Monday, April 04, 2011

UConn Men Stand Taller, Capture 3rd Championship Under Calhoun

Connecticut 53 Butler 41

In a season in which the most recently dominant team - the UConn women's team - was ousted from their final game, the UConn men picked up the banner and carried it proudly to the men's national championship, the third for coach Jim Calhoun since 1999.

Connecticut took control midway through the second half, mostly due to the effort of freshman Jeremey Lamb whose steal and dunk with 13:38 to play, gave the Huskies a 5-point lead.

Lamb scored again and his alley-oop bucket from Shabazz Napier put the Huskies up 37-28 at the 11:00 minute mark. It was all UConn thereafter, expanding their lead to 14 points when Alex Oriaki completed a three-point play with 5:48 remaining. The game was essentially over at that point.

Shelvin Mack hit two straight 3-pointers with just under two minutes to play, but Kemba Walker ended the game with four straight free throws and the 53-41 final score, the lowest point total by a champion since 1949.

The Husky defense can also take pride in holding Butler to 18.8 shooting, an NCAA finals record.

At the end of a contentious half of basketball, Shelvin Mack's 3-pointer at the buzzer game the Bulldogs a 22-19 lead. Due to the defensive intensity neither team was distinguished shooting from the field.

The Huskies led with 24% (9-37) shooting. Butler shot just 21% from the field in the first half (6-28) UConn held a 20-17 rebounding edge, but Butler had seven offensive boards to Connecticut's five.

Butler hit 5 of 15 3-pointers; UConn was 0-7 in the first half from beyond the stripe.

Kemba Walker and Shelvin Mack each had 7 first half points to lead their teams.

Player of the game was Alex Oriakhi, with 11 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and stellar defense inside. Butler scored their only points in the paint for the entire game with 6:05 left to play when Andrew Smith got loose for a layup.

The Huskies tied an NCAA championship game record with 10 blocked shots. Kemba Walker led all scorers with 16 points. Lamb had 12, all in the second half.

For Butler, Mack was the high scorer, with 13 points. For senior Matt Howard, his final game as a Bulldog will leave permanent bad memories. Howard was 1-for-13, scoring seven points, his lowest output since a 6-point effort against Marian, in Butler's first game of the season, on November 13, 2010.

At 68, coach Calhoun set another record. He became the oldest coach to win a national championship. He joins Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, John Wooden and Bobby Knight as the only coaches to ever win three or more national titles.

The Huskies ended their regular season by losing four of their last five, finishing up with a 9-9 record in the Big East and 21-9 record overall. In tournament play, however, UConn had no equal. They won the Maui Invitational in December with three straight wins, then won the Big East tournament with five wins in five days. Their six straight in the NCAA tourney, stretched their winning streak to 11 games. They went the entire season without losing to any team outside the Big East, at 32-9.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

2011 Final Four Semi-Final Recaps: Butler and Connecticut Prevail

The Butler Bulldogs and Connecticut Huskies advanced to the NCAA men's basketball national championship game with wins in semi-final matches on Saturday.

Butler 70 VCU 62 - Shelvin Mack scored 24 points and Butler's defense clamped down on the VCU Rams late in the contest, sending the Butler Bulldogs to their second consecutive national championship game appearance.

Mack was 8-for-11 from the field and canned 5 of 6 three-point attempts. Matt Howard, who was saddled with four fouls for the last nine minutes of the game, added 17 points, getting 11 of them from the charity stripe.

VCU battled gamely and stayed close until the final few minutes, when Butler exerted their dominance, thwarting VCU on their offensive trips while tacking on points as time wore down.

Jamie Skeen led all scorers with 27 points, but did not have enough support from his teammates. Bradford Burgess, who contributed 15, was the only other Ram to score more than 4 points.

Butler lost to Duke, 61-59 in last season's national championship game. 28-9 Butler has won 14 straight, the longest current streak in the nation.

Connecticut 56 Kentucky 55 - Shabazz Napier was only 1-for-7 from the field, but his two free throws with 2 seconds left gave UConn a 4-point lead and a trip to the national championship game against Butler, Monday night.

Brandon Knight hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was material only to the margin of victory.

The Huskies established a 10-point lead at the half, but the Wildcats came out of intermission on a mission and quickly tied the game and battled through long stretches with the Huskies, neither team able to gain an upper hand.

Player of the year runner-up, Kemba Walker, scored just 18 points, but still was the game's high scorer. Walker added six rebounds and seven assists. Jeremy Lamb added 12 points and eight rebounds.

The 31-9 Huskies, the #3 seed from the West region, will play the 28-9 Butler Bulldogs, the #8 seed from the Southeast region for the national championship on Monday night at 9:21 pm ET. The game will be televised live from Houston's Reliant Stadium, exclusively by CBS.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Bracket Breakdown: 2011 Final Four Semi-finals

The Final Four has gathered in Houston for a pair of Saturday semi-final games at Relaint Stadium that will determine the participants in Monday's National Championship game.

Here's a brief breakdown of the contestants and analysis of both games.

(11) VCU (28-11) vs. (8) Butler (27-9), 6:09 pm ET - Judging by the prevailing wisdom of both the bracket analyzers and the tournament committee itself, neither of these teams was supposed to make it this far. It's rare to get any team in with a higher seed than 6, much less get two in the same year.

The basketball gods have bestowed an additional gift by having them play each other, though both have proven their mettle against some of the best teams in the tournament.

VCU is by far the more athletic and energetic of the two teams. They will look to speed up the pace of the game and take advantage of any and all Butler mistakes, though the Bulldogs are a fairly disciplined bunch. VCU will probably opt to contest more than a few inbounds passes, a weakness of Butler's exposed against Wisconsin.

Additionally, VCU's inside presence may be more than Butler's Matt Howard and Andrew Smith can handle. VCU's Jamie Skeen, Juvonte Reddic and Toby Veal go 6'9", 6'9" and 6'8", respectively. While Howard will handle his end of the deal, Smith, though 6'11", is only a sophomore and doesn't possess the experience of the VCU forwards though freshman Khyle Marshall has given valuable minutes inside.

Both teams play solid man-to-man and zone defenses. VCU has been making a living at the 3-point line, with Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell doing most of the damage. Butler's Shelvin Mack will have to be in top form to counter the VCU attack, especially speedy Joey Rodriguez.

Take nothing away from Butler. They are well-coached and know how to win close games. They currently possess the nation's longest active winning streak, at 13 games. VCU is a 2 1/2-point favorite and has more depth than the Bulldogs.

(4) Kentucky (29-8) vs. (3) Connecticut (30-9), 8:49 pm ET - Kentucky head coach John Calipari has - for the second year in a row - taken a group of talented freshmen and molded them into a cohesive unit capable of taking on any team in the country. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are all freshman and also are the team's three leading scorers. Juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins compose the remainder of the starting five, all of whom score in double figures besides Liggins, who checks in at 8.8 ppg.

The interior is the domain of Josh Harrleson, who has been magnificent on defense in the post and has contributed well to Kentucky's flow offense. Of all the teams in America, Kentucky probably has the most number of players who can make individual plays, a fact not lost on the Connecticut Huskies.

For UConn, the ball started rolling in Maui, when the Huskies unveiled Kemba Walker and won the Maui Classic, with wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky, the final of the tourney going in an 84-67 rout, to Connecticut. The team the Huskies beat in Maui bears resemblance only in the most superficial way. Kentucky's players have matured considerably since that December date and are much more of a team than a bunch of individual future stars, as was the case back then.

UConn's game comes down to Walker, almost unavoidably and the Huskies seem to thrive on the tournament environment, having run through the Big East with five straight wins and four more in the NCCAs. Kentucky, however, also won the SEC tournament and is riding a 10-game streak.

Everybody on Kentucky will have a chance to guard Kemba Walker, as slick and elusive as he is. Walker has proven to be unguardable by a single player and his presence and quickness puts extra pressure on opposing defenses. He's been aided by the emergence of freshman Jeremy Lamb, the team's second leading scorer, who has come of age through the rigors of the tournament. He's a future star in his own right and will match up well against the Wildcats.

The Huskies will also have plenty to say on drives to the hoop and in the rebounding department with solid Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu responsible for clogging the lane. The inside game will be very physical and not much of an advantage for either team.

The oddsmakers have Kentucky a 2 1/2-point favorite, hinged upon the Wildcats' ability to hold Walker in check and UConn's defense, which must contend every shot. Team depth favors the Huskies who will go nine deep into their bench, while Kentucky prefers to go with a six or seven man rotation.