From DePaul to Butler
It was a late Tuesday morning in early March and the UCONN Huskies were relegated to playing in the game no one in the Big East wants to play. The bottom feeders of the conference are used to that opening game at Madison Square Garden, but the UCONN”s, Syracuse’s, Louisville’s, and Pittsburgh’s of the league are perennially jockeying for the top four seeds and the coveted double bye. In front of a modest crowd Kemba Walker scored 26 points as UCONN crushed DePaul 97-71.
No logical human could have believed this was the start of an incredible eleven game run that culminated with a national title in Houston. You see, DePaul was a laugh out loud 1-17 in the Big East and used to taking waxings from the UCONN”s of the world. Jim Calhoun had to have been wondering how did this happen. The Huskies lost four of their last five games of the regular season and dropped to ninth place in the Big East.
The next day the Huskies knocked of a sliding Georgetown team 79-62. UCONN was now safely off the bubble but hardly on anyone’s radar as a national champion. The next day, in a foreshadowing of things to come, Kemba Walker hit a buzzer beater to give the Huskies a dramatic 76-74 victory over number one seed Pittsburgh. On Friday night Kemba dropped 33 as UCONN knocked off Syracuse 76-71 in overtime.
The Huskies were now primed to make Big East tournament history. No team had gone from the opening game on Tuesday afternoon to the Saturday night finale. The Huskies kept the momentum going with a tough 69-66 win over Louisville. Naturally Kemba was tournament MVP, and it was time to march on to the big dance.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but many of the experts and prognosticators that grace radio and television were convinced the Huskies had to be wiped out by the five games in five days. These same guys probably get winded walking from the couch to the fridge, but 18-22 year old athletes in peak physical shape can go all day every day if they need to.
The Huskies earned a three seed in the West regional and drew the Bucknell Bison in the first round. UCONN barely broke a sweat in a 81-52 laugher. The Huskies faced a Big East foe in Cincinnati in the round of 32. In a very Big East looking game the dogs outlasted the cats 69-58. The Huskies were now in the sweet sixteen and a very real Final Four contender.
In a memorable game UCONN got by the upstart San Diego State Aztecs 74-67. This game will be remembered more for the Aztecs imploding in critical spots. Kemba Walker drew a momentum killing technical when he hovered around the Aztec huddle, took and elbow, and did his best acting of the season. Regardless of the validity of the technical the Aztecs played with the composure of team with two lifetime NCAA Tournament wins, all in 2011.
In the elite eight the Huskies had to get by another red hot team that flew under the radar most of the season. The Arizona Wildcats dismantled Duke in the sweet sixteen like they have never been dismantled in an NCAA Tournament. In one magical night Derrick Williams secured his spot as an NBA lottery pick. The Huskies would have their hands full with the talented Wildcats, but they were game for the challenge. In another exciting and dramatic game, UCONN survived two late Derrick Williams three point attempts and escaped Anaheim with a 65-63 win.
In a normal year UCONN would have been the surprise story of the Final Four. When both VCU and Butler were sitting square on the other side of the bracket, they dwarfed the UCONN angle. In the national semifinal the Huskies face a fourth semi-surprise team in Kentucky. For the third time in the tournament the dogs bested the cats, this time to the tune of a 56-55 slugfest.
The Huskies opponent in the championship game would be none other than the Butler Bulldogs. Even though the Huskies were unlikely finalists, all the sentiment outside the nutmeg state would be with the little school from Indianapolis. We can argue all day whether Butler is still a cinderella, but no one can deny that they are still a ‘mid-major.’ Jim Calhoun can likely write off Brad Stevens entire budget in one lunch.
Despite the obvious mis-match on paper, experts were convinced Butler had a real shot in this game. After last year and the first five games of this tournament, Butler couldn’t be counted out of any game they play. My gut told me UCONN should handle Butler, but I did not want to eat a massive plate of crow if the unselfish Bulldogs shot and defended their way to a national championship.
Unfortunately the 2011 title game will always be remembered for its ineptitude. The online world was buzzing with funny and clever pot shots and zingers after UCONN defeated Butler 53-41. The Bulldogs set just about every conceivable record for ineptitude in a championship game. Butler missed open shots, contested shots, close shots, and long shots. In fact they made only twelve shots the entire game. Nine of those shots were from beyond the arc.
Obviously Butler picked the worst possible time to have their worst game of the season, but people would be out of their minds to discount what the Bulldogs did to get to that point. They win ugly and now we know they lose ugly.
Somewhat overlooked in the aftermath of last nights stink fest was that Jim Calhoun became the oldest coach to win a national championship at the ripe young age of 68. He joined John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, and Bobby Knight as the only coaches with at least three national championships.
Calhoun’s boorish and crass behavior hasn’t endeared him to media and fans, but those who know him well swear he is a loyal and wonderful human underneath the tough exterior. He is a blue collar guy from south Boston and makes no apologies for it. He is comfortable in his own skin, and has never tried to be anyone else but James Calhoun from Braintree, Massachusetts.
A less than thrilling title game shouldn’t diminish what UCONN accomplished in the final month of the season. They went from mediocrity to the top of the mountain. With Kemba Walker leading the way this team relished the win of go home mentality of tournaments. They were 3-0 in Maui, 5-0 in the Big East Tournament, and 6-0 in the ‘big dance.’ As the years wear on, I have a sinking feeling that the lasting legacy of 2011 will always be how bad Butler played in the title game.