#8 seed BUTLER BULLDOGS (28-9)
vs. #3 seed CONNECTICUT HUSKIES (31-9)
NCAA Tournament – National Championship
Tip-off: Monday, 9:20 p.m. EDT – Houston, TX
Line: Connecticut -3, Total: 129
It is a journey that began in November, way back when national championship talk focused on strength of schedule, power conferences, and Cam Newton’s eligibility. BCS football was on the brain on November 12, basketball was not. As those heroes played things out on the gridiron, another player of the year candidate got things underway on the hardwood, scoring 18 against Stony Brook, before exploding for 42, 31, 30, 29, and 30 over his next five games, proclaiming to the basketball world there is a beast in the east that you better pay attention to. That is when Kemba Walker and his Connecticut Huskies leased a spot in the national rankings and have been there ever since. Basketball scores.
While Walker was taking names and burying treys, the journey for the Butler Bulldogs (still suffering nightmares from last April’s half-court heave clanging off the rim with the subtlety of a church bell) was not as pleasant. After suffering their first loss of the season to Louisville, 88-73 on November 13, the pundits proclaimed the Bulldogs to be in critical condition. By the time their record fell to 4-4 on December 9, more experts were ready to administer last rites. Fortunately for Butler, players and coaches have more faith in a team’s resiliency than sports writers. Even after dropping three straight gut-wrenching losses (two in OT, a third loss by two points) between January 23 and February 3, Brad Stevens knew the truth about his team when they were 14-9 (6-5). To paraphrase the Ballad of Sir Andrew Barton, the Bulldogs were a little hurt, but not slain. They would lay down and bleed for a while, and then rise to fight again. It is that fight which has carried Butler to 14 straight wins, a conference championship game victory on its opponent’s home floor, two NCAA Tournament victories in the final second, a third in overtime, and a spot back in the National Championship game. As much as Monday night is about winning an NCAA title, the victor will be 50% champion, and 50% survivor. The last one standing in a game featuring two teams with so much fight, and so little quit, Ali and Frazier would be proud.
Jim Calhoun and his Huskies are back in the title game for the first time since 2004. Calhoun is 5-1 lifetime in the Final Four, and is looking to make it 3-for-3 in championship game appearances with a win Monday night. Connecticut advanced to the title game with a 56-55 defeat of Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal. In a contest that was a lot lower scoring than anticipated, Kemba Walker led the way with 18 points, six rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. Connecticut pulled out the win by defensively turning the Wildcats strength into a weakness. Kentucky shot 9-of-27 from beyond the arc as the length of the wing players for UConn forced John Calipari’s team to stroke well below its 40% three-point season average. The ‘Cats also suffered at the FT line with their proficiency and their frequency, getting to the line just 12 times, while making only 4-of-12 for the game, a telling number in a game that was lost by a point. The Huskies shot only 8% (1-of-12) from downtown, and were outscored with the three-ball by a 27-3 margin, but overcame the disparity by continuing their defensive vigilance all over the court. It was a bizarre statistical line for the game for Kentucky: 33.9% from the floor, 33.3% from three-point territory, and 33.3% at the foul line. Basketball odds.
Jeremy Lamb once again was the second-leading scorer after Walker with 12 points, and he continued his amazing offensive efficiency, going 5-for-8 from the floor Saturday. Lamb is shooting 59.2% during the tournament. While the Huskies held a slight edge on the boards (38-37), they also held an edge where they prefer not to dominate: turnovers. Connecticut committed 15 miscues, including a crucial one by Shabazz Napier with 0:18 left to give the ‘Cats a chance to tie or take the lead with a three. The 15 turnovers more than doubled UConn’s 7.3 per-game average in four NCAA Tournament games. Napier, Walker and their fellow backcourt mates will need to be especially careful protecting the ball against Butler’s experienced guards, whose quickness and physical man-to-man defense has been underrated the entire tournament.
Butler returns to the title game on the heels of a 70-62 victory over Virginia Commonwealth, ending one Cinderella story, and continuing another. Though truth be told, Cinderella was only around for one night, both of these teams survived a lot longer than one night. Butler got 24 points from its top shooter, Shelvin Mack, 17 points from its top all-around player, Matt Howard, and eight points from arguably the most experienced guard in the nation that comes off the bench, Zach Hahn, who will play in his second championship game on Monday night. Once again, the star of the game over the long haul was Butler’s in-your-face defense. Butler outrebounded the Rams by a 48-32 margin. In terms of defending the shooters, VCU’s Jamie Skeen did have 27 points, but if you take away his 10-of-17 shooting day, the Bulldogs held the rest of the Rams to 13-of-41 FG (32%). While the two teams each generated 24 points from beyond the arc, Butler made more free throws by game’s end (20) than VCU attempted (13). The 15-5 advantage on the offensive boards helped to generate second-chance opportunities that wore down the Rams attempts at a comeback. Connecticut’s wing defenders will need to be just as mindful of Butler’s long-range bombers. Mack has one of the quickest releases in the country, was 5-of-6 from beyond the arc Saturday, and is shooting 41.3% (19-for-46) from downtown for the tournament. Teammate Shawn Vanzant is hitting on 35.3% (6-of-17) from deep in the tourney, and Hahn 29% (5-for-17).
If Connecticut has another 1-of-12 three-point FG night like it did against Kentucky, things could get dicey fast for Calhoun’s squad. In championship games, big shots are usually preceded by big rebounds that account for extra possessions. The battle of the boards will be one of the games within the game, as Howard, Andrew Smith, and Khyle Marshall (8, 7 and 9 boards, respectively, in the win over VCU) will duel it out with Alex Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu, and Roscoe Smith (19 total boards vs. Kentucky) to see who can secure the most important possessions in the paint, and stay out of foul trouble at the same time. Because of Connecticut’s depth up front, Butler can least afford to see one of its top forwards taking an early seat with two first-half fouls.
To quote the late, great Red Barber, this game should be tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day, and nobody has handled themselves better in tight games over the last two NCAA Tournaments than Butler, who is 20-13 ATS (61%) overall. Connecticut is 22-12 ATS (65%) overall and has matched them moment-for-clutch-moment, as this astounding 10-game stretch of basketball which began on a Tuesday in the Big East Tournament will end one way or another Monday… maybe with a half court shot? One way or another, by the end of the evening, either a Bulldog or a Husky will be crowned “best in show.” While the spread feels monstrous for two teams who probably can’t remember what a double-digit victory even looks like, I do believe that Connecticut will make it title No. 3 for their coach, and find a way to cover down the stretch. The following highly- rated FoxSheets situational trends support this pick.
CONNECTICUT is 12-1 ATS (92.3%, +10.9 Units) in all neutral-court games this season. The average score was CONNECTICUT 75.3, OPPONENT 65.5 – (Rating = 5*).
Jim Calhoun is 25-8 ATS (75.8%, +16.2 Units) after a close win by 3 points or less as the coach of CONNECTICUT. The average score was CONNECTICUT 74.5, OPPONENT 64.4 – (Rating = 3*).
CONNECTICUT is 9-1 ATS (90.0%, +7.9 Units) in road games versus excellent ball handling teams – committing <=12 turnovers/game this season. The average score was CONNECTICUT 71.6, OPPONENT 65.1 – (Rating = 3*).
CONNECTICUT is 9-1 ATS (90.0%, +7.9 Units) in non-conference games this season. The average score was CONNECTICUT 76.6, OPPONENT 62.7 – (Rating = 3*).
UConn has played five of six games Under the total and these two highly-rated FoxSheets trends also side with the Under on Monday.
CONNECTICUT is 13-2 UNDER (86.7%, +10.8 Units) versus excellent ball handling teams – committing <=12 turnovers/game after 15+ games over the last 2 seasons. The average score was CONNECTICUT 66.8, OPPONENT 63.4 – (Rating = 3*). Basketball spreads.
Play Under – All teams where the total is between 120 and 129.5 points (BUTLER) – after 2 or more consecutive overs, in a game involving two average offensive teams (67-74 PPG) after 15+ games. (85-41 over the last 5 seasons.) (67.5%, +39.9 units. Rating = 3*).