UConn's championship game plan
First things first: Jim Calhoun has been masterful this season.
It's hard to coach as well as Calhoun has coached these Huskies and not receive the requisite credit. It's especially hard to do so when you're the legendary coach of a marquee program that's less a basketball team than a national brand. But when you spend most of the season embroiled in an ongoing NCAA investigation -- and receive a future three-game suspension from the NCAA in late February -- your on-court performance tends to get lost in the fray.
No more. You can't lead a team this inexperienced and unheralded to the brink of your third national championship without causing everyone to reflect on why you own those two national championships in the first place. Calhoun may not be the most popular coach in America -- he certainly seems to thrive off his confrontational style -- but you'd be an idiot to argue he's not one of its best.
The man with 854 career wins needs just one more to join a group of college hoops' all-time elite -- John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight -- as the only coaches to win three or more national titles.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this title would be Calhoun's most hard-won. These Huskies are not a vintage UConn machine. They aren't nearly as talented as many of Calhoun's tournament misses. But the coach's fiery competitive spirit and his ability to forge a bona fide team from the star-plus-pieces group he saw in November have him on the precipice of history all the same.
How does Calhoun get just one more? How does he develop a game plan for the always-prepared, all-for-one Butler Bulldogs? Read below to find out.
Offensive game plan: It's strange to say, but Calhoun's offensive game plan doesn't have to be very complicated. It doesn't have to be revelatory. Unlike Butler coach Brad Stevens -- who has drawn deserving praise for his intelligent scouting and applied game-planning throughout the NCAA tournament -- it doesn't have to speak to some outsized coaching brilliance.
Connecticut is the more talented team. It features the best player in the NCAA tournament, an unstoppable offensive force named Kemba Walker (perhaps you've heard of him), and a slew of complementary players who have developed into key contributors throughout the most important and pressure-packed stage of the season. In many ways, Calhoun's offensive game plan was figured out months ago. Connecticut just has to keep doing what it does.
Unlike Butler, UConn doesn't have to adjust to its opponent. On the offensive end, at least, it has the advantage. The Huskies can act. It's up to Butler to react.
What does that mean? It means Kemba Walker has to continue to be Kemba Walker: versatile, efficient, brilliant, capable of knifing his way to the rim for buckets, capable of pushing the ball for easy shots in transition, capable of scoring on anyone in the country in a one-on-one situation, capable of playing off the ball and finding open shots in UConn's screen sets. Walker has done all that and more throughout Connecticut's 10-0 run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. He's one of the few players for whom the term "unstoppable" is not an overstatement.
That said, Connecticut is stoppable. We saw this in the middle of the Big East season when Walker hit a rut that turned him into an inefficient scorer, when his young teammates had still not developed into the excellent complementary scorers they now are. Walker hasn't had too many inefficient games since. The difference? When Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier are making shots at a consistent rate, and Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith are cleaning up the offensive glass, extending possessions and getting easy putback buckets, Walker doesn't have to be perfect. He can be merely human. Connecticut can still win.
The development of Lamb has been especially enjoyable to watch, because he's one of those rare players -- gangly, undeveloped, slightly awkward -- whose current excellence only hints at the massive iceberg of talent that lurks just below the surface. College basketball fans have been treated to a full underwater view this postseason, and the view has been thrilling: Lamb sinking spot-up 3s from range, Lamb using cuts to finish with verve at the rim, Lamb penetrating gaps and swishing ostentatious little floaters. Calhoun has done his best coaching job with Lamb -- recognizing that the freshman is at his best when he's cutting to the rim -- and has designed a handful of sets accordingly.
That recognition by Calhoun made UConn's offense a whole rather than merely the sum of a few excellent parts. Walker still commands an opposing defense's sole focus, but teams can't simply run defenders at him: Not only is he too quick, but now Lamb -- who has been ruthlessly efficient as a spot-up shooter in the NCAA tournament -- is always lurking on the wing, ready to make opponents pay. And when the Huskies do miss, more often than not, Oriakhi's constant presence around the rim earns them second and third opportunities.
Butler will no doubt come ready to stanch this dynamic. It will have plenty of trickiness devised to make life difficult for Walker (including guard Ronald Nored, who is likely to hound him for all of 40 minutes). Brad Stevens will recognize that Lamb is great when he's going to the rim, that the Huskies are a terrific offensive rebounding team, and he'll coach his guys to "do their work early" -- to bump Lamb and Roscoe Smith on cuts to the rim, to establish defensive position as shots go up, to prevent Walker from making clean catches when he plays off the ball -- and Calhoun may have to make in-game adjustments accordingly.
Coming in to the game, though, Calhoun is at an advantage. He has the nation's best player. His team is bigger, stronger, more talented. It's Butler that will have to adjust, Butler that will have to scheme and Butler that will have to find ways to make life difficult for the Huskies on the offensive end -- not the other way around.
Defensive game plan: That's not the case when Butler has the ball. The Bulldogs are an excellent offensive team, one that thrives on the silky outside combo guard play of Shelvin Mack and the hyperactive, versatile high-low post combinations of Matt Howard. Butler surrounds those two stars with long-range specialists (Chase Stigall, Zach Hahn), high-energy big men (Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall) and perimeter stalwarts (Nored, Shawn Vanzant). No one in this group is an overwhelming talent, but the Bulldogs are smart and unselfish, and they're happy to play off of Mack and Howard until the moment calls for a contribution.
The key, then, is stopping Mack, whose efficient perimeter scoring has been the biggest and most consistent offensive factor in Butler's run to the Final Four. There is good news for UConn here: The Huskies' perimeter guarding is its best defensive feature. Their length typically makes life difficult for opposing shooters, and that might end up being the case with Mack, a compact player who gets much of his offense from high ball screens and doesn't have the singular athletic ability to create separation (like, say, Kemba Walker).
Mack has gotten most of his offense this tournament from screen-and-roll situations. If Calhoun uses Synergy Sports Technologies data, he'll know that Mack scores 1.02 points per possession from pick-and-roll situations. He'll also know that number just gets higher if only one defender commits after the ball screen; Mack scores 1.08 points per possession on those plays. But when the defense commits and hedges high, Mack's PPP plummets to 0.94. He becomes, as Synergy describes it, "below average."
The problem with committing to Mack on a high screen is the possibility of leaving Howard, an efficient outside shooter, open from range. But Connecticut's advantage lies in its athleticism and length, and the Huskies should be able to hedge high screens and still be able to get to Howard in time to put a hand in his face.
The Mack-Howard pick-and-roll dynamic isn't the only way Butler scores, but it is the best way Mack, the offensive star of this team in recent weeks, gets many of his points. If UConn can stop him -- or at least pressure his shot attempts well enough -- the Huskies can disable a huge portion of Butler's attack and force the rest of these team-oriented Bulldogs to pick up the slack.
Stopping Butler's offense is much easier said than done. But so is taking this team -- a young, unheralded, surprising bunch -- to the precipice of a national title. In other words, "easier said than done" is right in Jim Calhoun's wheelhouse.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
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