Since Butler eliminated Virginia Commonwealth in last night’s national semifinal game, things are back to normal, or as normal as they can get on the eve of a national championship.
The No. 8 seed Bulldogs are about to appear in their second consecutive national title game, and many outside the “Butler Bubble” continue to be in awe of a Hayward-less team repeating a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Butler (28-9) is back to being the underdog and will face No. 3 seed Connecticut (31-9), led by head coach Jim Calhoun and junior point guard Kemba Walker.
Butler has kept a business-as-usual approach throughout the tournament and even in the intense heat of the national spotlight. Players continue to have what head coach Brad Stevens called a “normal road trip”—attending study tables while on the road and Skype-ing into classes should they be asked to.
But even as Butler continues to preach they’re handling things with their ho-hum approach, it’s undeniable that they’ve changed the landscape of college basketball forever.
Final Four runs by other mid-majors, such as George Mason in 2006, can be written off by college basketball bluebloods as “flukes” or “anomalies.”
But Butler’s back-to-back appearances in the championship game are neither of those. The two-year journey is a result of a young head coach running what he calls “a values-based program with a mission and a vision” and finding ways to win on the court with a mix of young and old talent.
Butler has even managed to change the way some refer to mid-majors, as there’s a newfound sense of higher respect for schools from non-BCS conferences.
Ironically enough, Butler will have to defeat a school from the nation’s largest conference in order to be the 2011 National Champions.
Connecticut, which won the Big East conference tournament as the No. 9 seed, will be led by the NBA-level talent of Walker. In the month of March, Walker averaged 26.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2.0 steals per game in March and had 18 points with seven assists last night against No. 4 seed Kentucky.
Walker will be supported by the team’s second-leading scorer, starting freshman guard Jeremy Lamb, who had 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists against the Wildcats.
A lesser-known key to the Huskies’ game is freshman guard Shabazz Napier. A player who offers options off the bench, Napier is intended to open the court and give options to Walker rather than dial up numbers on the stat sheet.
Essentially, Napier is the anti-Ronald Nored—intended to facilitate scoring rather than shut down opponents defensively.
“I think Lamb, Napier and their other guards really put people in a tough position,” Stevens said. “[Those two and Walker] along with the activity of their bigs are why they’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Those guards break you down, get inside, cause you to rotate, and then you’re in bad rebounding position.”
And rebounding, a skill both teams have used to reach the title bout, will be important during the national final matchup.
Both have used a combination of length and positioning to out-rebound opponents throughout “March Madness”—guys like senior forward Matt Howard, sophomore center Andrew Smith and freshman forward Khyle Marshall crashing the boards for Butler and sophomore center Alex Oriakhi and freshman forward Tyler Olander doing the same for Connecticut.
The Bulldog-Husky matchup will be a reunion for two summer teammates—Butler junior guard Shelvin Mack and Walker, who played together on the USA U-20 gold medal-winning team and have kept in contact during the season via text messaging.
“We had a lot of fun together on and off the court,” Mack said. “I like to see the success he’s having, and I know he’s been working hard. He’s just continuing to get better these days.”
Mack will certainly be looked to as Butler’s response to anything Walker does. Both junior guards have been the offensive leaders of their teams this season, and whichever one has the better game tomorrow night may very well be responsible for taking a championship trophy back to campus.
Following the trend of simplifying the magnificent, Butler is 40 minutes of game play away from potentially winning a national championship.
“I don’t know if it’s selfish or not, but we want to do it for ourselves,” Stevens said. “We don’t need to disable some theory. It’s about this team and believing that we can accomplish the next task at hand.”
The game tips off tomorrow at 9:23 p.m.