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There have been 66 games during the NCAA Tournament, pairing 64 teams down to two. We’ve seen just about every kind of basketball game there is. Buzzer beaters. Blowouts. Tightly-fought battles. High seeds handling business against low seeds. And upsets galore.
It has been a wild, crazy, unpredictable but eminently entertaining tournament, and now we’re down to just two teams: Butler University vs. the University of Connecticut. The Bulldogs vs. the Huskies. The bustling city of Indianapolis, Ind., vs. the rural town of Storrs, Conn. A program that has produced only four NBA and ABA players throughout its history vs. a program that has produced 30. So who wins?
This game can be answered in a single question: does Kemba Walker have one more good game in him? During UConn’s 10-game win streak, starting with March 8’s Big East tournament-opener against DePaul University, Walker has scored a little over a third of all the points UConn has produced. In every game since March 8, Walker has been the leading scorer on the team. In every game but one (March 10 vs. Pittsburgh in the Big East quarter-finals), Walker has been the leading scorer on the floor.
Walker’s scoring has actually become even more crucial during the NCAA Tournament. During the Big East tournament, he scored 130 of UConn’s 397 points, or 32.7 percent. UConn’s scoring dipped a little during the NCAA Tournament, down to 345 total points. Walker scored 125 of them, or 36.2 percent.
Walker’s production doesn’t end with his scoring. In eight of the last 10 Huskies games, the guard has also led the team in assists. Even if we went conservative and said that every one of Walker’s 55 assists during this streak was on a two-point shot, that still means Walker has helped generate an additional 110 points for his team. Put it all together, and you see that Walker has been directly involved with nearly half of UConn’s scoring.
When Walker is playing well, he is the best player on the court. If he struggles, the Huskies will be in trouble.
As impressive as UConn’s streak is, Butler’s may actually be better. The Bulldogs have not lost since Feb. 3, winning 14 straight. Their Horizon-league opponents – Green Bay, Cleveland State, Loyola – may not carry the same punch as UConn’s Big East opponents, such as Pitsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville. But in the NCAA tournament, Butler has knocked off historic teams such as Wisconsin and Florida. This is a very confident Butler squad that believes it can beat anyone. They will not be intimidated by UConn’s pedigree.
Butler’s best player is senior forward Matt Howard, who has steadily improved every year. His minutes (30.9), points per game (16.7), rebounds (7.8), assists (1.5), steals (1.1), free-throw percentage (.788) and three-point shooting (.409) are the highest they’ve ever been. Howard is a big man – 6’8″ – who can shoot the jumper as easily as he can play from the low-post. And he’s part of a stout Butler interior defense that doesn’t allow many layups or give up offensive rebounds.
Howard was a member of the 2010 Butler squad that made it all the way to the NCAA Finals, only to fall against Duke University. He knows that confidence can only take you so far, that you still have to respect your opponents and expect the best from them. He plays with poise and focus, and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
College basketball defense is usually designed to test a shooter’s accuracy. There is far less play in the paint and far more mid-range and three-point shooting. The Butler-VCU national semi-final was entirely about which team had better jump-shooting. Both teams applied full-court pressure and focused on staying with 1-on-1 match-ups until the opponent got near the three-point line. Then they switched to a zone designed to keep shooters out of the lanes. Butler showed a greater vulnerability to this kind of defense at first, but Butler guard Shelvin Mack stroked five three-pointers to lead the team. Howard provided some presence in the paint, although 11 of his 17 points came at the foul-line.
UConn is another team that relies on its guards to score points. In their semi-final against Kentucky, Walker and fellow guard Jeremy Lamb played the most minutes (78 combined), took the most shots (23, making 11) and scored the most points (30 of 56). If Butler forces UConn to shoot jump-shots, UConn has the players to make them pay. The Huskies’ starting forwards and centers are not bad players, but they took 13 shots during the Kentucky game vs. 23 by Lamb and Walker. Their strength lies in their rebounding, especially center Alex Oriakhi.
Walker has shown a tendency to play worse in the face of stronger competition. Two of Walker’s three lowest-scoring games came during the Big East finals against Louisville and the Kentucky game. When teams key on him, his scoring decreases, which brings down the entire scoring strategy for UConn (those games were also UConn’s two overall lowest-scoring games overall).
Butler may want to force UConn to score in the paint, where Howard can be more effective. But focusing on jump-shooters and giving up the lanes runs counter to college basketball-logic.
Ultimately, this game will still be about Walker. Shut him down, and the Huskies will collapse. Problem is, when teams have successfully shut down Walker, the Huskies often respond with better defense. In the Kentucky game, the Huskies held the Wildcats to 33.9 percent shooting and stole 11 passes.
UConn has the best player in the tournament, a defense that can force turnovers, and an offense better geared towards the college game.
Prediction: UConn 65, Butler 60