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.