Rick Pitino tabs Butler to beat UConn
HOUSTON -- Rick Pitino is the only coach in America who has beaten the two teams that will play Monday night for the national title.
His Louisville Cardinals walloped Butler 88-73 way back in mid-November. The Cardinals were 2-1 against Connecticut, beating the Huskies twice in the regular season and losing to them in the Big East tournament championship game.
Who better to ask for a scouting report on the game?
"I think Butler will win the game, and it won't be at the buzzer," Pitino said Sunday, reached by telephone. "It'll be by seven or eight points."
After watching the national semifinals Saturday night, Pitino sees fatigue as the biggest factor in the Bulldogs' favor.
"My observation is that Connecticut's a tired team right now," he said. "I think Kemba [Walker] is worn out. I think Butler is the winner because of it."
Walker made a rare admission of fatigue after the Huskies defeated Kentucky 56-55. It's certainly understandable.
Walker carried UConn through its remarkable five-games-in-five-days Big East tourney run, and has remained the leader as the Huskies have won five more games in the last 16 days.
During this incredible UConn streak, Walker has played 384 of a possible 405 minutes. He has played every minute of the last three games, tight victories over San Diego State, Arizona and Kentucky.
My observation is that Connecticut's a tired team right now. I think Kemba [Walker] is worn out. I think Butler is the winner because of it.
--Louisville coach Rick Pitino
And as UConn coach Jim Calhoun said, it was "a hard 40 minutes" against the Wildcats. Not only was the Kentucky defense intense and physical, but there were long stretches of uninterrupted play in the second half. That delayed the rest afforded by the extra-lengthy NCAA television timeouts.
Butler, by contrast, controlled its semifinal game for the most part against Virginia Commonwealth. As a result, only one Bulldog, guard Shawn Vanzant, played more than 31 minutes.
"I said before the games Saturday, if one of those two teams has an easy game and the other has a war, the winner of the easy game will win the national championship," Pitino said.
He also thought UConn's holding Kentucky to 55 points was more a matter of the Wildcats missing good shots than the Huskies playing great defense.
"I thought Kentucky had wide-open shots in the first half and didn't make any," Pitino said. "You've got to stop the 3-point line against Butler to win the game. Butler has a distinct edge at the 3-point line. One team is a very good 3-point shooting team and one is not."
The Bulldogs shoot more 3s than UConn, and shoot them more accurately. They average 7.6 made 3s per game, and attempts beyond the arc comprise 38 percent of their shots. The Huskies make 5.8 3s per game and attempt just 30 percent of their shots from that range.
Although Pitino's team dominated its matchup with Butler, there were extenuating circumstances. Louisville was opening its brand-new arena with that game, and the traditional program roles were reversed. The Cardinals were unranked, while the Bulldogs had a spot in the top 25 and had been celebrated all offseason for their national runner-up finish in 2010.
"Our guys had a whole offseason of pats on the back," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We thought we were preparing really well and we got
blasted. I think I learned a lot that game about just how hard this target is going to be."
Make no mistake, Louisville took aim at that target.
"They played a good game against us," Pitino said. "It was a matter of us having five weeks to prepare for them."
UConn is a different deal, Pitino said. He estimated that if the Cardinals played the Huskies 30 times this season, his team would have won 20 of them.
There was a time when picking a Butler to beat a UConn for the national title would be considered rash to the point of crazy. That time has passed, Pitino said.
"All this is the norm now," he said. "I was surprised that Ohio State and Kansas didn't get [to the Final Four], but I think this will be the norm every year. It's Russian roulette every year.
"I think it's great. I've always been a big proponent of 96 teams [in the NCAAs] because it would be great to see the Harvards in there. The college game is not about kids staying one or two years. It's part of it, but the majority of the teams are made up of players who are there for four years and for an education. I think a Butler win would be great for college basketball."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.