NCAA Tournament: Butler meets Kemba in final
Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2011
By Eddie Pells
HOUSTON — Butler coach Brad Stevens loves an underdog, whether it’s his team back in the Final Four or Connecticut making an unprecedented five-games-in-five-nights run through the Big East tournament.
A Big East team as an underdog? The coach at tiny Butler cheering for big, bad UConn?
Welcome to the bizarro world of college basketball in 2011 — a sport where not only is anything possible, but where nothing quite makes sense. A sport in which the story of a small school from a small conference making a run to a title is no more rare than that of the late-season magic conjured by a power program with one of the nation’s best players.
Butler and Connecticut will meet tonight in the national title game — the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, talking about shocking the world with their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
“We were all rooting for UConn because it was a great story,” Stevens said, “a lot of fun to follow.”
As is Butler, the team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis that practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, used as the backdrop for the classic movie “Hoosiers” — the based-on-reality melodrama in which tiny Hickory High stares down the biggest schools in Indiana and wins the state championship. On its second try.
What seemed impossible in that movie is becoming more the norm, at least in the college game. Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn’t even the biggest longshot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs in Saturday’s semifinal.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
“It’s as close to parity as there can be,” Calhoun said.
If anyone can say they’ve mastered it this season, it’s UConn. Led by Walker, the junior guard on the verge of becoming the best player to ever put on a Huskies uniform, Connecticut won five games in five nights against Big East competition to win the tournament.
A remarkable accomplishment in any conference, but especially the Big East — the 16-team behemoth that placed a record 11 teams in the tournament this year. Maybe because of the grueling nature of its regular season, the Big East wore down and had a terrible showing, only moving two teams into the second weekend.