Tuesday, April 5, 2011

UConn: Kemba and Company bring the Huskies their third National Championship

Last night's NCAA championship game between Butler and Connecticut played out sloppier than a four-year old trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For the select few of us awake, the game had the gravitas of watching paint dry and matched the excitement of a sink faucet slowly dripping. A 9:23 p.m. start time, preferential treatment to west coast advertisers and playing to the college student whose lack of responsibility is a direct correlation to the amount of Ramen intake, had the game begin on a sour note. Unfortunately, the tone didn't change and the game played screechier than a Miley Cyrus high note.

When the dust settled and the clock struck 11:37 p.m. est., I adjusted my eyes, glazed over from 40 minutes of poor basketball to see a final score of 51-43. I rubbed what I thought had to be an obstruction on my eye socket, but a closer look and the miniscule score remained. A combined 94 points from the national championship game. So many emotions were running through my overly tired body and all I could do was let out a quiet laigh, (combination of a laugh and a sigh).

I missed "Dancing with the Stars" for this?

Not knowing the reasons for the late East Coast start would be naive, but the fact that the product didn't match the primetime Pacific Time zone placement was beyond frustrating. The people who care about college basketball, the east and Midwest regions of the country, were falling asleep in their chairs while it was dinner time for west coasters who think Kemba Walker is a surf board company.  The west coast palate is limited to college football and the NBA. They care as much about college basketball as a New Yorker does about fly fishing.

In regards to analysis of last night's game, it was obvious that the hours of minutes logged on the legs of both teams came up to bite them. Even 19 and 20 year old kids eventually get fatigued. It was evident in their jump shots with no lift and feet firmly rooted in the ground like tree trucks attempting to grab a rebound. The hardwood might as well been quick sand where explosion from guards to the basket was a rare sight. UConn star Kemba Walker who seemed to have the endurance of Usain Bolt throughout the Big East tournament and March Madness was finally hit with the effects of cross country travel and playing eleven elimination games in 28 days. I would argue his 26 percent shooting and 0 for 4 from 3 point land was due to the grind of games in succession, not a ferocious Bulldog defense.

Those arguing it was a great defensive battle are people who checked the final box score on their computers, but didn't actually watch the game. The contest itself was reminiscent of a black and white spoof of a 1950's basketball team practice, shorts high above their knees doing drills like a Twilight Zone version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Even in all of the mediocrity, came realizations. I watched freshman phenom Jeremy Lamb for Connecticut stake his claim as a lottery pick or as the favorite for college player of the year if he stays at UConn. I watched the emergence of Huskies big man Alex Oriakhi. I saw that fatigue plagued Butler's sharp shooter Shelvin Mack more than anyone and how Matt Howard encompasses everything a Bulldog is and should be. I watched as 68 year old coach Jim Calhoun elevated an already cemented hall of fame legacy, but was unable to dodge questions about his own NCAA allegations of recruiting with improper benefits.

I witnessed something I thought I wouldn't see. Butler's Brad Stevens coached the second half flustered and the team played out of their element and comfort zone. Butler, a team in the championship game for the second straight year felt smaller than the moment. To call the Bulldogs an underdog this time around is a grave mistake. Knowledgeable sports folk picked them to win last night because of their length, veterans, and three point shooting. A Cinderella team last year, now a perennial power, was only an underdog in how they performed on the court.

Senior Forward Matt Howard, who Brad Stevens calls the greatest player to ever put on a Bulldog uniform shot 1 for 13 from the field. Scoring star, Shelvin Mack who was seamlessly draining half court three's throughout the tournament was 4 for 15 from the field. But, the two star players are not to blame. The team collectively shot 12 for 64 from the field, 19 percent, the lowest shooting percentage in the history of the men's title game. The Butler coach known for his calm sideline demeanor was agitated. It wasn't his facial expression that changed, but his team's identity and the X's and O's that he called were evidence of panic and desperation. You can't blame his frustration. The basketball hoop to the Bulldogs looked like the size of a decimal point.

The final score, 53-41 was indicative of how the 40 minutes played out. As spectators, we watched for the dramatic end-of- game moment that would never come. My heart does go out to Butler, for feeling the same disappointment as last year but hurting more because they were favored by most. I feel bad that Matt Howard played his final game as a Bull Dog. I've never seen a college player fight for every loose ball and rebound like Howard. He is a floor general as a forward, 230 pounds of bone and basketball. Butler losing Howard is like McDonald's losing Ronald, a piece of their identity, irreplaceable.

Over the next few weeks we will debate, discuss, and agree to disagree about the talent level of this year's tournament and if the last two teams standing really were the best two. For those who love the shoot out game winner and the walk off home run, the Championship game fell short of what we experienced in previous rounds from the upsets, buzzer beaters, and last second ill-advised fouls.

The good news is the NBA playoffs are right around the corner.

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