Two weeks ago when the tournament known as March Madness began, we started with a field of 68 teams. Each one of those 68 teams began the tournament with aspirations of getting to Houston for a shot at the National Championship and an opportunity to cut down the nets for the right to be called champions. Unfortunately, the dream stopped short of Houston for 64 of those 68 teams originally but by 11:30p.m. on Saturday night the dream was only a possibility for two teams: Butler and Connecticut.
Nobody thought they’d be back. But the Butler Bulldogs, who came up just shy of a national title last season, have returned to the NCAA championship game to face another blueblood. The tiny school from Indianapolis faced Duke last year; Monday it’s UConn. Eighth-seeded Butler is the lowest-seeded team to play for the title since Villanova won it as a No. 8 seed in 1985. The third-seeded Huskies are seeking their third national championship, having won it in 1999 and 2004. Both teams play stifling defense and take their cues from a star junior guard.
Keys to Victory: Butler – The Bulldogs have won 14 straight and appear to be mentally tougher than everyone they play. Shelvin Mack scored 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting to lead the Bulldogs past VCU 70-62 in the semifinals, and he’s been clutch throughout the tournament. He made five of six from beyond the arc and also grabbed six rebounds. Leading scorer Matt Howard drew 10 fouls, making 11 of 12 free throws. Reserve senior guard Zach Hahn scored all eight of his points in a decisive 90-second span in the second half. Ronald Nored is the defensive tone-setter. A shutdown on-ball defender, Nored will face his toughest challenge yet in trying to contain Huskies superstar Kemba Walker.
Keys to Victory: Connecticut - The Huskies have won 10 straight dating to the start of the Big East tournament, making their ninth-place Big East finish a distant memory. Walker didn’t shoot well in UConn’s 56-55 semifinal win over Kentucky, but he did everything else, getting seven assists, six rebounds and two steals to go with 18 points. Walker continues to penetrate at will and is averaging more than eight free throws in the tournament (38 of 42). The Huskies out-rebounded the bigger Wildcats and held them to 34 percent shooting. Jeremy Lamb continues to be a nice complement to Walker; he’s shooting 59 percent in the tournament and has made 11 of 17 3-pointers. Forward must stay out of foul trouble to defend Howard.
Prediction: No team is more fundamentally sound than Butler, but the Bulldogs will be bothered by UConn’s superior quickness. Most importantly, the Huskies have the best player in Walker. In what’s sure to be a ”dog fight” between the Bulldogs and Huskies, ultimately Walker makes the difference and Connecticut cuts down the nets and earns the right to be called National Champions.