For all the talk about Cinderella stories, upsets and shockers, the 2011 men’s NCAA basketball championship game will star two teams that are no strangers to the limelight. After all, the battle between the UConn Huskies and Butler Bulldogs (scheduled for 9:23 p.m. eastern time on Monday) is one that features a Connecticut squad that already has two championships in their storied history, and a Butler group coming off a close loss to Duke in last year’s title game.
Needless to say, between Jim Calhoun and Brad Stevens, a lack of big-game experience will not be a concern for either team.
The Bulldogs enter college basketball’s marquee game fresh off ending the Cinderella run of the VCU Rams 70-62. With their 14th straight victory, Butler is in championship form – proving they can win even when everything isn’t going their way. Offensively, the team was anything but dominating against that feisty VCU group, though. Shooting a mere 36 percent from the field, Butler didn’t look pretty en route to the eventual win -- but the Bulldogs did what they needed to do.
Shelvin Mack, for all of his team’s hardships, had his best game of the tournament with a 24-point effort on eight-for-11 shooting. Besides slicing and dicing the Rams’ defense up all day, Mack was steady and reliable from the three point line -- hitting 5 of 6 three-balls for the game. As usual Matt Howard put up solid totals with his 17-point day. However, they didn’t come in an efficient matter: He shot a mere 3-for-11 on the game.
Despite the team’s offensive woes, behind the impressive coaching of Stevens, the Bulldogs buckled down in the areas that require pure, unfiltered effort. Butler didn't give up any freebies defensively, holding VCU to less than 40 percent shooting from the field. On top of that, the Bulldogs out-rebounded their opponents 48 to 32 on the day altogether, and 16-6 on the offensive glass.
All in all, the Butler showed it could win dirty when the situation called for it. However, the Bulldogs can’t count on the fantasy that Calhoun’s Huskies will be as woeful from the charity stripe as the Rams were. The 8-for-13 performance from the free throw line was one of the key factors that prevented VCU from continuing to shock the world.
UConn, meanwhile, enters this game fresh off a thrilling 56-55 win over the Kentucky Wildcats en route to their 10th victory in a row. Despite a 9-9 mark in their Big East conference, the Huskies know how to win when it matters most. After winning five games in five days at the Big East Tournament, the Huskies have turned in an absolutely thrilling tournament showing.
While the UConn offense -- led by arguably the best player in the nation in Kemba Walker -- gets a lot of the fanfare, credit for the victory over Kentucky can be placed squarely at the feet of the squad’s defense. Keep in mind, a Wildcats offensive attack, which had been blitzing opponents all year long, was held to a mere 34 percent from the field. As if to put an exclamation mark on just how suffocating its defense is, UConn actually held Kentucky scoreless for nearly six minutes at one point in the second half.
Of course, behind Walker, the Huskies also boast a fierce offensive attack. Walker led his group with an 18-point, six-for-15 performance on the day, and showed what a complete player he could be with six rebounds and seven assists for the game. Jeremy Lamb also had a solid effort against Kentucky with a 12-point, five-for-eight performance.
The one area where UConn slipped up against Kentucky was the offensive rebounding. If the Huskies have another half-hearted effort where they get out-rebounded 15 to 6 on the offensive glass, they will be in big trouble against the Bulldogs.
Good coaching, quality players and two teams with something to prove can only lead to one thing: a thrilling championship game to close out the college basketball season.