NCAA TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW
BUTLER vs. CONNECTICUT
Most Important Matchup: With all due respect to Jeremy Lamb and Matt Howard, the two most talented and influential players on the court in this championship tilt play at point guard: Kemba Walker vs. Shelvin Mack. Walker's success this season has been well-documented, from Connecticut's unprecedented five wins in five days to capture the Big East championship, to Kemba's clutch shots to seal numerous victories, and his impeccable veteran leadership on a talented, albeit young Connecticut squad that was barely supposed to finish in the Top 10 in its own conference. The fact that the Huskies will have Walker in their corner on Monday night gives them an excellent chance to take home the title. Meanwhile, Mack is the catalyst to the Butler attack. He too has the ability to can clutch shots, and led the Bulldogs with 24 points in their Semifinal victory over VCU. Walker (with the help of Shabazz Napier) held Kentucky star Brandon Knight to an abysmal 6-for-23 shooting night in the semifinal, so Kemba's ability to lock down Mack on the defensive end as well could prove pivotal in claiming the title.
Strength: The backcourt is undeniably the fuel to UConn's fire. The aforementioned Kemba Walker and second-leading scorer Jeremy Lamb have been absolutely vital to the Huskies' success, as the frontcourt is merely asked to defend and rebound. Walker and Lamb account for an inordinate amount of Connecticut's offense, but they've been able to shoulder the load and more during this recent run. Shabazz Napier yields a calming effect to the Huskies when he enters the game as well; this move allows Kemba to play off the ball and only worry about finding his rhythm in the scoring column. Napier is an effective passer and above-average penetrator, making the Huskies' guards a nightmare to defend. Butler will need Shawn Vansant and Ronald Nored to play over their heads, or the Huskies may be too much to handle.
Weakness: Rebounding. The Huskies were able to outmuscle Kentucky just enough to seal the win in the national semifinal, with Alex Oriakhi snatching 10 rebounds, Roscoe Smith grabbing eight, and swingman Jeremy Lamb crashing the boards to the tune of nine rebounds. UConn will need a similar effort in the national championship, but it has not seen an interior player like Butler's Matt Howard. Howard is among the scrappiest players you will see, always seeming to be in the right place at the right time, whether for an offensive putback or chasing a loose ball. Combine Howard's prowess with the 6-foot-11 height of center Andrew Smith, and the Huskies' frontcourt better be at the top of its game.
Intangibles: Foul trouble. A crucial part to UConn's success against Kentucky was the ability to get UK center Josh Harrelson in foul trouble and limit his impact on the game early, allowing Connecticut to jump out to a double-digit lead in the first half. Although he has largely been able to stay on the floor during this year's tournament, Butler's Matt Howard has had a penchant for getting into foul trouble in the past. If the Huskies' guards get into the paint and draw early fouls on either Howard or Andrew Smith, the Bulldogs are not very deep or big on the bench. Certainly without Howard in the game, the contest becomes much more guard-oriented, a change that undoubtedly favors UConn.
Connecticut Will Win If: the Huskies limit turnovers and rebound effectively. Butler Coach Brad Stevens put it best when he said, "Somebody is going to have to beat us." What he meant is that the Bulldogs will not beat themselves. The Bulldogs are a smart, experienced, disciplined squad that rarely makes mental mistakes. UConn turned the ball over 15 times in its semifinal win, something that cannot happen in the championship against Butler. You can bet that coach Stevens will have a gameplan to defend Kemba Walker, meaning that UConn must maximize possessions and limit second-chance opportunities for the Bulldogs. If Connecticut values the ball, that will give the Huskies the greatest opportunity to get the victory.
Prediction: Both teams have shown the uncanny knack of pulling out close games. The difference in this contest is that the Huskies have Kemba Walker, and the Bulldogs don't. The Huskies have not lost on a neutral floor this season, and have not lost in any tournament either, including the Big East tournament, the NCAA Tournament and even the Maui Invitational. Kemba gets the job done in a low-scoring, grueling affair.
Strength: Defense. Butler is a sound defensive team that has held three of its tournament opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field. With stalwarts Ronald Nored, Shawn Vanzant and Shelvin Mack on the defensive perimeter, Butler has a shot at controlling UConn's most important player, Kemba Walker. When Connecticut has lost this season, it's usually because Walker's shot is off. In eight of UConn's nine losses this year, Walker failed to top 37 percent shooting. The Bulldogs also have to worry about Jeremy Lamb, but not having to double walker will allow less space for Lamb to create his shot.
Weakness: Matt Howard is excellent in the frontcourt, but Butler can be struck at on the interior. Butler has allowed five players to score 20 or more points in the tournament -- four were frontcourt players. Fortunately for Butler, Connecticut does not have frontcourt scorers. And Howard and Andrew Smith can bang on the boards, limiting Alex Oriakhi's rebounding impact for UConn.
Intangibles: Coach Brad Stevens has created masterful gameplans throughout the tournament. In the national semifinal against VCU, the Bulldogs gave up the offensive boards to get back on defense against the run-and-gun Rams. The result? Zero fastbreak points for VCU. Stevens' calm-but-in-control demeanor is reflected in his team's poise and execution. The Bulldogs won't beat themselves. If Stevens comes up with another inspired gameplan, the Huskies might not beat them either, especially with a freshman-dominated roster under the biggest spotlight of its life.
Butler Will Win If: it slows Kemba Walker and controls the boards. Walker might get his points, but if Ronald Nored can effectively harass him without help, it will allow Butler to hold Walker's teammates in check offensively. The Butler frontcourt must not let UConn own the glass -- no cheap putbacks for the Huskies -- while giving the Bulldogs plenty of second-chance points. Butler must slow the tempo and limit UConn's possessions. Butler has allowed just two of its 11 tournament opponents the last two years to score more than 62 points. It needs another sub-60 effort (or close to it) Monday night.
Prediction: Kemba Walker is perhaps the nation's best player, but don't forget his mid-season swoon -- a championship performance is no guarantee. Expect Butler's defensive gameplan and execution to harass and frustrate Walker at many a turn, while limiting the effectiveness of UConn's other scorers to pick up the slack. Toward the end of this low-scoring slugfest, the Huskies' freshmen will find it harder to respond to the championship-game pressure than the poised Bulldogs, who are motivated by the unfinished business they left on the court in last year's NCAA championship.