HOUSTON — The big, bad Big East stands in Butler’s way.
OK, not the entire conference, trumpeted as the country’s best when it sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. But the Bulldogs will face Connecticut, yet another of college basketball’s blueboods, on Monday night as they try to make up for last year’s last-second heartbreak against Duke.
The third-seeded Huskies (31-9) already have two national titles, and Kemba and the kids are on quite a roll, winning their 10th straight elimination game with a 56-55 victory over Kentucky on Saturday night. Eighth-seeded Butler (28-9) is on a pretty good run of its own, though, winning its 14th straight with a 70-62 victory over VCU in the first national semifinal.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on Monday night,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “But the fact that we’re playing Monday night, that’s beautiful.”
Though this will be the first meeting between the schools, Butler has played this game before. The school with just 4,200 students from the Horizon League came within a bounce of winning it all last year, nearly striking a blow for all those little guys out there who don’t come from BCS conferences or have rosters loaded with All-Americans.
Gordon Hayward’s half-court, last-second shot banged off the rim, however, and the Bulldogs had to watch Duke, perhaps the biggest of college basketball’s big names these days, celebrate yet another national title.
“We’ve just got to be one shot better than last year,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
The Bulldogs are the first national runner-up to return to the title game the following year since Kentucky in 1998, when it won its seventh — and most recent — championship. Butler is also the lowest-seeded team to play for the title since Villanova won it as a No. 8 seed in 1985.
“The way we look at it is we want to win. We don’t look at it as it’s a mid-major that wants to win,” said Matt Howard, Butler’s leading scorer and rebounder. “Honestly, we don’t look at conferences. We don’t think about what conference somebody’s in.”
Good thing, because UConn is from one of the best.
After getting 11 teams into the tournament, four of which were seeded third or higher, the league’s reputation took a bit of a beating when only two, UConn and Marquette, made it through the first weekend.
The Huskies may not have seemed like the pride of the Big East, picked to finish 10th in the league when the year began and seeded ninth in the conference tournament. But they won five games in five nights to capture the Big East tournament title, and haven’t slacked off since.
“My assistants kept telling me, ‘We’re this close,’” Calhoun said, “and I think we closed that gap in the Big East tournament.”
It helps when you have perhaps the best player in the country.
Kemba Walker was only 6 for 15 against Kentucky, but he finished with a game-high 18 points and also had six rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Jeremy Lamb added 12 points, including a fancy scooping layup with 2:29 left to put the Huskies ahead by six.
“It’s a little surreal right now,” Walker said, “but hopefully we can bring it back to Storrs.”
The Big East hasn’t won a national title since UConn claimed its second in 2004. Since then, the ACC has won three, the SEC two and the Big 12 one.
One of these days, a little guy is bound to add its name to the list. Even Calhoun acknowledges that.
“I think starting in 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful idea,” he said.