UConn's title win a sore sight
HOUSTON -- It was a fun NCAA tournament.
It was a fun NCAA tournament.
It was a fun NCAA tournament.
Keep saying that for as long as it takes to rid your brain of the memory of the way it ended. Otherwise, you might be scarred for life.
Through the first 66 games of the biggest and arguably the wildest tourney ever, there was an abundance of excitement and drama and surprise. Then they played game No. 67 and the thing ended with a bomb of historic proportions. Connecticut capped its quantum leap from ninth place in the Big East to first place in America by beating bricklaying Butler 53-41 on Monday night, in a game that was so train-wreck terrible to watch it set the sport back to the hook-shot days.
Actually, that's an insult to the hook-shot days. Even back then, the ball went in the basket more often than it did in Reliant Stadium. The teams' combined field goal percentage of 26.1 was the worst in a title game since 1948, when Kentucky and Baylor shot a collective 25.9 percent but scored six more points without the benefit of a 3-point line or a shot clock.
The misery statistics from this disaster could keep coming for days, but here are a few more:
• Fewest total points in a title game since 1949.
• UConn scored 109 points in two games here. That marked the fewest total points in a Final Four for the winning team since Oklahoma A&M in 1946. The Huskies made exactly two 3-point shots in Houston -- and still won it all.
• Butler's three 2-point field goals -- three! -- were the fewest ever in an NCAA tournament game. Its 18.8 percent shooting was the worst in a title game and the worst in any NCAA tourney game since Harvard against Ohio State in 1946.
The Bulldogs -- ouch. For the first time in their brilliant two-year run to consecutive title games, they were in over their heads. A team much of America fell in love with unraveled one missed jumper at a time.
The biggest takeaway from Monday was not how well UConn played; it was the level at which Butler was overmatched. In the end, it finally looked like a mid-major team is supposed to look when matched against a Big East giant. The incredible thing is that a team that spent much of this season looking very ordinary put off this moment as long as it did.
A lot of credit goes to the relentless UConn defense that blocked 10 shots and simply shut down the paint, but Butler was just hopeless on offense.
Its most inspirational player, senior Matt Howard, was 1-for-13. Its best player, Shelvin Mack, was 4-for-15. Center Andrew Smith was 2-for-9 despite taking all of his shots within 5 feet of the basket. Guard Shawn Vanzant was 2-for-10. The bench didn't make a single field goal.
As the minutes went by and the missed shots multiplied, it actually became painful to watch. When the Dogs finally ended a 6-minute, 19-second scoring drought in the second half, the crowd roared with what sounded like relief from the agony of watching good kids play horrible basketball.
"Without question, 41 points and 12-of-64 is not good enough to win any game," Butler coach Brad Stevens said, "let alone the national championship game."
Former UCLA great Bill Walton, sitting courtside, once scored 44 points in the championship game. He outscored the Bulldogs by three.
To cap this black-eye evening, we got to watch a coach on probation accept the national championship trophy from an athletic director under investigation. UConn's Jim Calhoun, who was sanctioned by the NCAA in February for violations in his program, took the hardware from Ohio State AD and Division I Men's Basketball Committee chairman Gene Smith, who now will return to Columbus to deal with the brewing scandal in his football program.
I'm sure NCAA president Mark Emmert was thrilled to share the stage with those two as the confetti rained down.
Bottom line: This is a flawed sport at the moment, in terms of both rules compliance and quality of play. There are no great teams, and not enough clean programs.
But you won't find Calhoun apologizing for any of it -- not the ugliness of this game or the stain of winning it all while on probation. Apparently capturing a third national title not only moves the lifelong fighter into truly elite all-time company, it also allows him to revise history.
"I took full responsibility for secondary offenses that took place in my program," Calhoun said, reducing major violations to secondary offenses.
NCAA enforcement will be surprised to learn of that downgrade.
Despite the ethical squishiness of this situation, it's impossible not to admire what these UConn players pulled off. They're now the greatest tournament team ever, going 14-0 in winning the Maui Invitational, Big East tourney and Big Dance. They rode charismatic guard Kemba Walker as far as he could go -- and when he finally wore down here in Houston, making just 11 of 34 shots in two games, they sucked it up and won with defense.
Calhoun said in an effort to camouflage his team's youth-related shortcomings, he hammered home the importance of stopping the other team.
"Down the stretch [of the season], we would literally take 50 percent of practice on nothing but defense," Calhoun said. " That's much more than almost any other team I've done."
It paid off emphatically against a Butler team that guarded tenaciously in its own right, getting enough stops to hang around until its offense broke down completely in the second half. Calhoun credited the setup in Reliant Stadium but opined that the vast shooting background and tight new rims increase the odds of ugly offensive games.
"You need to understand that defense is going to really take you and hold you in any game 'til your offense gets going," he said. "I think that's what happened tonight."
The end result was viewer-friendly only to UConn fans. They'll unapologetically accept their third national title in the past 12 years, an accomplishment that moves Calhoun into truly rare coaching company.
At age 68, he is the oldest coach to win a title and one of just five to win at least three. The others are John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. Giant names in the history of the sport.
"It's very sweet," Calhoun said. "I have no bitterness towards anybody. I don't. You can write what you want; you can say what you want to say. I know who I am, where I'm going and what I've done."
Calhoun said he loved seeing so many former players in the crowd Monday -- Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon and Hasheem Thabeet and Charlie Villanueva and many more. When the game was over and it was time for the trophy presentation, they all came out of the stands and onto the court.
Lacking credentials, they were asked to leave by NCAA security personnel. At first they refused, then finally relented.
It was just one more uneasy moment of NCAA-UConn relations on a night only a Husky could love.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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