Well, fans, it's been a long and very eventful season, but it is finally coming to a close on Monday night in Houston.
And it will be a Michael Vick dream game- Bulldogs vs Huskies.
Ok, that was a little mean. But still, this game is likely to be hard-fought and tough throughout. Butler and UConn are both good defensive teams, with take-charge guards and dreams of glory.
First, let's take a look at the point guards:
Ummm... how can I put this lightly... don't want to offend anyone, least of all this guy...
This is no contest. Chase Stigall starts for Butler, but Nored plays the bulk of the minutes. Nored is an excellent perimeter defender who- and again, I'm putting this lightly- can't shoot to save the universe. But boy, can he defend his position.
He'll have his hands full with Walker and Napier. The thing that makes these two guards stand out is their quickness. They use it offensively to get into the lane and defensively to force steals and pick off lazy passes. Walker in particular has been the Alpha and Omega for the Huskies this year, elevating his game to unreal heights and lifting UConn to this point in the season. Without Kemba, there is no way UConn would be even close to the national championship let alone one win away from one. It's going to take the best of efforts from the Bulldogs to slow down the Kemba.
Jeremy Lamb has elevated his game drastically in the last month or so to become the Robin to Walker's Batman. Smooth and talented, Lamb has all the tools to be a superstar in the Big East as early as next year, and is better than a lot of players in the conference already.
Let's be honest- Coombs-McDaniel only comes in when Lamb needs a rest, and Giffey has been little-used this season.
Shelvin Mack, meanwhile, has made big shot after big shot this season. He came up especially clutch in a few games in this tournament, and you should expect the ball to be in his hands when the Bulldogs need a bucket. He's built like a truck, which helps him get to his spot on offense, and gives him a physical defensive presence on the perimeter that can frustrate opposing guards.
Shawn Vanzant is an underrated player for Butler- he does a little of everything for head coach Brad Stevens, and he has also hit a few big shots in the tournament. Zack Hahn is a shooter who is dangerous if left open, as he has demonstrated several times so far in March/April.
Lamb may be the best of the bunch in time, but this group for Butler is experienced and deep.
Based on talent, I would give this one to UConn except for the fact that of that group, there is not one guy who you would feel comfortable throwing the ball to in the post. Butler has three. The UConn bigs are not asked to do much other than hand the ball off to Kemba and get blocked shots and offensive rebounds. Aside from the occasional jumper from Roscoe Smith, you don't see much offense from that group other than layups or dunks.
Matt Howard, meanwhile, is the engine that drives Butler. He may not look the part (he looks a little like SNL's Andy Samberg), but he has made every big play when Butler has needed it, save for Shelvin Mack's game-winning jumper against Wisconsin. Howard is a good defensive player, and has become less foul-prone than in past seasons. Not only that, but he's extended his range out to the three-point line (although he's 1-11 in the last two games). It goes without saying that he has to stay out of foul trouble, but this year I think he can do it.
Andrew Smith and Charles Okwandu cancel each other out at this point- both are serviceable, but slow big men who can eat up some fouls that would have otherwise gone to their more important teammates.
Then there's high-energy freshman Khyle Marshall. Marshall runs into his fair share of effort fouls, but his energy is contagious for Butler. Smith is definitely more talented, but there's no doubt in my mind that Marshall plays harder.
All told, Butler's effort level should make up for whatever edge UConn may have in size.
When I watched UConn-Kentucky, one thing stood out to me- there was an almost 10-minute stretch without a media timeout (11:56 - 2:09) in the second half. This sapped the Wildcats' energy, evident in the fact that every jumper they shot was left short. Playing as hard as UK did for that long will do that to you.
But despite that, Kentucky only lost by two.
The reason? Both teams traded stretches where they looked very young. Playing against a good defense will do that to a young team.
Butler is no young team. The Bulldogs are experienced, talented, and peaking at the right time with a 14-game winning streak. They are a tough defensive team, but they are less frenetic than Kentucky, and are thus not as susceptible to burn-out. The Bulldogs have a vast edge in experience- the last time Kemba Walker made it this far, he was a freshman.
Last year, the Bulldogs gave Duke all it could handle and came within one missed shot of a championship. Duke just had more talent and more experience down low. Now, Butler is in that position. Not only that, but Butler makes winning plays. They've done this so many times, they gave Charlie Sheen a crash-course in it. I'll take the Bulldogs in the close upset.