First of all, Butler with the points turned out to be right on target. Too bad the Under 130.5 didn’t hit. But I digress…
How complete of a team is Butler? VCU came out hot, and it looked like there might be a chance they run away with it early. Butler came back to take a six-point lead at half. Then, VCU started strong again in the second half and took a lead–Butler responded. The Bulldogs just continue to prove that they are the most resilient team in college basketball.
They’re deep. They have weapons inside and out. They hit the boards as hard as anyone in the nation. They play the best half court defense that I’ve seen in years. They can play at different tempos. They have two guys who can take over a game. And, wow call this blasphemy, they might have the best coach in college basketball right now. Yes, move over Bruce Pearl–Brad Stevens has moved to the top of my man-crush list. I don’t mind saying it, either. Butler seems to have the formula of a championship team this year.
Standing in their way? The UConn Huskies. UConn really impressed me last night. Sure, Kentucky showed their youth at times last night, taking some head-scratching shots and generally looking as though the situation might be too big for them at times. But, Calipari’s bunch closed a double-digit gap quickly in the second half and made it a seesaw game all the way until the last seconds. I’ll give it to Calhoun–say what you want about his recruiting ethics, but the guy can really coach. Yes, Kemba Walker, and to a much lesser extent Jeremy Lamb, are pretty much all they have on the offensive end, but this team really competes. And, sometimes a transcendent player like Walker is all you need to win a championship. What impresses me about this team is that everyone knows their role. There has been a hotly contested debate about whether Kemba or Jimmer Fredette would win Player of the Year this season. One thing I noticed about BYU in this tournament is some frustration on the part of Jimmer’s teammates when their offense became him just going one-on-one every time down the court when the game was on the line. You don’t really see that with UConn. Guys seem to understand that Walker on offense is their best chance to win. The other thing, too, is Kemba does look to get his teammates involved more than you would think. Clearly, Lamb is like a little brother to him and the whole team seems to have a pretty special bond. Helps when you’ve won ten straight do-or-die contests between the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
It makes for a pretty interesting matchup on Monday night. I think Butler matches up much better with UConn than they would have with Kentucky. I don’t think they will be scared of Kemba Walker. They have a bunch of guys they can throw at him, and as I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, their defense is unparalleled right now. I expect a pretty low-scoring game–wouldn’t be surprised at all if it stays in the 50s. The rebounding battle is going to be very interesting. UConn is pretty underrated athletically, if you ask me. Especially their bigs. Butler usually wins the rebounding battle, but this one will be close–and it could end up being the difference in the game.
Unsurprisingly, I think Matt Howard is the x-factor in this game. Let’s say Shelvin Mack and Kemba cancel each other out. It will come down to what Howard does on the inside. First of all, I was surprised at how much he drifted out by the three-point line against VCU. Seemed like the stretches where he wasn’t active in the paint and, instead, inexplicably was jacking up shots from beyond the arc leading to VCU’s best scoring runs. His effort and activity on the offensive glass is contagious for this Butler team. It makes sense too, right? When Howard is banging the boards, the other team has to pay extra attention to him, which opens up opportunities for guys like Andrew Smith and Khyle Marhshall to make their mark. The interesting part will be whether UConn goes at him when they have the ball to a) make him exert as much energy as possible and b) possibly get him into foul trouble–an aspect of his game that he can struggle with at times.
I’ve been drinking the Butler Kool-Aid since they beat Pitt in the round of 32. Too late to get off that train at this point, right? A lot will be made of the fact that they’ve been there before, but I think UConn has proven that they won’t let the moment get too big for them at this point. It is going to be a tight game the whole way, but I think Howard’s play and Butler’s free throw shooting (and their defense, and their coaching, and their resilience, and their experience–too much?) is going to be the difference down the stretch. I’m not giving up my seat on the bandwagon quite yet. I’m taking Butler and the under again. The line is UConn -3.5 and 129.5 over/under.
By the way, you know who the biggest loser of this tournament is that you don’t hear about? Tom Crean. Why? He left a program he basically built in Marquette to take the Indiana job, and what happens? A mid-major from his own state goes to the national championship two years in a row. How’s that for luck? I mean, do you really want to recruit the state of Indiana against Brad Stevens right now? Yikes, no thanks. The guy had no clue what he was walking into. I like Crean, and I think he’s a good coach. My only question is: when he either quits or gets fired from IU in three years, does Marquette even consider giving him his job back? I don’t think so. Buzz Williams’ success aside–and he’s been great too–when you lock down a coach named Buzz who sweats through his suit jacket literally every game, you don’t let him go.