The end of the college basketball season is here, for better or worse, and the national title game matches a pair of teams few expected to get to this point on Selection Sunday much less at any point during the regular season. The Butler Bulldogs are back where they saw their season end a year ago, and if Gordon Hayward's half-court shot were a few centimeters to the left we're talking about a possible repeat. Instead, they look to avoid going home empty-handed for the second consecutive season with the Connecticut Huskies standing in their way.
UConn's season began in earnest with a great run through the Maui Invitational with junior guard Kemba Walker leading the way. But while Walker has continued to play like one of the best players in the nation, the youngsters have matured by the game and have been pivotal figures during the month of March. Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi are three of the key figures for Jim Calhoun's team, and if they can get one more solid outing from this group a third national title for the program could be on the horizon.
Butler was able to calm down on Saturday night after temporarily being drawn into the helter-skelter game that VCU preferred, winning 70-62 behind 24 points from Shelvin Mack and 17 and eight rebounds from Matt Howard. The difference for the Bulldogs was their ability to get to the foul line, making 20 of 26 while VCU went just 8 for 13. That may not be the case tonight as UConn gets 21% of their points from the foul line as well, but points from the charity stripe will likely be one of the key factors in the outcome.
Connecticut hung on to beat Kentucky 56-55 thanks to a pair of key plays from Napier, a reverse lauyp to give them a six-point lead and two made free throws that sealed the game. UConn ran out of gas late but the same went for Kentucky, who continued to fire away from the perimeter despite losing their legs in a game that lacked whistles in the second half. Could fatigue be a concern for Walker, who has seen nearly every possible type of defense/defender this season and will have to deal with Ronald Nored tonight?
"The reason I was tired was because that long stretch, we didn't get that [media] timeout," said Walker on Sunday. "It was a fast-paced game. That was the only reason I was a little out of breath. But as long as I stay mentally tough and my team stay mentally tough, just like we've been doing throughout this whole post-season, we'll be fine."
Offensively the Huskies are a point better when it comes to scoring and they're practically even when it comes to both offensive and defensive efficiency. But if there's one thing to watch it will be how the two teams get their points. On the season Butler scores 31.5% of their points from beyond the arc, making 35.5% of the shots they take. UConn will have to chase players such as Mack, Zach Hahn and Chase Stigall off the arc or at the very least make sure the Bulldogs have to take challenged perimeter shots.
Kentucky outscored UConn by 24 from three on Saturday night but their poor shooting from both two (34.2%) and the foul line (4 for 12) cost them the game. Butler shoots 73% from the foul line and with Howard and Mack they do a good job of finding quality shots with an eFG% of 50.9%. One other concern for UConn will be how they control the defensive boards. Kentucky grabbed 15 offensive boards on Saturday, and Tyler Olander, Charles Okwandu and Roscoe Smith will all need to help out Oriakhi to avoid a similar situation tonight.
Butler also handled the offensive boards in their win, grabbing 16 and out-rebounding VCU 48-32 on the night. But given VCU's propensity to shoot from the perimeter, it was a little easier for the Bulldogs to control the boards in that situation. The ability of Napier and Walker to get to the basket will pose a challenge that Butler hasn't seen often in the Tournament, and when they have (Florida) those guards lacked the control that UConn's possess.
"The thing that UConn doesn't get enough credit for, everybody talks about how good those guards are with the ball, I think they're great cutters," remarked Butler head coach Brad Stevens. "I think when they put [Walker] off the ball with Napier on the one, he's as difficult if not more difficult."
This is going to be a fun matchup to say the least. While much of the attention will center on Walker and rightfully so, Connecticut's youngsters also have the ability to make plays. Lamb was somewhat quiet on Saturday night but given what he's been able to do this month it would come as no surprise if he were to rise to the occasion. Butler's players have more Final Four experience given their run last year but in Jim Calhoun, UConn has a leader with two national titles to his credit. These may not be the two "best" teams in America when breaking them down, but there's no doubt that the Bulldogs and Huskies are playing the best basketball at just the right time.