The Connecticut Huskies (31-9) outlasted the Kentucky Wildcats (29-9) on Saturday, 56-55, to advance to Monday night’s championship game against Butler (28-9). The Bulldogs return to this year’s title game after taking down Virginia Commonwealth (28-12) earlier in the day, 70-62, in an unlikely match-up of Cinderellas.
For Butler, this incredible run is just as improbable as it was last year when they advanced as a five-seed, having narrowly lost to Duke 61-59. Currently, Brad Steven’s team has won 14 straight games but, should they lose tonight, his Bulldogs would become the first program since Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’, in 1992-93, to lose back-to-back NCAA Finals games. A win, however, would likely make them considered the biggest underdog ever to be crowned champions.
Meanwhile, Connecticut’s appearance at the Final Four is their fourth under Jim Calhoun, having won titles in ’99 and ’04 and losing in the national semifinals to Michigan State in ’09. Coming away with a win tonight would appear to be his most-unlikely title, as the pre-season unranked-Huskies finished a jaw-dropping 9th in the loaded Big East standings.
A loss for his young team, though somewhat unlikely, would get a monkey off John Thompson’s (former Georgetown Head Coach) shoulders as his Hoyas’ shocking loss to 8th-seeded Villanova in the ’85 title game produced what is generally considered the least-likely NCAA Champions of modern day.
To avoid that path, the Huskies will need every bit of play from star-guard Kemba Walker. The 6’1” junior averages a team-high 23.5 points and 4.3 assists per game and, amazingly, is second on the team in rebounding (5.3 per game) to 6’9” sophomore center Alex Oriakhi’s 8.5.
The two start alongside a trio of freshmen in forwards Tyler Olander, Roscoe Smith, and lengthy guard-forward Jeremy Lamb. The silky-smooth Lamb ranks second on the team in scoring at 10.3 points per game and is a threat from beyond the arc as well as in the lane.
Butler counters with a more veteran team led by leading scorer (16.7) and rebounder (7.8) Matt Howard. Despite battling serious foul trouble for much of the second half, the 6’8” senior forward still scored 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds in the win over VCU.
The Bulldogs best scorer come tournament time, though, has been junior Shelvin Mack. The hot-shooting guard has averaged 21.8 points per game in the pressure-filled win-or-go-home format this season and led the way against VCU with 24 points off of 8-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-6 from beyond the arc.
Both players though have been clutch late in games, allowing the Bulldogs to pull out some close wins in the tourney. Their four wins to get to the Final Four were by a mere 11 points total, making the eight-point margin of victory over Virginia Commonwealth their most lopsided win of the postseason.
UConn is a little bit more of an explosive team than the grind-it-out Bulldogs. The Huskies, who still haven’t lost outside of the Big East, seem to have the perfect blend of a scorer/slasher point guard (Kemba Walker) who can draw defenders and dish the ball to wide open sharp-shooters like Lamb or Roscoe Smith.
Meanwhile, their very-serviceable big man rotation of Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu should be able to out-muscle Butler’s post players like sophomore center Andrew Smith as well as the versatile Matt Howard. Prediction: Connecticut 74, Butler 68