Year of the (Under)Dog
Nobody could have seen this NCAA men’s tournament unfolding the way it did. The University of Connecticut Huskies (UConn) won the national championship game, beating the Butler Bulldogs 53-41 in Houston, Texas. Though third seeded UConn winning was not an absolute surprise, the rest of the tournament was tossed in a blender from the very beginning. Eleventh seeded Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) made a run to the Final Four, and eighth seeded Butler made it to the championship game. Predicting an NCAA men’s tournament is nearly impossible most years, but this year it was even more difficult. Seeding did not seem to matter as no number one or two seeded team made it to the Final Four, and upset after upset busted brackets everywhere.
UConn won an ugly basketball game Monday night, holding Butler to 18.8% shooting for the game, the lowest shooting percentage in championship history. UConn’s defense was not that great, but instead the Bulldogs just missed open shot after open shot. Even layups were rolling out for the Bulldogs, who were obviously bothered by the length of Jim Calhoun’s squad. Coach Calhoun, now the oldest coach to win the national championship (68 years old), won his third championship and did so by feeding the ball to Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb.
Lamb took over the end of the game for the Huskies, beating Butler with his length and athleticism. While Walker scored more points and led the team with his attitude and fearlessness, Lamb was there when it mattered, soaring over the Bulldogs for layups and dunks.
Connecticut blocked ten shots, a championship game record, and even disrupted three point shots by putting their hands in the faces of the Butler shooters. The blocks led to UConn dominating the paint,
allowing Butler to make only one basket in the paint.
For the second consecutive year, coach Brad Stevens’ team will be heading home after the championship game as losers. This has been an incredible two years for Butler, a mid major school that had never made a sustained run in the NCAA tournament until Stevens showed up. At the tender age of 34, Stevens seemed to be caught in the headlights the game, and his team showed it. Playing zone for the first time in the tournament because nothing else was working, Butler seemed out of sorts for the entire second half. Though there was probably little that Stevens could do, it was an ugly performance nonetheless.
Marquette’s Surprising Run
Marquette was the last Big East team (Connecticut was the second-to-last) to be admitted into the tournament, and they made the second longest run out of the ten Big East teams out of the eleventh seed. While few picked Marquette to upset Xavier, even fewer picked them to get past third ranked Syracuse. Led by the gritty play of Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette made a run to the Sweet 16 for the first time since Dwyane Wade could be seen roaming the Marquette campus.
Coach Buzz Williams put himself in line for an extension with his excellent coaching during the tournament. Williams was thrust onto the national stage with his post-game antics after the Xavier and Syracuse games. Williams could be seen screaming into the stands, giving band members high fives, pounding on the scorers table, and stomping on the ground with full force. While his antics got him on the national stage, his savvy coaching got him the extension. Many Marquette fans questioned Williams’ coaching abilities over the last two years, but many of those questions have been answered after he obviously out-coached Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
Jimmy Butler was Marquette’s most valuable player of the tournament. Butler shot nearly 50% from the field, while playing stingy defense, getting six steals in the two games Marquette won. Playing in his final games for Marquette, Butler led his team and showed why he is considered the heart of this basketball team. Butler will most likely go undrafted in the upcoming NBA draft, but expect him to latch on with a contending team solely because of his work ethic and quick hands.
Marquette struggled during the regular season, but this season has to be considered an overall success. Marquette was one of the last sixteen teams standing, and this season will impact the future years of Marquette basketball. When Wade led Marquette to the Final Four, it put Marquette on the map for recruits such as Dominic James, Wesley Matthews, and Jerel McNeal. We will know the true impact of this run when recruits come to Marquette when they otherwise would not have considered it.
Richmond (12), VCU (11), Morehead State (13), Marquette (11), Florida State (10), Butler (8), and Arizona (5) all beat teams that were seeded considerably higher than they were, and five of the teams made it to the Sweet 16. VCU was the true cinderella of the tournament, beating Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and Kansas to reach the Final Four. Butler beat the number one, two, and four seeded teams in their bracket. Florida State made it to the Sweet 16 after beating Texas A&M and Notre Dame. Morehead State beat fourth seeded Louisville in the first round before succumbing to Richmond. Richmond beat fifth seeded Vanderbilt and Morehead State before falling to Kansas. Arizona beat number one overall seed Ohio State.
Looking back on the tournament, every game felt like a toss-up. There were no dominating teams in the tournament, and that led to one of the most exciting NCAA tournaments of all time. There is no fun in a favored team going in every night and dominating their opponent. The overall lack of talent in the college pool may be frightening to fans, but it does lead to a more exciting tournament. At least fans have that to be thankful for.
Player of the Tournament
Kemba Walker is the obvious choice. Walker was the prototypical leader of the Huskies in every way imaginable. Walker was the closer for the team, often playing his best during crunch time, he also led by example when it came to walking the line of showing emotion. He never let the moment get the best of him, and often got in teammates faces when he felt they needed to be woken up. Walker, a senior, played like there truly was no tomorrow for him, and he brought a championship to Connecticut in his final game as a Husky.
Coach of the Tournament
Brad Stevens has a bright future ahead of him, despite his poor coaching performance in the last game. Butler lost two starters from last years squad, and they did not enjoy the stellar regular season that they did last year, but Butler ended up in the same position that it did a year ago. Butler regressed from last season, but Stevens found a way to maximize the talent available to him and once again consistently beat the bigger, richer schools in the tournament. Stevens’ star will only continue to rise, but let’s hope that we will see him out-coaching higher paid coaches again next year.