Sunday, April 3, 2011

Butler vs. Connecticut Makes for David vs. Goliath Showdown

The feverish crowd in Reliant Stadium motioned wildly, as some cried in despair over the agony of defeat in the Final Four. In an appealing tournament that has been a season of thrills, suspense and epic spectacles with all the unpredictability in a peculiar year, we have exactly what America desires to see and brace themselves for on Monday night, a date involving the darlings and a high-profile university -- an engagement involving David vs. Goliath.

As a nation, sitting emotionally in the stands pumped for a dramatic event in Houston, the largest crowd in Final Four history watched on a night that we fell in love again with one of the cutest narratives in sports. So often we venture into a tableau of surrealism in the delirious, insane spring months, a moment when infatuation identifies the wrath of college hoops. Every way, that is, the storyline heard suddenly has created buzz around the nation, as the people are bracing themselves for a mesmerizing clash in the national championship game.

Here in America, where many can stroll to the main entrance of a venue, tell amazing stories and root for the underdogs, the nation loves sleepers, which means the vast majority in the nation will be rooting for Butler. There's no Hoosier sequel for the little guys when technically the Bulldogs have done enough to frighten the world as if Butler is America's storied program, given its historic run last season before falling short to Duke on the national stage in Indianapolis.

The reality is that, even if the losing team can reflect back on the phenomenal run in the tourney by beating elite programs with higher seeds, one in particular being No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, another spectacular chapter ended so painfully to abolish a miracle unlike ever before. That would be Virginia Commonwealth, a university located in Richmond, Va., in which America became accustomed to as weeks progressed, attached to the beautiful program after stunning and ruining much for populace who filled out brackets without including Butler or VCU in the Final Four.

The dream persists for the UConn Huskies as well, standing strong in the nature of competitive and the Big Dance. But most of our nation is charmed, for the second straight year, by Butler's smoothest run in the tournament, no matter if the Bulldogs have advanced to the national championship game for the second straight season. When a night resembled a Hoosiers sequel, flashing back to the unbelievable ride by Milan for a storybook ending that led to a motion picture on the movie screens, the Bulldogs extended to 10-1 in the last two tourneys.

The program from the Horizon League is a top contender, not a Cinderella story, not the darlings of basketball but the fiercest and most dominant team in the nation. It's a rarity for any team to ultimately duplicate and deliver a repetition of marveled Cinderella stories. But in an NCAA tournament where nothing has gone as planned, with all the surprises and scares, the Bulldogs are elated to be playing in their second consecutive national championship game on Monday, one of the greatest achievements in college basketball history.


It wouldn't be hard to call Butler a name-brand program. And to call them the underdogs is an understatement, even if the nation identifies the Bulldogs as underdogs. There'd be a reason Butler is called the Bulldogs, simply because it's the meanest, scariest and most ferocious basketball school currently with a coach by the name of Brad Stevens, a soon-to-be 34-year-old with an ingenious mind to lead his players on a magical quest. And once again, it is very telling the folks are rallying around the Bulldogs, rooting for the so-called underdogs after they preserved the national spotlight for winning big games with implications.

With every startling victory comes the emergence of a new chapter and scene for the Hoosiers sequel. But now, as the Huskies beat the blossoming Kentucky Wildcats 56-55, Butler will play Connecticut, a premier program with two national titles and four Final Fours, despite the NCAA sanctions that has stained the university's credibility. It wasn't an impeccable scene for Kentucky, one of basketball's storied schools that struggled and faltered on the biggest stage, unable to avoid tumultuous meltdowns or ripen into one of the remarkable programs and instead resembles a hallucination that urge the masses in Lexington to believe in a sudden recovery.

Thus the program is one of the most demanding -- Kentucky places its identity on not only basketball but also John Calipari, a bona fide ambassador who makes the Final Four every spring. While he's normally coaching plenty of studs on his roster because of his brilliant recruiting, an explosive scorer in Brandon Knight and a sturdy center in Josh Harrellson, the Wildcats are still marred by a Kentucky Fried Calamity for dropping the biggest game in Kentucky's first Final Four appearance since 1998.

Trailing by two points with 16.6 seconds left, Calipari rallied his team on the sideline with a timeout, grabbed a board and diagrammed a play that resulted in DeAndre Liggins firing an ill-advised three-point shot. The scheme was poorly executed as the Huskies secured the victory to seek its third title in school history. It's seemingly fine to believe that Butler, given its experience and desire to win it all this season, will be hoisting the prize on Monday night, just as much as it is for UConn.

"I don't think I can possibly explain how much I want to do this," said Butler forward Matt Howard after Butler's 70-62 win over VCU. "The experience of being there, of being so close last year, I just can't explain what this chance means to me."

It's been an unrealistic, bizarre tournament with something ridiculous in every round as the top seeds submerged and stumbled against low seeds, shocking the world and destroying brackets across the nation. Until Saturday night, it seemed that the hottest team scorching the nets were the Rams. The reputation of one of the hottest programs in the country was never projected to be selected into the field of 68 teams, let alone advance past the NCAA's inaugural First Four round as an 11 seed, and Shaka Smart was never expected to create a buzz as the impressive coach to rise immensely.


As Howard of Butler may have just amazed NBA executives and bolstered his NBA status as top NBA prospect, Smart could have forged a lengthy resume for his Career-Builder.com openings in the next few weeks. Most notably, after he has led a team on incredible tourney run that landed VCU in the Final Four, he is the leading candidate for many coaching vacancies in the near future. It would be interesting to see what program interviews and offers him a coaching gig, now that speculations of possible candidates have developed undying debates.

"Butler was the more aggressive team, and that was the biggest difference between this one and the last five," Smart said emotionally. "It has more to do with Butler than with us."

In other words, VCU finally had encountered its match, an opponent much stronger, willed and anxious to win it all. This wasn't the Rams greatest night on the court, once identified as the toughest underdogs in the tourney -- angry that most of the country neglected, disrespected and ridiculed them. This wasn't what was seen against USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. What seemingly was the difference in previous games, of course, was that the Rams could force turnovers and intensify the tempo.

For once, there is a sense the Bulldogs have won it already, simply by their experience, toughness, fierceness and onslaughts to dictate the tempo and pace. As usual, there were the Bulldogs attacking by its usual vicious game plan, disciplined and molded to play like cruel and harmful animals on the court hungry to win a championship finally. Now, in this Final Four, Butler should be the scariest, with sharp teeth and fangs that demands a leash, particularly when Howard is the best scoring threat arguably in the nation.

For instance, such as when he entered with 4:40 left, his defensive presence stopped VCU and slowed its up-tempo style and fiery ball pressure. Although he's a centerpiece for Butler's defensive effort, along with scoring, the best player on the floor Monday night will certainly be Kemba Walker, a surefire first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. However, in many ways, it turns out Butler is well-deserving of being considered a national power in college hoops, after rising to the top and making mark on the national championship scene for the second straight season. This isn't an illusion.

This isn't a fluke. This is real. There were cheers heard from an optimistic Butler crowd as the team's mascot, dressed in a bulldog suit ran wildly around the court. And then, suddenly, even the real bulldog on a leash was seen in midcourt once it ended. Every time the Bulldogs win, and if Jim Nantz, the voice of CBS sports, is calling the game, he makes an effort to bend down and pet the dog.

Everybody by now knows that Stevens is the boy-wonder of college basketball, the guy you can easily mistaken for a 17-year-old teenager fresh out of high school. Also, he gave up his job in pharmaceutical sales to embark on a career in coaching college basketball, where he has produced and been successful in the past two seasons. The rallying cry was heard from the Bulldogs, once a fulfilled night ended so sentimentally. "We're not done yet! Unfinished business, baby!"


It seems the Bulldogs have the right mentality, entering Monday night’s showdown against the Huskies in an attempt to make up for such a devastating heartbreaker a year ago. Shelvin Mack, who scored 24 points on the brightest platform, is an attractive NBA player, a first-round pick with the ability to shoot lights out on any giving night because of his discipline and perseverance as a talented player. More impressively, the man off the bench, Zach Haun, scored all eight of his points in the second half that manipulated the game in Butler's favor.

This season alone, the Bulldogs are the cleverest and peskiest defensive unit, roughly frustrating and neutralizing opponents as VCU fell victim. One win away from making history, and Butler can celebrate in triumph, after coming all so close a year ago. With all things considered, for such a commitment to defense emphasized heavily by Stevens obviously, the Bulldogs can create havoc for UConn. This is by now clearly seen as the greatest game in sports, as it is anticipated to be one of the classic events in ages. The night for Walker wasn't so wonderful in the beginning, for which he seemed a bit sluggish and confused. The night for Walker was jittery, and oddly, he wasn't the star and never had the ball in his hands in the pivotal moments.

There were times, on the night when Kemba struggled to find his rhythm, that the stadium muted and wondered about Walker. It was a combination of fatigued, tiredness and nerves in a game with much on the line. When Kentucky's Darius Miller landed onto Walker's right ankle, scaring the UConn faithful, many of whom held their collective breaths worried about their star player's health status, he grabbed the ankle, walked gingerly and grimaced in pain. He sat briefly and slowly walked back onto the court, and by the end of the game, he had scored 18 points and finished 6-for-15 shooting.

But either way, no doubt, the hero on this night was UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, given much spotlight in the biggest game of his lifetime of the semifinals game. The Huskies led by four points and were trying to clinch it with another shot to extend the lead as time ticked, and then Napier drove through traffic and finished on a reverse layup with 2 minutes left. In another play, Napier tried to slash to the basket prematurely, and the ball dribbled off his foot for a costly turnover when Knight dove on it and Terrence Jones called a timeout.

"I thought Shabazz played great," Calhoun said after Napier finished merely 1-for-7 in shooting.


As a Hall Fame name, Calhoun has risen as a fixture at UConn, and honestly, he never expected much this season from his players and mainly felt his star player Walker was hit with a heavy burden in carrying the Huskies. It's amazing how grueling it has been for Walker, but somehow he has pressed on and been sensational leading the Huskies deep into the tournament. Walker, a superb junior from New York, where he was born and raised playing basketball on the playgrounds in the urban community, is worthy of being defined as America's greatest player after conducting a five-wins-in-five-nights winning streak.

There can only be one legitimate winner and, in a sense, it seems Butler is worthy of a title. After all, we'll weigh in on a classic national championship game, once it's all said and done. How breathtaking it is to witness two powerhouses, as one is portrayed as the underdog, a moment when UConn meets Butler for what could be the basketball game of the ages.