Kemba Walker (pictured) wasn't great against Kentucky, but his good is more than good enough on most occasions. You know you're a great player when an 18-point, six-rebound, seven-assist national semifinal isn't particularly notable. After getting a healthy dose of one defender (DeAndre Liggins) against Kentucky, Walker is expected to get tested by multiple Bulldogs as Butler changes up its looks to keep him off balance. Jeremy Lamb continues to be the perfect sidekick, chipping in an efficient 12 points, nine boards and four assists against the Wildcats. His development has been a huge factor in the second half of the season and he could be a difficult guard for the Bulldogs.
Shelvin Mack (pictured) continued his NCAA tournament renaissance against VCU, pouring in a team-high 24 points (including 5-of-6 from the arc) along with six of Butler's surprising 48 team rebounds. Shawn Vanzant hit what may have been the biggest shot of the game, a late corner three that gave the Bulldogs their largest lead of the game to that point. Chase Stigall likely will start again, but as the Bulldogs throw multiple options at Walker, Stigall's minutes could spread to defensive specialist Ronald Nored and/or Zach Hahn, whose eight points in a 90-second span against VCU also were a big factor.
With Alex Oriakhi (pictured) and Matt Howard going at it on the glass, that in itself is worth the price of admission. UConn's rugged big man had an effective eight points and 10 boards against UK. For the second time in three games against a very athletic opponent, Roscoe Smith chipped in with eight rebounds. His glasswork support will be crucial again vs. Butler, which has three very capable rebounding bigs in its rotation. Tyler Olander remains a figurehead starter and maybe could see a few more minutes in this one since Butler's strengths skew to the frontcourt, but Charles Okwandu is more likely to get the bulk of the minutes that don't go to Shabazz Napier.
Another game, another night of impact well beyond the box score for Matt Howard (pictured), who still had 17 points and eight boards against VCU. His work with Andrew Smith really helped Butler maintain its defensive integrity against VCU's spaced-out attack, and these two also keyed Butler's big margin on the glass. Howard could be a particularly tricky defensive matchup for UConn. When Charles Okwandu is on the court, the threat of Howard from the outside will force Oriakhi out of his low-post comfort zone. When Roscoe Smith is at the 4, Howard can punish him with strength. Howard's ability to draw fouls could also hurt the Huskies' thin rotation.
Napier (pictured) and Okwandu typically split the minutes available in Olander's spot, with Napier getting two-thirds of them as UConn prefers to go smaller, giving Walker a breather by getting him off the ball. Deeper options like Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Niels Giffey are more situational, although you get the sense that Jim Calhoun will need to make more liberal use of his bench in this game. Walker and Calhoun both admitted that this is a tired team at this stage.
Nored can erase memories of a difficult personal season with one defensive tour de force against Walker. Having him and Hahn available gives Brad Stevens five competent options with variable skills to work through Butler's three-guard look. Freshman forward Khyle Marshall (pictured) could be a huge factor in this game as Butler's deeper frontcourt tries to impose its will. He's developed into a significant X-factor down the stretch, especially on the offensive glass.
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Calhoun has wrung everything possible out of a roster with one gifted upperclassman star and a bunch of precocious, growing underclassmen. It's hard to argue against this being his best coaching job during his quarter century in Storrs, and that's saying a ton. Calhoun is 2-0 in national title games and has the chance to enter very rarefied coaching air with a third title. He's going to have his hands full scheming against a very rugged, very experienced, deeper Butler team that won't have stage fright in this spot, but he's also seen everything there is to see in the sport. One of the very few you'd favor over Stevens at this point.
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In a really impressive matchup between two young coaches, Stevens got the better of Shaka Smart's club with some savvy adjustments that cut off VCU's supply of open three-pointers and forced the Rams to try to beat Butler from inside the arc. What kind of plan will he conjure up to stop Kemba Walker and Co.? My contention all season is that UConn is more dangerous when Walker is forced/allowed to be a distributor, which gets Lamb and Smith fully involved. We'll see if Stevens agrees and makes Walker try to win the game by himself on the offensive end.
SLIGHT EDGE: UConn
They're 13-0 in tournament knockout games this season. What's one more? Walker has been able to carry this team on his shoulders all season and should have one more big effort left before he heads to the NBA. Will he be the only storied Husky making his final appearance? If Calhoun's crew finishes the deal, it seems like an extraordinarily good spot for the 68-year-old to hand off the program. It's doubtful he will pull a Pete Carril and tell his team beforehand, but you know it's a possibility.
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The best words out of Brad Stevens' mouth in Saturday's postgame were that Butler simply needs to be "one shot better" this time around to win the national title. It was a simple, yet strong message to his players that they should expect to win it all. Butler has shown the ability to handle teams similar in style to the Huskies and have more experience and better quality depth than their opponent, unlike last season vs. Duke. They also likely will have the neutral fans at Reliant Stadium in their corner. They should be confident.
There will be a ton of focus on the rebounding matchup in this game, but people may be paying attention to the wrong backboard. UConn is an elite offensive rebounding team, but Butler is its equal on the defensive glass and already has gotten past Old Dominion and Pitt, the nation's two best offensive rebounding teams. Instead, the game may be won through the battle on Butler's offensive glass. The Bulldogs have been above a 36 percent offensive-rebound rate in four of their five NCAA wins. UConn, while solid against Kentucky, is not great on that end and had issues keeping SDSU and Arizona from getting second chances. That issue could be a byproduct of Calhoun's lineup decisions. The more minutes Napier plays, the more UConn is committing to playing Smith at the 4, which could leave the Huskies vulnerable inside against the Smith/Howard/Marshall rotation. If UConn has to go bigger, do they sacrifice Napier's minutes and risk Mack going off? Or does it cut Lamb's or Smith's time, which could impact UConn's ability to score? The Huskies are the longest and best defensive team Butler faces in this run, so it's possible they can cut off a steady supply of inside scoring and make the Bulldogs beat them from the arc. The Huskies also should be able to force some mismatches of their own, especially if they go smaller. Still, it feels like Butler's personnel could force UConn to adjust, not the other way around.
If you took the names off the jerseys and just went on an honest evaluation of the teams, how they are playing and how they match up, you'd take Butler. So that's what I'm going to do. We're going to have our first mid-major national champion of the modern college hoops era.
Butler 65, UConn 60
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