HOUSTON -- When this college basketball season began, one of the teams that played for the 2010 national championship was the strongest favorite to get back for another chance. So how to explain the sign held up by a Butler fan between games of last night’s Final Four at Reliant Stadium.
``Where’s Duke?’’ it read.
How to explain? It’s Butler. Again.
The Bulldogs really are every coach’s dream. There is no detail too small to be overlooked, no screen not to be attacked, no rebound too distant not to be reached, no loose ball ever really loose. They are back.
Last year, it was Duke, the school that has epitomized greatness for a quarter-century. This year, Connecticut, the hottest team in America, a team that had to play on the second Tuesday in March in Madison Square Garden, won then and has not lost since -- five in the Big East Tournament and five in this NCAA Tournament.
Butler beat Virginia Commonwealth like it beats everybody. The Bulldogs won all the little battles and, eventually, the game, 70-62.
In five NCAA games, VCU had 35 steals. The Rams hadbr three against Butler. The Rams had forced 69 turnovers. They forced just nine against Butler.
Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens had a full week to get his team ready for VCU’s relentless pressure. They were way ready, passing it through big man Matt Howard and always looking one pass ahead before they ever made a catch. It was an absolute clinic.
VCU has a terrific group, but the two best all-around players in the game, Howard and Shelvin Mack, belonged to Butler. Jamie Skeen's 27 points kept VCU in the game, but Howard and Mack won it. Mack went on a personal 10-point second-half run to break the game open. Howard made the kill shot on a late follow. They combined for 41 points.
Butler won despite shooting 35.6 percent. You can do that if you do everything right.
Butler owned the glass, 48-32, got 19 second-chance points to just 6 for VCU.
And there was this -- the Rams had outscored their five NCAA opponents by 90 points from the three-point line. It was 24-24 in this game, a dead heat. VCU needed a big win there and when they didn’t get it, it was always going to be Butler. So here they are again.
Kentucky had beaten the best team (Ohio State) and the tallest, fastest team (North Carolina). The young Wildcats seemed to have found something in Newark, N.J., where they won the East Region last weekend.
UConn made certain they lost it in its 56-55 win. The Huskies defended the Wildcats to distraction. Those open threes they were nailing against OSU and UNC were no longer open. And, even when they were, they were not going in.
UK did not have much for UConn in the first half, trailing 31-21 while shooting just 28.1 percent. But the Wildcats came out hitting everything to start the second and the lead was gone in a blink.
In the end, it came down to one K Factor, Kemba speed. There is everybody else in college hoops and there is Kemba Walker, playing at some speed that can’t quite be calibrated. He went by just about everybody and either scored or made sure somebody else did.
Nobody had any answer for Walker in March. On the first Saturday in April, the riddle of how to stop Walker remained unsolved. He had 18 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.
And, after eight dry possessions when both teams seemed to hit the wall with UConn leading 50-48, it was Walker won once again dashed end to end like a broken-field runner and scored the basket that gave the Huskies a lead they would not give up.
The lead actually got to 54-48 with less than 2 minutes left. Then, UConn stopped scoring and UK’s DeAndre Liggins actually had a chance to win it with 5 seconds left. His three was short. Shabazz Napier’s two free throws were true. Brandon Knight’s three at the buzzer for Kentucky did not really matter.
Kentucky nearly won it despite shooting just 33.9 percent and 4-for-12 from the foul line. Freshman Terrence Jones (11 points, 15 rebounds, 5 steals) had a terrific floor game and missed all five of his free throws. Knight needed 23 shots to get his 17 points.
The second game was not pretty to watch. UConn took 12 threes and missed 11. Both teams looked exhausted at the finish,
One of those teams, UConn, will be back in less than 48 hours to play Butler.
A Final Four record 75,421 saw these games. The same seats will be filled Monday night, even if some of the fans’ faces are different. They will see Butler-Connecticut, one game for a championship.