Big time major programs have no issues getting top recruits from high school because they gain better exposure from NBA scouts. There are some big time players who slip through the cracks and land at a mid-major, but not often. Unlike the NBA, where good individual play is monumental, college ball is system-based, which is why countless great players from the collegiate level didn’t succeed in the Association. While a traditional power, such as the UCONNHuskies, relies on outstanding talent to run a system, a mid-major mainly depends on their coach’s system with a balance roster to win, especially against a national powerhouse. The matchup between behind UCONN and Butlerfor the national championship Monday night in Houston is more than just about crowning a champion, it’s about the couple years-and-done vs. the seasoned, the familiar vs. the unknown or better yet; the talent vs. the system.
The success of UCONN and star junior guard Kemba Walker is well-documented, as the Huskies are undefeated against all their non-Big East conference foes this season. Their up tempo style of basketball and being poised in clutch situations has been the key to their success this season, despite being a one-man show. But why does Butler pose the most threat for UCONN, despite them competing against higher quality opponents all season – on paper?
“They have smart players, and they know how to execute,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart after his team lost to the Bulldogs Saturday night, according to ESPN. “They know how to win. They’re not going to beat themselves. We knew that coming into the game. We just made too many mistakes.”
Similar to many powerhouse programs, UCONN receives most of their output from their underclassmen such as freshmen guard/forward Jeremy Lamband guard Shabazz Napier, forwards Roscoe Smithand Tyler Olanderand sophomore forward/center Alex Oriakhi, all of whom could leave for the NBA early because of their individual talent. Butler, however, is not loaded with McDonald All-Americans or blue chippers, but there are loaded with seasoned vets, led by seniors guard Shawn Vanzant and forward Matt Howard and junior guard Shelvin Mack, and with their consecutive trip to the national championship game, their experience will be a huge factor with a unit that trust their system, along with the continuous sour taste in their mouths.
“We’re not going to settle on just getting back,” said senior guard Zach Hahn. “I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we’re here now and we have a chance. That’s all you can ask.”
Walker has been hands down the most outstanding player throughout this tournament as he singled-handedly carried the Huskies without a lot of rest. Lamb has stepped up to help contribute to give Walker a breather, but the Bronx native never took off defensively.
“If I were Jim Calhoun, I’d put Kemba in a tub of ice and serve him breakfast, lunch and dinner then show up Monday night,” said former Seton Hall head coach and now CBS play-by-play announcer Bill Raftery.
The obvious way to defeat Butler is to attack them in the paint due to their undersized big men, but it’s nearly possible because the Bulldogs are that – Bulldogs. They deny cuts to the baskets and their zone defense force opponents to shoot shots that they are uncomfortable with and still, Butler contest perimeter performances well. Butler has good-skilled players, but similar to majority of the mid-major programs, the athletes they attract are more system-oriented individuals, which is why they give powerhouse programs issues year in and year out because after years of playing with each other, the high turnover rates of players leaving for the NBA at traditional powers makes the playing field leveled. UCONN strength is their up tempo play, but Butler faced teams with that similar style and was successful in slowing their opponents down to play a half-court game.
But talent vs. the system will be placed on center stage Monday evening before the nation. This national championship game will be close and the patience of the talented Huskies will be challenged by the system-oriented Bulldogs, like the Pittsburghs, Wisconsins and Floridas before them. Walker has been a one-man show for UCONN, but to defeat Butler, Walker can’t win the contest alone.
‘It’s not one guy making plays,” said Hahn. “It’s literally a collective effort; it’s all 14 guys.”
Butler’s calling card has been their defense and they feed off that to win and if UCONN aren’t able to get better effort from their cast, the Huskies will have a long, long night.
“We’re a defensive team, so we don’t need to score 10 points in the last two minutes to win the game,” said Bulldogs’ sophomore center Andrew Smith. “We’d much prefer to just get a few stops. That’s kind of what we’re made to do.”
If UCONN can be patience, which they have shown, and trust they system to win, instead of rely solely on their individual skills, they should win. UCONN has many ‘ifs’, but the college basketball world knows what Butler is going to do as they rely on their system, especially defensively.
It’s the familiar vs. the unknown, in terms of tradition, the major program vs. the mid-major, Part II (Butler lost the Duke Blue Devils by one last season). In the case for Butler, it’s safe to say that this game against UCONN is a vengeance matchup because last year’s lost continues to be in the back of their minds.
“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s in the back of my mind,” said Mack.
Can talent prevail or will the system work, this time?