It's mutt-ugly, but big, bad UConn prevails
HOUSTON - It was a game for the record book but not the video library, as Connecticut won the national basketball championship Monday night with a nearly unwatchable 53-41 victory over Butler.
At least the ending wasn't as painfully close for the losers as was last year's attempt at the title for the mid-major Bulldogs. It wasn't one missed shot that cost them the championship, but a raft of them. Butler scored just 19 points in the second half and went more than seven minutes between field goals as UConn took control of the game for good.
What the evening at Reliant Stadium before a crowd of 70,376 lacked in artfulness, it made up in intensity, as these games tend to do, but that was a lot to make up for. The combined 41 points scored by the teams in the first half were the fewest in a championship game since 1946, back when it was hard to control the ball because the laces kept getting in the way.
But they don't award national championships on style points. They award them on scoring more points than the other guys, even if that isn't very many. Give the Huskies that much, and give them the trophy.
Connecticut's victory, and its third championship with Jim Calhoun as head coach, might not have totally erased the stigma on a program that played all season under the threat of NCAA sanctions, but it didn't hurt. Calhoun still will be suspended for the first three games of the 2011-12 Big East season because of recruiting violations. Those transgressions, and UConn's role in the title game as the big bad guy paired up against whistle-clean little Butler, didn't seem to dampen the celebration.
One thing the win certainly accomplished was some satisfaction for the Big East conference. The league placed 11 of its 16 teams in the NCAA field, but only two - Connecticut and Marquette - survived until the second weekend. A washout in the Final Four for UConn, which nearly happened in a narrow semifinal against Kentucky, would have added volume to the chorus that believes the conference was overrated this season. A national championship tends to change that kind of thinking.
"I heard some comments about our league," Calhoun said after the game, "and let me tell you, what we went through in the Big East helped us figure out what to do tonight when we couldn't make shots in the first half."
The next obvious question is whether the 68-year-old Calhoun will seize this as an opportune moment to slip into retirement. It is a question Calhoun has dodged for the most part, but he says his desire to coach basketball has not seriously waned.
"You never make a decision like that at a moment like this," Calhoun said. "But I can say that as long as I feel I can give them everything I have, I'm going to keep coaching as long as humanly possible."
Calhoun's insistence that the Huskies be better is what kept them going when they lost four of their last five regular-season games and faced a daunting task in the Big East tournament. UConn won five games in five nights, closing out that run with wins over three of the top four seeds in the league - Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville.
That run made it possible for the Huskies to be rewarded with a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and now, six wins later, with the biggest reward of them all.
"My assistants kept telling me, 'We're this close,' and I think we finally closed that gap somewhere in the Big East tournament," Calhoun said.
The gap between UConn and Butler took a while to become apparent, but it eventually did. In the first half, if you believed the popular story line leading up to the game, there was, indeed, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good was little Butler, representing all the little guys in college basketball. The bad was Connecticut, which barely avoided those NCAA sanctions that might have kept it out of this tournament in the first place. And the ugly? Well, that was the game itself.
Maybe the two teams were tight. Maybe there was some great defense being played out there. That isn't what it looked like. Whether in November in a half-filled gym or in April in a sold-out football stadium, bad basketball looks about the same.
"They did have a lot to do with it," Butler coach Brad Stevens said of his team's abysmal 18.8 percent shooting. "They guard so well that when you do finally get some open shots, you don't feel comfortable."
Connecticut came back from a three-point deficit at the half to take control midway through the second half as Butler went cold and didn't make shots for the longest time. When the score got to 46-28 with just over five minutes to play, it was over except for the scorekeeping and the sweeping up of the stadium after all the confetti fell.
Connecticut might still be bad, but the Huskies are national champions. Butler might still be good, but the Bulldogs weren't on Monday night.