Whether it was nerves, the pressure, or the excitement, the Butler Bulldogs looked to be in a state of disorder Monday night when they shot just 18.8% from the floor in the National Championship game.
Despite leading by three after twenty minutes, it was fairly evident that Butler would have trouble getting easy baskets in the second half. Connecticut’s length and athleticism were overwhelming on the defensive end, forcing Butler to take 33 shots from behind the arch. Guard Shelvin Mack was unable to break down the defense off the dribble, moving east and west rather than north and south. His inability to penetrate caused lengthy possessions resulting in contested three point attempts or difficult post opportunities for both Matt Howard and Andrew Smith, who remained ineffective against the interior defense of Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith. Combining for 8 blocks, Oriakhi and Smith were the unsung heros for a Huskies team that shot just 34% from the floor, including 1-11 from downtown.
Ronald Nored’s defense on Kemba Walker was the only bright spot for Butler, who forced the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player to shoot just 5-19 from the floor. Matt Howard just couldn’t get the ball to drop, missing from point blank range on a number of opportunities, while center Andrew Smith made the words "this guy sucks" a frequently used phrase by the first-time Butler viewers.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb played a large role in the Huskie’s victory, scoring a quick six in Connecticut’s crucial second half run. His emergence over the last three weeks has made him a glowing NBA prospect, and one to watch for as he fills out in his sophomore year (if he returns, which he should).
The stat of the night however revolves around Butler’s inability to score inside, tallying for just two points in the paint while converting on only three two-point field goals the entire game. Three two-point field goals!?!? The pickup game nerds on my block who wear a sweatband per limb and authentic LeBron jerseys score more than three two-point field goals in their games’ to eleven. Not sure I ever heard a stat like that, but it’s one that will no doubt appear in a losing team’s box score.
Kemba Walker struggled in his last two games against Kentucky and Butler, but after carrying ten men on his back through a five month period, a few rough shooting games shouldn’t ring the alarm. Walker averaged 24.6 points per game during UConn’s Big East Championship and National Championship runs, capping off an 11 game win streak to finish the year. His role at the next level will differ from his role as a collegiate junior, but with elite athleticism and explosiveness and an outside game that’s better than advertised, Walker should figure out a way to overcome his physical limitations as a 6 foot combo guard.
As for 34 year old Brad Stevens- go have a beer and shrug this one off. You weren’t supposed to be here, again, yet you showed up anyway with your signature style of play. They just didn’t fall in this one.
The Huskies were the better team Monday night, although better doesn’t necessarily mean they were good. It was like taking a vote between Waterworld and Kazaam for which was the better movie- one of them has to win. Still, they played smart basketball and hard-nosed defense, which is a formula for winning a lot of basketball games. With tournament savvy coach Jim Calhoun and star/leader Kemba Walker, the Huskies were the most fit team to survive the madness.
VCU and Kentucky
VCU fell short of reaching the National Championship game, but who cares. The program that was verbally annihilated for being given an opportunity to dance, knocked off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in a two week span. Forward Jamie Skeen was tremendous, while Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell were all contributors to one of the most unlikely runs in March history. Their luck ran out when they faced Butler’s superior perimeter defense, who forced guards Rodriguez, Rozzel and Ed Nixon to shoot a combined 1-11 from downtown. Jamie Skeen, who scored 27 in the loss, has added his name to the NBA prospect list as an inside/outside threat with capable size and versatility.
Like VCU, Kentucky’s run to the Final Four was a matter of peaking at the right time. Brandon Knight proved to be the well-rounded player he was projected to be, while upperclassmen Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins provided defense and interior play to add balance to a well coached team. In their loss to Connecticut, they simply got cold at the worst possible time. And that’s what happens in this cruel game of college basketball. In a single elimination tournament like March Madness, one brief dry spell from downtown or from the line can cost you the season.