HOUSTON (AP) — A look at Monday’s national championship game:
BUTLER (28-9) vs. CONNECTICUT (31-9)
No. 8 Butler beat No. 9 Old Dominion 60-58; No. 1 Pittsburgh 71-70; No. 4 Wisconsin 61-54; No. 2 Florida 74-71, OT; No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth 70-62.
Shelvin Mack had 24 points and was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the win over VCU. When he started connecting from the outside is when the Bulldogs started putting some space between themselves and the Rams. Matt Howard deserves co-star billing as he had 17 points and eight rebounds against VCU. Both have been instrumental in getting Butler back to the title game for a second straight year. Howard’s tip-in at the buzzer to beat Old Dominion in the opening round was followed by him making the winning free throw with less than a second to play in the victory over Pittsburgh.
Brad Stevens, despite being just 34, is being lauded as one of the best in the coaching profession. His ability to motivate his team while keeping a cool demeanor has made him the talk of the NCAA tournament for a second straight year. His decision to remain at Butler after last year’s run to the championship game has added to his persona as the ideal college coach. He is already 10 wins ahead of the previous record for best four-year start by a coach with a 117-24 mark.
The Bulldogs have been here before, and most of that team is back. Butler plays solid defense and doesn’t make mistakes on offense, but it’s the way the Bulldogs play so hard and don’t let the disparity in talent affect them that has made them one of the country’s favorite teams at this time of year. The Bulldogs showed they have some ability up front by outrebounding VCU 48-32, including 16-6 on the offensive end.
ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSIP GAME
No. 3 Connecticut beat No. 14 Bucknell 81-52; No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58; No. 2 San Diego State 74-67; No. 5 Arizona 65-63; No. 4 Kentucky 56-55.
Kemba Walker showed again why he is having one of the best seasons in recent memory. He had 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the win over Kentucky. Despite being guarded by a much bigger player in DeAndre Liggins, Walker, who played all 40 minutes, was able to find his teammates to score and still made big shots himself. He accounted for 32 of the Huskies’ 56 points. The All-America is averaging over 26 points a game in the postseason, a 10-game stretch in 25 days.
At 68, Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun would become the oldest coach to win a national championship. It would be his third title and would put him in a group with John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight to win at least that many. He has a career record of 854-607 placing him sixth on the all-time wins list and third among active coaches behind Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. The Huskies’ Big East championship was Calhoun’s record seventh.
The Huskies are on a roll over the last 10 games with seven of the opponents being ranked in the Top 25. It hasn’t all been Walker. Freshman Jeremy Lamb had 12 points and four assists against Kentucky, and Alex Oriakhi had eight points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Shabazz Napier had quite a final 16 seconds against the Wildcats, turning the ball over then coming up with a rebound with 3 seconds left and then made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 1.7 seconds left for a four-point lead.
It’s the school from the aptly named Big East against the school from the Horizon League. It’s the team with a superstar against one that plays the team game seamlessly. Butler rebounds well for its size, and that’s one thing Connecticut has plenty of with Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu in the middle. Walker and Mack should be a great matchup of players who lead their teams on and off the court.