UCONN vs. Butler: 2011 NCAA National Championship

Ugly win, but they'll take it.

The University of Connecticut Men’s Basketball team is the 2011 National Champion.

That’s probably the most improbable sentence I’ll write all year–equally as surprising as the run UCONN went on in March and April. Eleven straight wins in post-season tournament play. Undefeated outside of the Big East. The team that got hot at the right time behind the best player in the country. (Sorry Jimmer, that Naismith trophy don’t mean shit now).

There’s no arguing that the title game was ugly. Greg Anthony and CBS made it very clear that was you watched Monday night was not the sport’s best product. But that’s only part of the story. Yes, Butler missed shots. They missed easy layups and open jump shots. The threes they did make were well beyond NBA range. At some point though, you have to give credit to UCONN, specifically Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu, for their interior defense and ability to rebound all those Butler misses. UCONN’s length and athleticism bothered the Bulldogs, who finally looked like an inferior mid-major team.

More than anything, it felt like Butler was tight. They made a few early threes, but Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard were ice cold. Did the back-to-back Final Four pressure finally get to them? Were the expectations too great for them to handle? It seemed like they were so focused on running their sets and trying to will the ball in the basket that they never settled in and just played the game. It almost became comical how bad they we’re shooting and I think that mental hurdle was to high to cross. As Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the game, “Without question, 41 points, 12 of 64, is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship game.”

For Jim Calhoun, it’s unnecessary validation. It’s a middle finger to the NCAA for wasting their time on his “recruiting violations” and proof that if talented young players buy into a system and check their egos at the door, any team can make a run at glory. Calhoun now has three rings, placing him in an elite group coaches. Haters can hate all they want on his abrasive personality, but you can’t argue with championships. I think he’ll be back next year. Retiring while he’s on top would be a nice story, but that’s not Jim’s style. He’ll go out fighting or after Shabazz Napier gives him a heart attack.

Smith, Oriakhi, Napier and Lamb (L-R) striking a pose after the Kentucky victory.

Let’s not forget about Kemba Walker; he’s been a beast all year. Dick Vitale said that he’s never seen a college player improve from one year to the next more than Walker. It’s hard to argue. Last year, Walker was a frustrating guard, often out of control and selfish. Over the summer he developed his shooting and became a play making leader on the court. Yes, he’s become an outstanding scorer, but more importantly he’s made his teammates better. While Walker struggled in the title game (who didn’t?), he still came through with clutch baskets and solid defense all game. Seriously Kemba, go to the NBA. Your stock will never be higher. Be smart. Cash in. Your season will forever be remembered in UCONN basketball history. The end of your story can’t get much better than this.

Everything I’ve read about the championship game focuses on how bad both teams played.  No question, Butler had an off night, and it took UCONN a half to figure out how to score against a tough defense. Most journalists outside of Connecticut are acting like Butler’s ineptitude somehow cheapens UCONN’s victory. Obviously it’s an angle, but it’s a cop out. Years from now no one will remember the 18% shooting by Butler. People will remember UCONN won. Fans will look back on Kemba Walker and realize how special his season was. And everyone will understand the magnificent coaching by Calhoun, who started the season with role players, three unheralded freshman (Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith) and marginal expectations and turned them into the last team standing in 2011, and legitimate contenders to repeat as champions in 2012.

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