HOUSTON – Butler will have to go through the big, bad Big East for the national title.
The Bulldogs will face third-seeded Connecticut, another one of college basketball’s bluebloods, on Monday night as it tries to make up for last year’s last-second heartbreak against Duke. The Huskies (31-9) already have two national titles, and Kemba Walker and the kids are on quite a roll, winning their 10th straight elimination game with a 56-55 victory over Kentucky on Saturday night.
But eighth-seeded Butler (28-9) is on a pretty good run of its own, winning its 14th straight with a 70-62 victory over VCU in the first national semifinal.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on Monday night,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “But the fact that we’re playing Monday night, that’s beautiful.”
This will be the first meeting between the schools.
The midmajors have been trying to crash the big kids’ party for years now, and Butler came within a bounce of pulling it off last year. Gordon Hayward’s half-court, last-second shot banged off the rim, and the Bulldogs had to watch as Duke, perhaps the biggest of college basketball’s big names these days, celebrated another national title.
“We’ve just got to be one shot better than last year,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
The Bulldogs are the first national runner-up to return to the title game the following year since Kentucky in 1998, when it won its seventh – and most recent – title. Butler is also the lowest-seeded team to play for the national title since Villanova won it as a No. 8 seed in 1985.
“The way we look at it is we want to win. We don’t look at it as it’s a midmajor that wants to win,” said Matt Howard, Butler’s leading scorer and rebounder. “Honestly, we don’t look at conferences. We don’t think about what conference somebody’s in.”
Trumpeted as the top conference in the country, the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament.
Its reputation took a bit of a beating when only two, UConn and Marquette, were left at the end of the first weekend.
But thanks to Walker, the Huskies have a chance to redeem the conference’s honor Monday night. The Big East hasn’t had a national champion since UConn in 2004.