HOUSTON (AP) — Butler assistant head coach Matthew Graves estimates the Bulldogs’ coaching staff is averaging 4-5 hours of sleep during the NCAA tournament, skipping a good night’s rest to pore over game film.
It’s an exhausting process. One that leaves head coach Brad Stevens and company bleary eyed as they try to distill opponents’ strengths into easily digestible morsels for the Bulldogs.
And that was before they had to find a way to unlock the mystery of Connecticut’s Kemba Walker.
The do-everything point guard provides the Bulldogs with a challenge they have yet to face during their two-year run through the bracket — a superstar.
Sure, the Bulldogs have gotten pretty good at slaying Goliaths. Their list of victims includes Syracuse, Michigan State and Florida.
Good teams all. Yet ones without a player like Walker, who has carried the Huskies to the verge of their third national title.
“He’s a guy that puts you in a lot of unique positions,” Stevens said.
Most of them bad.
Lay off Walker, and he’ll pull up from 3. Body him, and he’ll blow by you with a vertigo-inducing first step. Throw two players at him, and he’ll find an open teammate.
Graves, who splits the scouting with assistants Terry Johnson and Micah Shrewsberry, called Walker “without a doubt the best individual player in terms of importance to his team that we’ve faced.”
Shutting him down is almost an impossible task. Slowing him down isn’t much easier.
Kentucky did as good a job as anyone on Saturday, holding Walker to “only” 18 points in UConn’s 56-55 victory. Yet he added six rebounds and seven assists to send the Huskies to their 10th straight victory and a spot in the national championship game.
“Kemba makes it tough for you,” said guard Ronald Nored, who could get one of the first cracks at guarding Walker on Monday. “But the great thing about people is they all have tendencies. Everyone has something that they’re good at; everyone has something that they’re probably not as good at, or they’re not as efficient at. In the next few hours, there’s going to be a lot of breakdowns.”
None of them nervous ones. Butler doesn’t do nervous.
Credit the even-keeled Stevens, who has perfected “the Butler Way” during his four seasons on the bench. The Bulldogs respect every opponent, regardless of what it says on the front of the jersey.
The fear factor, however, is long gone.
Yes, they’re concerned about Walker. Saying they’re obsessed would be stretching it.
“You really just can’t focus the defense all on him,” said guard Shawn Vanzant. “They’ve got excellent other guards on the team who can hurt you. (Jeremy) Lamb’s a very good player. It’s going to be a team collective to guard their three guards.”
Meaning everybody has to take a look at the scouting report on each player, no exceptions. Forward Matt Howard won’t be anywhere near Walker when the Bulldogs set up their halfcourt defense. Yet he has to know where to go when Walker inevitably comes his way.
“You have to have a team awareness on him; it’s not going to be one guy,” Howard said. “I know we’ll probably be rotating guys onto him.”
Nored and Vanzant certainly will get a shot, and the assistants have prepared extra tape so the players can spend all Sunday night studying where Walker likes to go when he gets the ball on the left baseline if they want.
Anglin likens the scouting reports to SparkNotes, the popular series of study aides that condenses classic books into easily digestible morsels.
The Bulldogs, however, have been better than most at taking away an opponent’s strengths. They harassed Virginia Commonwealth’s sharp-shooting Joey Rodriguez into a 1-of-8 performance on Saturday and limited SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons to just five points in the regional final a week ago.
Yet, Rodriguez and Parsons aren’t on Walker’s level. Nobody in college basketball is. He’ll step into the spotlight one more time on Monday, a place opponents have found mighty uncomfortable the last month.
Butler watched in person as Walker shred through the first weekend of the tournament in Washington D.C., and paid close attention on Saturday when he guided the Huskies within a game of their third national title.
The Bulldogs are the last obstacle standing between Walker and a place in history reserved for the likes of Danny Manning, who carried Kansas to a national title 23 years ago.
Their admiration for Walker is palpable. So is their determination to succeed where so many other teams have failed.
“I’ve been cheering for him making game-winning shots all year so it’s exciting to have this opportunity,” Nored said. “It’s going to be a tall task and not just him, the other two guards. It’s going to be a tall task for us.”
AP National Writer Nancy Armour contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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