HOUSTON – Butler coach Brad Stevens loves an underdog, whether it’s his team back in the Final Four or Connecticut making an unprecedented five-games-in-five-nights run through the Big East tournament.
A Big East team as an underdog? The coach at tiny Butler cheering for big, bad UConn?
Welcome to the bizarro world of college basketball in 2011 – a sport where not only is anything possible, but where nothing quite makes sense. A sport in which the story of a small school from a small conference making a run to a title is no more rare than that of the late-season magic conjured by a power program with one of the nation’s best players.
Butler and Connecticut will meet tonight in the national title game – the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, talking about shocking the world with their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
“We were all rooting for UConn because it was a great story,” Stevens said, “a lot of fun to follow.”
As is Butler, the team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis that practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, used as the backdrop for the classic movie “Hoosiers.”
Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn’t even the biggest long shot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs in Saturday’s semifinal.
As recently as 2008, the NCAA tournament landed all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, there wasn’t a single 1 or 2 for the first time in the 33-year history of seeding.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
“It’s as close to parity as there can be,” Calhoun said.
Led by Walker, the junior guard on the verge of becoming the best player to ever put on a Huskies uniform, Connecticut won five games in five nights against Big East competition to win the postseason tournament.
That Connecticut is still standing is a testament to Walker’s playmaking ability (he’s averaging 25.5 points during this 10-game winning streak) and Calhoun’s ability to adjust on the fly to the fatigue that has predictably set in.
“Our code has been very simple: ‘The hell with it, let’s just go play basketball,’ ” Calhoun said. “Well, we wouldn’t be doing all the things we did last night defensively to Kentucky if we just kind of rolled the thing out there. We worked very hard on it. But we worked on it in a different way.”
Connecticut advanced to the final by holding Kentucky to 33.9 percent shooting in a 56-55 victory Saturday night.
Butler, meanwhile, is on a 14-game winning streak that began after losing its third straight on Feb. 3.
One win away from the pinnacle once again, the Bulldogs are talking about finishing the deal this time.
“There are some connections to us and ‘Hoosiers.’ I understand that, and that’s nice if people want to make those connections,” senior forward Matt Howard said.
Calhoun, trying to become the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles, says he appreciates Butler as much as the next guy.
“I think it’s good for college basketball,” Calhoun said. “I think if it starts around 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful thing.”