Well, it's finally here. After all the close games, unprecedented finishes and heartbreak, two teams remain to duke it out for the right to be called National Champions. And what an unlikely two teams they are. Butler--the Cinderella who has become the powerhouse. And UConn--riding a miracle run that started at the Big East Tournament and has been led by arguably the gutsiest player in college basketball, Kemba Walker.
Every tournament has its its upsets and its unlikely heroes. But this season stands out among the Valpo, Northwestern State, Murray State, Villanova, George Mason and NC State moments. With number one seeds going down early and trendy favorites like BYU coming up short, fans turned their attention to the underdogs, and they didn't disappoint. VCU went from a team no one thought should be in the tournament to begin with to a club that couldn't be stopped in their road to the Final Four.
Perennial Horizon League representative Butler has had success in the NCAA Tournament for a long time, whether it be the dominating performance against Wake Forest in 2001 or their storybook championship appearance that took Duke to the last shot a season ago. But not even the most diehard Bulldog fans could have imagined back-to-back chances at cutting down the nets and hanging a banner.
On the other side is a team acting like they've been there before. The Huskies have four previous Final Four appearances and two National Championships and are looking for their third under head coach Jim Calhoun. Despite an NCAA investigation hanging over the Connecticut program, superstar Kemba Walker has willed the team to the title game, along with Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier. Connecticut doesn't exactly play the most beautiful basketball in the world, but their tough defense, ability to block shots and solid three-point shooting have allowed them to grind out games in this tournament in impressive fashion.
The key to this game comes from outside shooting. Butler relies heavily on the three, and when they're missing, grabbing long rebounds is absolutely pivotal for a team that does not like to run up and down the court. When Butler has struggled is when they allow buckets in transition. Teams try to shoot over them, and when they're hitting, Butler tends to go into panic mode and force the issue.
Butler is at their best when Matt Howard plays within himself. He plays like the crafty YMCA guy who is 20 years older than everyone else on the floor, setting screens, banging down low and generally picking up garbage points on putbacks, pick and rolls and pick and pops. His biggest problem is taking bad shots, though. His game is strangely like Kyle Singler's from Duke. Singler has all the ability in the world, but has the propensity to take terrible shots and fall in love with his jumper. Shelvin Mack has to put Howard in the best position possible to maximize his strengths and keep Butler in the flow of their offense. They will also need to get some production out of either Ronald Nored or Chase Stigall. Nored hasn't exactly shined lately, but someone is going to need to body up on Kemba to try and keep him in check. I would not be surprised to see Butler throw a junk defense or two at him to try and throw UConn out of their rhythm.
For Connecticut, consistency is paramount. They need to get good shots and find other scoring options. The half court sets have to be executed with more regularity than they have been in the last few tournament games. Obviously getting to the national championship means they've done something right, but Butler plays ugly too, so to gain the edge, UConn needs to get out and run after blocks and Kemba Walker needs to effectively drive and dish to force his man to sag, allowing his jumper to flourish.
At the end of the day, Butler's magic might be enough to take the game. Butler lost NBA first-round pick Gordon Hayward, but their core nucleus is in their second championship game, a feat that should give them the edge come tip-off. UConn's team isn't quite strong enough around Walker to match Brad Stevens' gameplan and the killer instinct of Howard and Mack. This game, like a lot of others in this tournament, could come down to the last shot, but as has been the case for their entire run, Butler seems destined to be in the right place at the right time when the final buzzer sounds.