UConn shuts down Butler, 53-41

Connecticut Huskies guard Kemba Walker celebrates after the Connecticut Huskies defeated the Butler Bulldogs during their men’s final NCAA Final Four college basketball game in Houston, Texas, April 4, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Connecticut shot 34.5% from the field, including 1-of-11 from long range, and turned the ball over five more times than Butler and still won the game by 12 points.

More than anything else, the story tonight was Butler’s shooting. They made just 12-of-64 (19%) from the field, and only 3-of-31 (10%) from two-point range thanks in part to UConn’s 10 blocked shots.

Greg Anthony called it the worst performance he’s ever seen in a championship game and that’s half true. It was a terrible shooting performance, but the Bulldogs played pretty great defense, holding UConn to just 53 points on 35% shooting. So for that they should be commended.

Regarding the shooting, UConn contested a lot of shots, but the Bulldogs missed some open looks as well. If anything, tonight’s game is yet another argument that the Final Four should take place in a basketball arena instead of in a football stadium. There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about how the shooting in domes decreases by an average of 4%. It’s simply tough to shoot in such a big building because there isn’t anything behind the basket to help give the shooter a frame of reference.

I’m not going to go into specifics about player statlines because they’re all pretty ugly (on both sides), but the play of UConn’s Alex Oriakhi (5-of-6 from the field, 11 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks) and Jeremy Lamb (12 second-half points, seven rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block) were collectively the difference in the game. Oriakhi gave Matt Howard and Andrew Smith fits around the basket and Lamb’s scoring broke the game open in the second half.

Congratulations to Jim Calhoun and UConn on a great year. It’s amazing to think that we have a national champion who didn’t even finish in the TOP HALF of its conference. (UConn was 9th out of 16 teams in the Big East.) Since they didn’t bother to mention it during the telecast, let’s not forget that Calhoun will be suspended for the first three games of the Big East schedule next season for recruiting violations that happened under his watch. For his part, Calhoun has fought the NCAA’s ruling every step of the way.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Championship Game Preview

Connecticut Huskies’ Kemba Walker reacts after making a basket against the Kentucky Wildcats during their semi-final NCAA Final Four college basketball game in Houston, Texas, April 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Connecticut vs. Butler…who would have thunk it?

Roughly 50% of the bracket-playing population had the Bulldogs losing their first round game against Old Dominion, so for Butler to still be alive is nothing short of shocking. Sure, they made the title game last year, but they lost their best player (Gordon Hayward) to the NBA and at one point during they season, they were 14-9 and coming off a three-game losing streak to UW-Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown St. Needless to say, what Brad Stevens and Co. have done over the past two years (10-1 in the tournament, 11-0 against the spread) is nothing short of amazing, especially for a mid-major.

On the flip side, it isn’t mind-blowing that UConn made the title game, especially with the way Kemba Walker played in five straight games in the Big East Championship. Freshman Jeremy Lamb has been a solid sidekick, and the Huskies proved on Saturday night that they can play some lockdown defense as they held Kentucky to just 34% shooting from the field. They’re more athletic than the Bulldogs and they will have the best player on the court in Walker.

But there is something about Butler that gives them the edge in a tight game. In many ways, the team has taken on the personality of the unflappable Stevens, so as long as they can keep the game close, there’s a good chance that they’ll figure out a way to pull out a win. How do they do it? Matt Howard outworks opposing big men while shotmaker Shelvin Mack is something of a poor man’s Walker. When the Bulldogs need a bucket, he usually delivers.

This is probably going to be another white-knuckle finish, and if that’s the case, I’m going with my heart and taking the Bulldogs. Considering I picked VCU and Kentucky in Saturday’s game, I’m probably putting the hex on the underdogs.

Final Four Primer

A combination picture shows Butler Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens (L) and Virginia Commonwealth Rams head coach Shaka Smart during their respective practice sessions in Houston, Texas, April 1, 2011. Their teams will meet in the first of two NCAA Final Four college basketball games on April 2. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Butler and VCU tip things off today at 6 PM ET, so while you wait, here is some opinion from around the internets. Also, be sure to check out our quick and dirty Final Four preview.

Carson Cunningham, Real Clear Sports: In Indiana we play basketball. It sounds cliché, but it’s true and you can try to quantify this. During Butler’s most recent tournament wins over Wisconsin and Florida, for instance, you could’ve noted that Indiana has about three times as many Division I basketball players as Wisconsin, even though the two states’ populations are nearly identical, or that Indiana colleges have produced 14 Final Four teams compared to the state of Florida’s 5, even though Florida has about three times as many people as Indiana. But basketball runs deeper in our veins than stats like this. When we watch Butler play basketball we’re reminded of the time we spent with our dads when we were 5 years old and of what our coaches taught us when we were 6 and 7. Whether it’s watching a dribble-drive to set up a backdoor, a sweet stroke from deep that draws nothing but net, or a lefty hook that represents thousands of hours of practice from Butler’s academic All-American Matt Howard, we can relate. Growing up, we practiced the same things for hours.

Gregg Doyel, CBS Sports: For VCU to continue its rampage toward the national championship, the Rams will have to do exactly what they’ve been doing. But their toughest test of the tournament — tougher even than what might await Monday — will be Butler. Because what VCU has done for five games is impose its will on the opponent. And nobody imposes squat on Butler. Butler is impervious to pressure, impervious to stress, impervious to whatever the other team is trying to do to it. Which means this game won’t just be a test of skill. It will be a test of will.

Pat Forde, ESPN: In its current 13-game winning streak, the Bulldogs’ games have averaged 62.2 possessions. That makes the contrast Saturday against Virginia Commonwealth rather stark. VCU has excelled this NCAA tournament at speeding up opponents, with its previous three games averaging 69.7 possessions. The Rams’ “Havoc” style was especially effective in the Southwest Regional final against Kansas, which was harassed into eight first-half turnovers and gave up a lot of open shots in transition as the Rams raced to a 14-point halftime lead. So the push and pull of pace will be paramount Saturday when the two teams hook up in the “Believe It or Not!” national semifinal.

Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle:
In the most delicious matchup of this Final Four, Liggins today almost certainly will be asked to slow down the best player in the NCAA Tournament. Connecticut junior Kemba Walker is generously listed at 6-1, and that’s irrelevant anyway. When you watch him play, when you see him work for the ball, wear down defenders and create opportunities both for himself and others, his height becomes irrelevant. No matter what else Walker accomplishes in basketball — and he’s almost certain to be a top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft – it may not be more impressive than what’s he done these last few weeks, putting a team on his back and taking it from the middle of the pack in the Big East to the threshold of a national championship.

Eamonn Brennan, ESPN: Jeremy Lamb has become a star. There’s no getting around it: This is Kemba Walker’s team. In many ways, from Maui to Manhattan to Anaheim to Houston, this has been his season. But UConn’s presence in the Final Four has just as much to do with Lamb’s emergence as a bona-fide star in his own right. The UConn forward has gone from a lanky, raw freshman to a versatile, comprehensive scorer. He’s made 11 of his 15 3-pointers in UConn’s four NCAA tournament wins, and he’s complemented that outside attack with an array of drives, pull-ups and pretty mid-range floaters. Can Lamb keep this up? If he does, he makes UConn’s Walker-led attack even more dangerous, and that’s bad news for the other three members of this unlikely Final Four.

Ken Davis, NBC Sports:
One day before Kentucky defeated North Carolina in the East Regional championship game, Kentucky coach John Calipari shared an interview podium with his starters. Calipari calls Knight one of the most conscientious, hard-working players he has ever been around. So, when he was asked to describe how Knight has the confidence to take the game-winning shots he has become known for in the NCAA Tournament, Calipari gave an answer that revealed much more about his young star. “He will be in the gym at 11 at night,” Calipari said. “Then he will be in the training room icing his knees or his legs at 6 in the morning. Academically, he got mad the other day when he got a 91. What class was it that you got that 91 on a test?” “Sociology,” Knight answered. “Still got an A, but he is mad,” Calipari said. “He’s conscientious. So he feels that he will make that shot. And more importantly, why I put the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to miss it. If you really want to be that guy, you have no fear. ‘If I miss this shot, I miss it. I am not afraid to miss this shot. Life will not end.’ I feel comfortable putting it in his hands because I know his work ethic.”

Don’t forget about Brad Stevens and Butler

Butler’s head coach Brad Stevens cheers on his team during the NCAA National Championship college basketball game against Duke in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

This moment of madness brought to you by Muscle Milk®. It’s powerful protein. Drink. Evolve™

Much of the attention this week has been devoted to Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth, and deservedly so. But let’s take a moment to appreciate what Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs have done over the last two seasons.

Last year, when Butler (a #5-seed) knocked off Syracuse and Kansas State to make the Final Four, there was a lot of Cinderella talk. But since #11-seed VCU made it to Houston this year, people are sleeping on the #8-seeded Bulldogs. They lost their best player (Gordon Hayward) and two other rotation players (Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes), replacing them with Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall and Chase Stigall, none of whom average more than 24 minutes per game or 8.8 points per game. So this is essentially the same team as last year’s minus an NBA player (Hayward) who is getting healthy minutes off the Utah Jazz bench. And they still made the Final Four, upending three of the top four seeds in their region along the way.

Much of the credit goes to Stevens, who in early February wrangled a 14-9 team that was in a tailspin coming off three straight losses to UW-Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State. At that point, the Bulldogs’ tourney hopes were on life support, and they needed to string some wins together to even have a shot to make the postseason. Over the next month, they rattled off nine-straight victories, including wins over Cleveland St. and UW-Milwaukee in the Horizon League Championship to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

To fill the scoring void left by Hayward, Matt Howard stepped up his average from 11.6 to 16.7, while also bringing rebounding (7.7 per game), three point shooting (42.6%), along with unequaled grit and hustle. Howard is the team’s heart, but when they need a shot, they turn to Shelvin Mack, the team’s best offensive player. This kid has hit some huge shots over the last two seasons.

But the real reason that the Bulldogs have made a repeat appearance in the Final Four is that they’re back to playing championship caliber defense, which is something that they struggled with for most of the season. In four tournament games, they’re holding opponents to a stingy 41% shooting from the field, and just 30% from the three-point line. They’ll have to defend the three well if they hope to beat the Rams, who are hitting 44% from distance in the tourney.

Given their matchup with an #11-seed, the Bulldogs are in the unusual position of being the favorite. If Saturday’s game comes down to the final few possessions, one has to believe that Stevens and the Bulldogs have the necessary experience and moxie to pull out a win. A team’s personality generally reflects its coach, and Stevens is the model of poise on the sideline. His teams never seem to get rattled.

Two consecutive Final Four appearances by a mid-major program? That’s one heck of an accomplishment.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.

Your quick and dirty Final Four preview

Butler Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens encourages his team playing against the Florida Gators in the second half during their NCAA Southeast Regional college basketball game in New Orleans, March 26, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Butler vs. VCU

Spread: Butler -2.5; Sagarin: Butler -1.45; Pomeroy: Butler 55.3%
Butler is the slight favorite, and if this game comes down to the final few possessions, I have to give the Bulldogs the edge due to their amazing ability (fortune?) to triumph in close games. However, Butler has only won their four tournament games by a total of 13 points, so they have hardly been as dominating as the Rams, who have beaten #1 Kansas, #3 Purdue, #6 Georgetown and #11 USC by an average of 14.8 points. Their lone tight game was against #10 Florida State, which went to overtime.

The key for the Rams has been their lights-out three-point shooting. They have hit 44% of their attempts in the tourney, after shooting just 36% during the season. Will this hot shooting continue in a football stadium against Butler, which very good at defending the three-point line (32.4%)? If the Rams hit 40%+ from long range, they have a chance for a 10- to 15-point win, especially if they use their depth to press, something that has rattled the Bulldogs in this tournament.

My pick: VCU

Kentucky vs. UConn

Spread: UK -2; Sagarin: UK -2.32; Pomeroy: UK 58.4%
After watching UConn play in a tough environment against both SDSU and Arizona, there’s no doubt that the Huskies are mentally tough enough to leave Houston with a title. Kentucky has the more talented rotation, but the key to this game will be how the Wildcats defend Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Against both SDSU and Arizona, Walker carried the Huskies early, but at some point in the second half, Lamb stepped up with several big shots to help to put those two games away.

If you go with the “best player on the floor” argument, UConn probably has the edge because of Walker. He’s lightning quick and can usually get a good look at the basket whenever he wants. The Wildcats have more balance, with four players averaging double-digits and two more averaging 7.9 ppg or more. Brandon Knight has hit some clutch shots and UConn hasn’t had to wrangle a guard of his caliber so far in the tournament.

In the end, the Wildcats have the edge. They own the 4th-best Pomeroy rating and look more like a national championship-caliber squad with their elite (#7) offensive efficiency and more than capable defense (#20). That said, if Walker and/or Lamb get hot, this will be a close game.

My pick: Kentucky

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