The Bulldogs are back in the championship game for after Shelvin Mack scored 24 points and Matt Howard added 17 points and eight rebounds in a 70-62 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals.
Or will Kemba Walker and Connecticut continue their impressive run through March and cut down the nets in Houston for the Huskies’ third national title?
Walker had 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists as the Huskies held Kentucky to under 34% shooting from the field in Connecticut’s 56-55 triumph in the semifinals.
We’ll find out Monday, when Butler and Connecticut will face off for all the marbles.
USA TODAY’s Jack Carey and David Leon Moore break down the matchup and examine who has the edge in each area of the game:
How the Huskies and Bulldogs matchup in championship game
Monday, 9:23 p.m. ET
Matchup: Inside the numbers
Beat No. 14 Bucknell 81-52
No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58
No. 2 San Diego State 74-67
No. 5 Arizona 65-63
No. 4 Kentucky 56-55
Road to Houston
Beat No. 9 Old Dominion 60-58
No. 1 Pittsburgh 71-70
No. 4 Wisconsin 61-54
No. 2 Florida, 74-71 in OT
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth 70-62
The Huskies own two titles, from 1999 and 2004, both under coach Jim Calhoun. The title in 1999 came in the school’s first Final Four. A third title would make UConn the seventh school with at least that many. The Huskies also have two NCAA titles in men’s soccer, seven in women’s basketball and two in field hockey.
A win tonight would bring Butler its first NCAA Division I team title in any sport, men’s or women’s. The school has had seven Division I individual champions, all in outdoor track. Butler is trying to avoid being the first school since Michigan (1992-93) and the fourth in tournament history to lose in consecutive title games.
Kemba Walker, a 6-1 junior, is a quintessential New York City point guard — tough, fast, great handle, willing to take all of the big shots, capable of making many of them. He can beat you by scoring 30, or he can beat you other ways, as he did Saturday against Kentucky with a final tally of 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds. During the tournament, Walker is averaging 25 points, 6.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Many of his assists are to 6-5 freshman Jeremy Lamb, who has been one of the breakout stars, averaging 17.0 points. Lamb is a willowy, baby-faced maker of big shots. He looks 13, plays 21.
Shelvin Mack, a 6-3 junior is a big-time scorer and shot-maker. He’s averaging 21.8 points a game in the tournament, almost six points more than his season average. He is the team’s assists leader and scored 24 against VCU, making five of six three-pointers. Shawn Vanzant, a 6-0 senior, is not as prolific a scorer but can deliver in the clutch. He’s averaging 8.2 points for the year. Chase Stigall, a 6-4 sophomore, usually plays less than half the game and has five points in the tournament. For the year, he is averaging 3.8 points.
Alex Oriakhi, a 6-9 sophomore, is the rock inside, averaging 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds. He has snagged a number of big rebounds in the march to the final, averaging 9.6 in the tournament, but has been quiet offensively, falling to 6.6 points a game. He is capable of hitting mid-range jumpers but is at his best close to the hoop. Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 freshman, isn’t much of a scorer but hits the boards hard — 5.2 a game. Tyler Olander, a 6-9 freshman, starts but plays less than 10 minutes.
Senior Matt Howard, 6-8, is averaging a team-high 16.7 points for the season and 7.8 rebounds. He is always active around the basket and consistently finds a way to come up with the big rebound, put-back or tap-in. He’s the emotional leader who makes everyone around him better. Sophomore center Andrew Smith is the third-leading scorer at 8.6 points a game and second-leading rebounder at 5.5. He scored four points against VCU but had seven rebounds.
Shabazz Napier, a 6-0 freshman, plays starter minutes (23.7 a game) and is a huge contributor with 7.9 points and 3.1 assists a game. He is capable of handling the point but also works off the ball in tandem with Kemba Walker. A willing shooter, he hasn’t had a great year making ‘em (37.5%). Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, a 6-7 sophomore, averages 5.8 points and shoots 41.8%. Charles Okwandu, a 7-foot senior, can impact a game for brief stretches. He has 50 blocked shots.
Ronald Nored, a 6-0 junior who started for most of the season, is a key defensive specialist. He probably will guard All-American Kemba Walker, but not exclusively, coach Brad Stevens says. Nored is averaging 5.1 points for the season. Zach Hahn, a 6-1 senior, is also a former starter and is not afraid to shoot when given the chance. He had eight big points midway through the second half against VCU to blunt a Rams rally. He’s also averaging 5.1 points. Khyle Marshall, a 6-7 freshman, is averaging 5.9 points and 3.9 rebounds but had nine boards (five offensive) in 25 minutes against VCU.
Jim Calhoun, 69 next month, is a Hall of Famer with two national championships. He also got the Huskies to the Final Four in 2009, when Walker was a freshman and the Huskies lost in a semifinal to Michigan State. He’s a fiery, witty New Englander who has been stung by the NCAA ruling that he be suspended for three games next season for recruiting violations. Some observers think this season is one of his best coaching jobs in a memorable 39-year career. Could he call it quits with a third title?
Brad Stevens, 34, has quickly risen toward the top of his profession in four years guiding the Bulldogs. He is 117-24, breaking the NCAA record of 107 wins in a coach’s initial four years, set by Everett Case of North Carolina State from 1947 to 1950. Stevens does his best work at the end of the season, when it matters most. The Bulldogs closed last season 25-1, barely missing a national title, and are on a 14-game winning streak.
Sometimes things just come together for a team that otherwise appears it is not headed anywhere. Such is the case with this team, which tied for ninth in the Big East after losing four of its last five conference games. Calhoun was puzzled but thought his team was playing not to lose instead of playing to win. So the Huskies took the attitude of “the heck with it, let’s just play ball.” They then won five in five days to win the Big East tournament, and now their winning streak has reached 10. Walker’s on-court leadership and Calhoun’s experience and intelligence at pulling the strings have made the difference.
From a seed perspective, and because they hail from the midmajor Horizon League, the Bulldogs are considered a Cinderella. But in reality, any team 10-1 in the NCAA tournament the last two years that came within one shot of the title has moved way beyond that. Much like last season, Butler will be the sentimental favorite among most fans, but this team wins by playing smart, tough, physical basketball and drawing on its big-game experience. Winning in the tournament is all about making plays in the clutch on both ends of the court, and the Bulldogs have a way of doing that time after time. UConn better be ready for a battle.
UConn’s 10-game winning streak, it has made more free throws (181 of 219, 82.6%) than its opponents have attempted (97 of 143, 67.8%).
Butler has held six of its last 11 opponents to fewer than 60 points and has won 31 of its last 32 when allowing fewer than 60.