Monday, April 4, 2011

Connecticut Wins 2011 National Championship

(Photo: ABC News)

Propelled by a whirlwind of scoring in the second half of the National Championship game, Connecticut captured the 2011 NCAA National Championship in men's basketball by beating Butler 53-41. The 2011 NCAA title is Connecticut's third National Championship in men's basketball. All three of Connecticut's Championships have come under the stewardship of head coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun previously led Connecticut to NCAA titles in 1999 and 2004.

National Championship Game: Connecticut vs. Butler

The National Championship game will tip off soon. Butler's improbable advance to the title game for the second year in a row has set up another "David vs. Goliath" narrative for sports writers, broadcasters and talking heads to prattle on about -- though it should be noted that the "experts" expected neither Butler nor usual powerhouse Connecticut to be in the Final Four, let alone in the Championship game. Drive and Dish has been burned by overvaluing Connecticut's stock in the past, but even we missed the boat on the Huskies this year. But that's not all: we missed the boat on Butler too, and we did so for the second year in a row (though in our defense, unlike just about everybody else -- who almost universally picked Kansas -- we at least accurately predicted the ultimate winner last year). Don't mistake such candid self-reflection regarding our less-than-clairvoyant Final Four picks for defensiveness though. After Butler's best player (Gordon Hayward) bolted for the 2010 NBA draft, who really thought Butler could reproduce last year's Cinderella magic?

So what do we expect in tonight's game?

Connecticut has superior size, talent, and athleticism. But for the second straight year, Butler has made its living by knocking off bigger, more talented and more athletic NCAA Tournament opponents. Connecticut may have big name stars like All American scoring machine guard Kemba Walker, but Butler has smart, tough players at every position. Butler Forward Matt Howard may not have eye-popping size, talent or athleticism, but he has a phenomenal knack for making big plays -- and for making the right decisions -- at just the right time. Butler point guard Shelvin Mack is cut from the same cloth. Mack is more talented than many "experts" seem to realize -- indeed, he can get by defenders and light it up from beyond the three point arc when he needs to -- but channels his abilities into being a team-first floor general, rather than a flashy star. Mack's possesses tremendous mental and physical toughness. And like Howard, he has a high basketball IQ.

Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack are Butler's most talented players. But it's not their talent that makes them such good leaders -- they're great leaders because of how they set the pace for a Bulldog team that mirrors their toughness and basketball smarts. Butler neutralizes taller, more talented and more athletic teams by controlling the game's tempo. Butler's NCAA Tournament game plan always seems to be to keep the score low, keep their opponents from getting out in transition, keep them from opening up big leads, and stay in position to win as the final two minutes approach. If Butler can control the pace of tonight's game (i.e., slow UConn down), they can keep it close. And if it's still close as the clock ticks to the final two minutes, the pressure could quickly become an enormous obstacle for Connecticut.

Connecticut has all the measurable advantages. In terms of size, talent, athleticism and depth, they're clearly the superior team. But Butler probably has the advantages when it comes to the unmeasurables. By all accounts, Connecticut should win. But if the game is still neck and neck in the final two minutes, it will be Butler's for the taking.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wichita State Wins NIT

Thursday night, Wichita State captured the N.I.T. title by upsetting Alabama 66-57 in the N.I.T. finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. With the win, the Shockers became the first Missouri Valley Conference team to win a men's basketball postseason championship since Bradley won the N.I.T. in 1982. Though the the Missouri Valley has a rich and storied history, and though it's been one of college basketball's most prominent Mid Major conferences in the recent past, the league has been perceived as sub-par for the last four seasons. And that bad image has kept the Valley from garnering an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament over that period of time. This year, regular season conference champion Missouri State lost in the Missouri Valley tournament failed to land an NCAA Tournament bid. But with Wichita State winning the N.I.T, and with Creighton facing off against former coach Dana Altman's Oregon Ducks in the College Basketball Invitational (C.B.I.), the Valley has shown well this postseason.

Through his tenure at Wichita State -- and during his earlier days at Winthrop -- Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall has proven to be an outstanding college basketball coach. Over the years, his name has been mentioned frequently in conjunction with head coaching openings at higher profile programs. Whether or not Marshall has actually pursued any of those coaching positions remains unclear. As we've mentioned before, writers like to speculatively throw coaches' names around when writing about coaching vacancies. But for what it's worth, Marshall's name is being thrown around again this year with regard to several of the coaching vacancies at high major schools.

Gregg Marshall a long history of fielding highly competitive teams at Mid Major institutions. Now with an N.I.T. title in tow, he's likely to garner significant interest from Athletic Directors at big name schools with vacancies as he heads to the NABC coaches' convention at the Final Four in Houston.