they'd even sniff Wisconsin or Florida to close out the region.
But behind the able backs of Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, the pre-eminent underdogs took care of business all the way to the Final Four where they downed the ridiculously Cinderella'd Rams of Virginia Commonwealth. Both upperclassmen average over 16 points per game, double any other player on the Bulldogs. Mack gets the ball in big shot situations, counted on by Brad Stevens to deliver any way he can. He's good off the bounce and uses his weight to create space for his jumper. Think a taller but less lightning quick Sherron Collins. Howard's got a nice mid-range game that has improved over the season, and he's also added an outside game -- he shoots 41% from beyond. He seems to come up with every loose ball down low and will dive on the ground at least once per game on principle.
Though they're led by these two, they have the depth of a team from one of the power conferences, especially in the guard play. Shawn Vanzant handles the point guard duties for most of the game. He can also stroke it from the outside and plays really solid defense -- in the Final Four game he rose up for an athletic block on VCU's Joey Rodriguez. Zach Hahn is the best pure shooter left and does a great job passing on the perimeter. Though he doesn't excel on the offensive end, Ronald Nored has been a terrific glue guy for Brad Stevens and one who allows him to run a small lineup out there to spread the floor on offense. Chase Stigall is a sophomore that gets a good chunk of minutes and though he's not at the top of the rotation this year, he's got a bright future.
Howard leads a front court that can be inconsistent on the glass. While they dominated VCU inside, they let up a ton of offensive rebounds to Florida and Wisconsin earlier in the tournament and are susceptible to guards who can rebound. Khyle Marshall, though undisciplined, is an extremely effective offensive rebounder, having scooped 22 of his 32 rebounds in the tournament on the offensive end. He's a big x-factor that can match UConn's athleticism inside. Howard and starting center Andrew Smith rely mostly on positioning and anticipation -- Marshall can jump out of the gym.
The best way to beat them is to force Mack to try to do everything on his own and eliminate Howard from the equation. If Mack goes cold, his shot selection gets ugly and could start doing damage to his team. If Butler stays disciplined and keeps swinging the ball for an open shot, they'll stay in this game.
At one point, Kemba Walker was the only player on this team worth talking about. That was until the freshmen grew up a bit. Jeremy Lamb has turned into a complete stud and if Walker goes pro, he'll take the reigns on this young team. He's got a bit of Rudy Gay in him, but with a more refined outside shot than when Gay was at UConn. He's an efficient player that has more athleticism than he lets on and when it becomes his team, he'll show it even more.
But for now, this is Kemba's bunch. They go as he goes. Not since Carmelo Anthony's 2003 Syracuse team has a championship team been more on the back of one person, and even Melo had Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara with him. Kemba shoots approximately 26 shots per game, including opportunities at the foul line. No one else shoots more than 11. He's going to break your ankles, and when you think he's taking it to the basket, he'll pull up on a dime and rise for the same mid-range jumper he beat Pittsburgh and Gary McGhee on in the Big East Tournament. He combines an unbelievable blend of speed and quickness with a motor that never stops and is just a really difficult guy to defend for any one person. The emergence of Shabazz Napier has allowed Kemba to play off the ball, which allows him to focus entirely on getting his own shot rather than initiating a whole offense in the half court.
Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu have been playing much better of late, defending the interior and forcing teams like Kentucky and Arizona to shoot from the outside, closing off the lane. While Butler can shoot it, if they fall in love with the outside shot, it could be to their detriment when they go cold. Along with forward Roscoe Smith, the three of them are responsible for over 80% of all the blocked shots, and almost 50% of the rebounds. They tend to get into foul trouble at times, something Shelvin Mack will surely try to exploit.
Though Jim Calhoun had played Niels Giffey and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel more in the season, he has limited his rotation to really just 6 guys during the tournament.
The teams are actually rather similar when you put them next to each other. If Butler's hitting outside shots, they'll be really tough to catch up with, but same goes for UConn at the rim -- Butler's going to have to find a way to limit the drives down the lane. This figures to be one of the best championships in recent memory, and I think it's going to come down to the last shot. My gut says Matt Howard will come up with the big play and crush the hearts of Huskie fans everywhere, giving the nation its first #8 seed champion since Nova beat Georgetown in 1985.
Butler 67, UConn 65