We went from 68 teams, to our final two. Butler and UConn survived tough brackets, even tougher games but even longer roads to get to Houston. Monday night, a new champion will be crowned, and it might be the oddest champion we’ve had in the past 10 seasons. While VCU, Butler, Kentucky and UConn was a crazy Final Four, this might be a even crazier NCAA title game. Let’s talk about each teams’ road to Houston.
For Butler, it was a storybook run in last year’s tournament that got them here. With schools like Oregon trying to woo Brad Stevens, many thought Butler would die down. Not exactly. Gordon Hayward decided to enter the NBA draft, but Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack returned and with that, Butler was ranked No. 18 to start the season. A crushing blow by Louisville threw Butler into a 3-2 start. Throw in losses to Duke and Xavier and the Bulldogs found themselves out the Top 25.
Wins against Stanford, Utah, Florida State and Washington State helped Butler rebound into the Top 25 before going into conference play, where many thought the Bulldogs could rebound and regain the stride. Losses to Youngstown State, Milwaukee-Wisconsin and Valparaiso dropped them to even in the conference.
Then the magic hit. Butler pulled off nine wins in a row to win the Horizon League, and get a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. The win over Old Dominion was huge, but the upset over No. 1 seed Pittsburgh in Round 2 was huge because Pittsburgh shot 56 percent from the field and still lost. Throw in close games vs. Wisconsin, overtime against Florida and a beatdown of VCU and Butler became the sixth team since 1990 (first since 1992-1993 Michigan) to get to the title game in consecutive seasons.
For UConn, it was a different tale. While Butler entered the season ranked, UConn came in unranked and unknown. UConn started the season 3-0 making its way to Maui, where we witnessed Kemba Walker’s stardom. Walker placed the Huskies on his back and propelled UConn to wins over Michigan State and Kentucky, which pushed UConn into the Top 10.
Many thought UConn would be exposed in Big East play, but a 5-3 start, and two wins over Texas and Tennessee, helped UConn prove its value. While UConn finished at .500 in the Big East, it didn’t stop Kemba Walker and freshman Jeremy Lamb from exploding in the Big East tournament with wins over Depaul, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville to enter the tournament as a No. 3 seed.
With a win over Bucknell in the round of 64, UConn had Cincinnati, San Diego State and a hot Arizona team going at it, but Kemba and company didn’t falter. Walker’s currently averaging 25 points per game in the NCAA tournament. In the Final Four, UConn ran up against a past foe in Kentucky, and the defense showed up. Kentucky was held under 35 percent shooting and allowed UConn to sneak by for a date with Butler in the title game on Monday.
Who do you have winning? I’m going with UConn for many reasons. While Butler does have its own "Walker" in Shelvin Mack, I don’t think Ronald Nored or Shawn Vanzant will be able to hold down Kemba Walker.
The interesting matchup will be Alex Oriakhi vs. Matt Howard and Andrew Smith. I think Butler will win that matchup there. The key player for me is Roscoe Smith, the freshman small forward of UConn. He’s long and fast enough to contend in the paint, as well as away from the basket. I predict he has a great game, Kemba Walker gives UConn 20 points and eight assists and the Huskies cut down the nets.
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