NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — After their latest win on the road to an unlikely spot in the national title game, Connecticut’s players talked about shocking the world.
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Butler’s talked about unfinished business.
That’s what it comes down to in the closing act of a college basketball season turned upside down — a national final between a “power team” with one of the best players in the country that feels like an underdog and a “little guy” that thinks it should be there.
Butler and Connecticut will meet Monday night — the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, going for their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
“We always seem to prove everybody wrong,” Walker said. “I always tell those guys that everybody has us losing, so let’s go out there and give it our all and make it happen for us.”
Connecticut hasn’t lost since dropping to 9-9 in the Big East in its last regular-season game. The Huskies followed that by stringing together an unprecedented five wins in five nights at the conference tournament to set up their run in the NCAAs. UConn and coach Jim Calhoun are going for their third national title since 1999.
Butler, meanwhile, is in its second straight final. The team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the dusty old gym used as the backdrop for the classic movie “Hoosiers.” That’s the reality-based drama in which tiny Hickory High stares down the biggest schools in Indiana and wins the state championship. On its second try.
What seemed impossible in that movie is becoming more the norm, at least in the college game. Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn’t even the biggest long shot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs on Saturday.
As recently as 2008, the NCAA tournament landed all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, there wasn’t a single 1 or 2 for the first time in the 33-year history of seeding.
Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
“It’s as close to parity as there can be,” Calhoun said. “It certainly can occur in a tournament a lot more than it could playing a Saturday night, then Big Monday. It’s just the nature of things. … The one-and-done thing, walking the tightrope is a hard thing, a very difficult thing.”
That Connecticut is still standing is a testament to Walker’s playmaking ability (he’s averaging 25.5 points during the 10-game winning streak) and Calhoun’s ability to adjust on the fly to the fatigue that has predictably set in as the grueling postseason has worn on.
“Our code has been very simple: ‘The hell with it, let’s just go play basketball,'” Calhoun said. “Well, we wouldn’t be doing all the things we did last night defensively to Kentucky if we just kind of rolled the thing out there. We worked very hard on it. But we worked on it in a different way.”
Connecticut advanced to the final by holding the Wildcats to 33.9 percent shooting in a 56-55 victory Saturday night.
Butler, meanwhile, only needed two wins in four nights to capture the tournament title in the less-heralded Horizon League. Still, the Bulldogs are on a 14-game winning streak that began after losing their third straight back on Feb. 3. At that point, this was a team that had no guarantees it would even make the NCAA field. It looked nothing like the one that captured hearts as it made its run through last year’s tournament.
In the final last April, Butler trailed Duke 61-59 with 3.6 seconds left when Gordon Hayward (now playing for Utah in the NBA) grabbed the rebound off an intentionally missed free throw, dribbled four times to the halfcourt line and launched a shot at the buzzer. It hit the backboard, the inside of the rim and bounced out. It could have been the greatest finish ever in sports. It wound up as something less, though coach Brad Stevens insists he walked away that night feeling like a winner.
“Our guys played as well as they could have,” Stevens said. “They represented themselves in an unbelievable manner throughout that whole game. That might be the reason why we had parades, too, even though we lost. It was remarkable the way people treated us even though we lost.”
One win away from the pinnacle once again, the Bulldogs are talking about finishing the deal this time. They haven’t turned their backs on the heart-tugging story lines that help define them, but they don’t fall back on them, either.
“There are some connections to us and ‘Hoosiers.’ I understand that, and that’s nice if people want to make those connections,” senior forward Matt Howard said.
Calhoun, trying to become only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles, says he appreciates Butler as much as the next guy. He sees the slow, steady improvement of mid-majors such as Butler and figures there will be more tournaments like this one and more nights like Monday — where the small school and the big school are on even footing.
Maybe one of those days, the little guy will win it all.
“I think it’s good for college basketball,” Calhoun said. “I think if it starts around 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful thing.”
Who’s your pick to win it all? Make your prediction in the comments below…
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