Butler vs. Connecticut, David vs. Goliath

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The crowd at Reliant Stadium celebrated wildly, as some cried tears of agony and buried their faces in their hands. In an appealing tournament of thrills, suspense, epic finishes and unpredictability, we have exactly what America wants to see as we brace ourselves for Monday night, a date that features this year’s tournament darling and a high-profile school — an engagement that features David vs. Goliath.

As a nation, emotionally pumped for a dramatic event in Houston, the largest crowd in Final Four history watched on a night that everyone fell in love with one of the cutest underdogs in sports. So often we think of March as one of the most exciting times on the sports calendar in the delirious, insane spring months, a moment when we are infatuated with college hoops. Every way, that is, the storyline heard suddenly has created buzz around the nation, as people crave a mesmerizing national championship game.

Here in America, where many can walk to the main entrance of a venue, tell amazing stories and root for the underdogs, the nation loves sleepers, which means the vast majority will be rooting for Butler. There’s no Hoosier sequel for the little guys when technically the Bulldogs have done enough to frighten the world as if Butler is America’s storied program, given its historic run last season before falling short to Duke on the national stage in Indianapolis.

The reality is that, even if the losing team can reflect back on the phenomenal run in this tourney by beating elite programs with higher seeds, one in particular being the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, another spectacular chapter ended so painfully to abolish a miracle unlike ever before. That would be Virginia Commonwealth, a university located in Richmond, Va., in which America became accustomed to the Rams’ remarkable run as weeks progressed, attached to the program after it stunned and ruined much for those who filled out brackets without including Butler or VCU in the Final Four.

A dream persists to a greater extent for the UConn Huskies as well, standing strong in the Big Dance. But most of our nation is charmed, for the second straight year, by Butler’s smoothest run, no matter if the Bulldogs have advanced to the national championship game for the second straight season. On a night that resembled a Hoosiers sequel, flashing back to the unbelievable ride by Milan for a storybook ending that led to a motion picture on the movie screens, the Bulldogs extended to 10-1 in the last two tourneys.

The program from the Horizon League is a top contender, not a Cinderella story, not the darling of basketball but the fiercest and most dominant team in the nation. It’s a rarity for any team to ultimately duplicate and deliver a repetition of marvelous Cinderella stories. But in an NCAA tournament where nothing has turned out as we expected, with all the surprises and scares, the Bulldogs are elated to be playing in their second consecutive national championship game on Monday, one of the greatest achievements in college basketball history.

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It wouldn’t be hard to call Butler a name-brand program. And to call them the underdogs is an understatement, even if the nation identifies the Bulldogs as underdogs. There’s a reason Butler is called the Bulldogs, simply because it is the meanest, scariest and most ferocious basketball school currently with a coach by the name of Brad Stevens, a soon-to-be 34-year-old with an ingenious mind to lead his players. And once again, it is very telling that the folks are rallying around the Bulldogs, rooting for the so-called underdogs after they stepped up to the national spotlight for winning big games with implications.

With every startling victory comes the emergence of a new scene for the Hoosiers sequel. But now, as the Huskies beat the blossoming Kentucky Wildcats 56-55, Butler will play Connecticut, a premier program with two national titles and four Final Fours, despite the NCAA sanctions that have stained the university’s credibility. It wasn’t an impeccable scene for Kentucky, one of basketball’s storied schools that struggled and faltered on the biggest stage, unable to avoid meltdowns and ripen into one of the remarkable programs, and instead is a disappointment that urge the masses in Lexington to believe in a sudden recovery.

Thus the program is one of the most demanding — Kentucky places its identity on not only basketball but also John Calipari, a bona fide ambassador who makes the Final Four every spring. While he’s normally coaching plenty of studs on his roster because of his brilliant recruiting — an explosive scorer in Brandon Knight and a sturdy center in Josh Harrellson — the Wildcats are still marred by a Kentucky Fried Calamity after dropping the biggest game in Kentucky’s first Final Four appearance since 1998.

Trailing by two points with 16.6 seconds left, Calipari rallied his team on the sideline during a timeout, grabbed a board and diagrammed a play that resulted in DeAndre Liggins firing an ill-advised three-point shot. The scheme was poorly executed as the Huskies secured the victory, seeking their third title in school history. It’s seemingly fine to believe that Butler, given its experience and desire to win it all this season, will be hoisting the trophy on Monday night.

“I don’t think I can possibly explain how much I want to do this,” said Butler forward Matt Howard after Butler’s 70-62 win over VCU. “The experience of being there, of being so close last year, I just can’t explain what this chance means to me.”

It’s been a bizarre tournament with something ridiculous happening in every round, as the top seeds submerge and stumble against low seeds, shocking the world and destroying brackets across the nation. Until Saturday night, it seemed that the hottest team scorching the nets were the Rams. One of the hottest programs in the country was never projected to be selected into the field of 68 teams, let alone advance past the NCAA’s inaugural First Four round as an 11 seed, and Shaka Smart was never expected to make noise.

27083-330-0As Matt Howard may have just amazed NBA executives and bolstered his NBA status as a top NBA prospect, Smart could have written a lengthy resume for his Career-Builder.com openings in the next few weeks. Most notably, after he has led VCU on an incredible tourney run that landed the team in the Final Four, he is the leading candidate to fill many coaching vacancies in the near future. It will be interesting to see what program interviews and offers him a coaching gig, now that speculations of possible candidates have created undying debates.

“Butler was the more aggressive team, and that was the biggest difference between this one and the last five,” Smart said emotionally. “It has more to do with Butler than with us.”

In other words, VCU finally encountered its match, an opponent much stronger, willed and anxious to win it all. This wasn’t the Rams greatest night on the court, once identified as the toughest underdogs in the tourney — angry that most of the country neglected, disrespected and ridiculed them. This wasn’t what was seen against USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. What seemingly was the difference in previous games, of course, was that the Rams forced turnovers and increased the tempo.

For once, there is a sense the Bulldogs have won it already, simply by their experience, toughness, ferocity and onslaughts to dictate the tempo and pace. As usual, the Bulldogs were disciplined and molded to play like cruel and harmful animals on the court. Now, in this Final Four, Butler should be the scariest Bulldogs, with sharp teeth and fangs, particularly when Howard is arguably the best scoring threat in the nation.

When Howard entered with 4:40 left, his defensive presence stopped and slowed down VCU’s up-tempo style. Although he’s a centerpiece for Butler’s defense, the best player on the floor Monday night will certainly be Kemba Walker, a surefire first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. However, in many ways, it turns out Butler is well deserving of being considered a national power in college hoops, after rising to the top for the second straight season.

This isn’t an illusion. This isn’t a fluke. This is real. There were cheers heard from an optimistic Butler crowd as the team’s mascot, dressed in a bulldog suit, ran wildly around the court. And then, suddenly, even the real bulldog on a leash was seen at midcourt once it ended. Every time the Bulldogs win, Jim Nantz, the voice of CBS sports, makes an effort to bend down and pet the dog if he calls the game.

Everybody by now knows that Stevens is the boy-wonder of college basketball, the guy you can easily mistaken for a 17-year-old teenager. Also, he gave up his job in pharmaceutical sales to embark on a career in coaching, where he has produced and been successful in the past two seasons. The rallying cry was heard from the Bulldogs, once a fulfilled night ended so sentimentally. “We’re not done yet! Unfinished business, baby!”

110403_02It seems the Bulldogs have the right mentality, entering Monday night’s showdown against the Huskies with a chance to make up for such a devastating heartbreaker a year ago. Shelvin Mack, who scored 24 points, is an attractive NBA player, a first-round pick with the ability to shoot lights out on any giving night because of his discipline and perseverance as a talented player. More impressively, the man off the bench, Zach Haun, scored all eight of his points in the second half that manipulated outcome of the game in Butler’s favor.

This season alone, the Bulldogs are the cleverest and peskiest defensive unit, roughly frustrating and neutralizing opponents as VCU fell victim. Butler is one win away from making history, and can celebrate in triumph with a victory, after coming all so close a year ago. With all things considered, for such a commitment to defense emphasized heavily by Stevens obviously, the Bulldogs can create havoc for UConn. This is by now clearly seen as the greatest game in sports, as it is anticipated to be one of the classic events in ages. The night for Walker wasn’t so wonderful in the beginning, for which he seemed a bit sluggish and confused. The night for Walker was frustrating, and oddly, he wasn’t the star and never had the ball in his hands in the pivotal moments.

There were times on this night when Kemba struggled to find rhythm and when the stadium went silent. It was a combination of fatigue, tiredness and nerves in a game with much on the line. When Kentucky’s Darius Miller landed on Walker’s right ankle, scaring the UConn fans that held their collective breaths and looked on worried about their star player’s health status, Walker grabbed the ankle, walked gingerly and grimaced in pain. He sat briefly and slowly walked back onto the court, and by the end of the game, he scored 18 points on 6-for-15 shooting.

But either way, no doubt, the hero on this night was UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, who had the biggest game of his lifetime. The Huskies led by four points and tried to clinch it with another shot to extend the lead as time ticked. Napier drove through traffic and finished with a reverse layup with 2 minutes left. In another play, he tried to slash to the basket, and the ball dribbled off his foot for a costly turnover when Knight dove on it and when Terrence Jones called a timeout.

“I thought Shabazz played great,” Jim Calhoun said after Napier finished merely 1-for-7 in shooting.

110403-05Calhoun is a Hall of Fame name at UConn, and honestly he never expected much this season from his players. He mainly felt his star player Walker was hit with a heavy burden. It’s amazing how grueling it has been for Walker, but somehow he has pressed on and been sensational leading the Huskies deep into the tournament. Walker, an outstanding junior from New York, where he was born and raised playing basketball on the playgrounds, is worthy of being defined as America’s greatest player after conducting a five-wins-in-five-nights winning streak.

There could only be one legitimate winner and, in a sense, it seems Butler is worthy of a title. After all, we’ll weigh in on a classic national championship game, once it’s all said and done. How breathtaking it is to witness two powerhouses, as one is portrayed as the underdog, a moment when UConn meets Butler for what could be the basketball game for the ages.

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