Three key questions that will decide Monday's title game
HOUSTON -- We can all agree those were two very competitive games played at the Final Four on Saturday night. But let's be honest: They were not particularly well-played. Three of the four teams shot less than 40 percent from the field. The four made a combined 26 out of 84 three-point attempts, a rate of 31 percent. The two losing teams combined to shoot 48 percent from the foul line, yet both were still in position to win in the closing minutes.
It may be fitting, then, to see this wild, unpredictable, topsy-turvy college basketball season come down to this question: Who is ready to win ugly? Both Butler and UConn have played some spectacular basketball the last month-and-a-half, but these teams have reached the sport's ultimate stage by showing that they can also win when things -- namely points -- aren't coming so easily. If you're expecting a finesse, efficient, balletic basketball game, don't bother tuning in. If you like to see college kids battling for rebounds, diving for loose balls, clawing their way to the free-throw line and nailing clutch jumpers down the stretch, then this is the championship for you. Here are the three questions that will decide the outcome.
You might expect the answer to be yes, considering Butler's 6-foot-8 senior forward hasn't fouled out of a game since Jan. 23. However, UConn is uniquely suited to put that streak in jeopardy.
Not only do the Huskies have several frontcourt players, most notably 6-9 sophomore center Alex Oriakhi who can challenge Howard on the glass, but UConn's guards are also programmed to drive to the rim in an effort to draw fouls. No one is more expert at this than Kemba Walker, who has attempted an astounding 42 free throws in the NCAA tournament, making 38 of them.
Of course, a lot will depend on how the game is officiated, so pay close attention to the way the refs set the tone during the first few minutes. The more they let the players collide, the more it will favor Butler because the Bulldogs are the more physical team. However, the NCAA's supervisor of officials, John Adams, has been pounding his zebras all year to cut down on rough play. The referees weren't given the honor of working the NCAA championship game because they're bad at following orders.
Each of these teams has two great players -- Walker and Jeremy Lamb for UConn, Howard and Shelvin Mack for Butler. However, you don't make it to the national championship game by being a two-trick pony. Each team has benefited during the tournament from another player making critical plays, whether it was Butler freshman forward Khyle Marshall grabbing seven offensive rebounds against Florida, or UConn freshman guard Shabazz Napier delivering six assists to just one turnover in 21 minutes off the bench in the Sweet 16 against San Diego State.
Both of those guys are candidates to be the X-factor tonight, but if I had to choose one it would be Oriakhi. He has provided his usual rebounding and shot-blocking help in this tournament, but he has been a little too quiet on the scoring front. Oriakhi had 22 double-figure scoring games this season, but he has none so far in the tournament. UConn will need him to be a little more offensive-minded tonight, especially if he is able to grab some offensive rebounds. Butler is going to make sure this game is going to played in the halfcourt, so the Huskies could really use Oriakhi's post presence to make their offense run efficiently.
In the end, you can't win a national championship just by scrapping and clawing. At some point you've got to make outside shots. The two most likely players to do that, Mack and Walker, have had stretches where they've shot the ball well from deep. They've also had stretches where they shot very poorly.
From mid-January to mid-February, Mack went through a 12-game stretch where he shot 28 percent from three-point range. Walker is more of a volume shooter than an efficient one; he is making 43 percent from the field during the tournament, including his 6-for-15 effort against Kentucky on Saturday night. If one of those guys comes out in rhythm and drills timely threes, it will make a huge difference in the game.
If we're conceding that this is going to be another ugly basketball game, then at first blush it should favor Butler. Dig deeper and you see that it doesn't. Unlike Florida and VCU, UConn is not dependent on making three-pointers. This season the Huskies have gotten less than a quarter of their points off of threes, a clip that ranks 246th nationally. Moreover, while Butler has done well to rebound with the likes of Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida, it will not have nearly the same advantage on the boards tonight that it had against VCU. Butler relies on its ability to make its opponents uncomfortable, but UConn will be plenty comfortable playing basketball the Butler Way.
I don't want to hear about a "talent gap." Butler is just as talented as UConn, and it's older, too. Still, Butler is not the only team that has been able to bottle a little magic. The Huskies have been on a storied run of their own beginning with their epic five-games-in-five-days burst through the Big East tournament. I thought hard about picking Butler to win, but in the end I just can't go against Kemba Walker. Mack is a great player, too, but he doesn't impact the game in as many ways as Walker does.
Kemba Walker isn't just a mega talent. He's the best leader who has played in this tournament since Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves. The bottom line is, Walker is a winner, and he doesn't mind if he has to win ugly. Because when you're the last team standing on Monday night, everything is beautiful.