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Reflections on the NCAA Tournament, Butler, Bucknell and the CAA

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Chris Steppig/NCAA Photos, Pool/The Kansas City Star)

In all honesty, I blame myself for making my wife disillusioned with the Butler Bulldogs.

All week I had been talking "Butler"-this, "Butler"-that around my house.  Crooning about the small school that could, the private school with decent academics that graduates its athletes.  I even went with the "Rocky" references, of all things, comparing UConn's introductions to Appollo Cree's parade into the Spectrum.  Forget the fact I spent a lot of years in Connecticut.  I wanted Butler to win, bad, and so did my wife.

With about eight minutes to play, the love of my life could stand no more.  "They're throwing the game!", she said as F Matt Howard missed his umpteenth point-blank shot.  "How can you miss that many shots?  They're losing on purpose!"

I lasted only a little longer than she did in the 53-41 defeat, but Butler's disappointing finish should not obscure some of the great aspects of this tournament for the "little guys".  I think I did manage to convince her that Butler did not lose the game on purpose - and that the announcers crying about a defensive battle in the championship game really missed the brilliance of Jim Calhoun's strategy of disrupting the Bulldogs' offense.(more)

What really struck me about this game was not the play of G Kemba Walker or the surge of G Jeremy Lamb after a shell-shocked first half. It was the fact that Butler was almost completely unrecognizable from the team that beat VCU on Saturday.

In that game, G Shelvin Mack and the Butler guards were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Rams. The weave, six passes to a wide-open three, outside picks - they were the controlled, unpredictable team that confounded so many other teams this tournament. They had an inside-out game with Howard and Mack, with G Zach Hahn getting red-hot from outside for good measure.

So what did Calhoun do? He told his big men, C Alex Oriakhi and F Charles Okwandu to basically stay in the lane and prevent any - and I mean any - inside shooting from Howard. It was the equivalent of the neutral-zone trap in hockey - pack the lane, get the hands up to disrupt the passing lanes, and force them to live and die by the three.

Every time Howard went underneath, he stared down at a frontcourt guy that looked like an NFL linebacker. Did he draw some fouls? Sure, but he also get thrown around like a rag doll for the most part. Howard can take some abuse underneath - and he draws fouls with the best of them - but he can't do that for 40 minutes. Nobody can.

From UConn's perspective, it worked perfectly. The two things that Butler depend on to make their offense work is pinpoint passing and some inside play from their only two big men. The Huskies' two trees underneath took that away, and all of a sudden everything came to a stop. There were no pretty back-door breaks to the basket for lay-ups.

And when the engine stopped working, Butler head coach Brad Evans didn't appear to have a Plan B, and it almost seemed like the Huskies were in the players' heads as they missed easy shot after easy shot. Wisely, when Butler was struggling UConn just got out of the way and let each shot clang off the rim and focus on rebounding.

It's oversimplistic to criticize Butler for poor shooting, and the chorus of announcers and media types piling on the Bulldogs for not shooting better is oversimplistic and, frankly, ignorant. It also doesn't give justice to Calhoun's brilliant strategy in the championship game to disrupt the Bulldogs. By focusing on the shooting, it really takes away from the fact that Calhoun did the coaching job of his life to win that game.

Criticize the program all you want for all their problems over the past year, but Calhoun looked at the gameplan of the hotshot young Butler coach and came up with a way to make it fall apart. It was a coaching job nothing short of masterful.

*****

It was a strange tournament for me overall. Despite building up my wife's hype about Butler to be torn down by UConn, I was at once spectacularly right and spectacularly wrong all at the same time.

Start with the "spectacularly wrong" about national champions UConn getting upset by Bucknell. Let's not dwell on the beatdown the Huskies put on them, nor statements like "Watch 30 seconds of coverage of UConn on ESPN and you'll see evidence of a team that has been reading an awful lot of their own press clippings on how great they are. By the time they figure out this is a game, they might be down by double digits." But let's just say that while my prediction was crazy, their blowout win against Bucknell was a kind of canary in the coal mine for their championship run. Bucknell was not that bad a team, and that they dismantled such a disciplined team so soundly was probably a sign that they certainly could win the whole thing.

The other interesting piece came with the emergence of the CAA as a up-and-coming "mid-major" conference that is at least even with, if not exceeding, the Atlantic Ten. Before the tournament I talked a little bit about how important this particular NCAA tournament was for the CAA: saying, in a nutshell, that a good, deep run in the NCAA tournament by a CAA team would at least mean that the CAA can claim that their conference is every bit as good, if not better, than the Atlantic Ten.

The tale of the tape: Both the CAA and A-10 had one autobid and two at-large bids to the tournament. Both had one representative in the Sweet 16, but the CAA got their second Final Four team in six years. (This is where my prediction was actually right on the money: "The [VCU] Rams could have the easiest path the the sweet 16 than either the Monarchs or the Patriots. And that's even with an extra game.")

For some reason, I think I'm going to remember by VCU prediction a lot more than the Bucknell one.

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