Commentary

Butler's championship game plan

Originally Published: April 3, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

For the second straight year, as the national title game tips off, Butler coach Brad Stevens will find himself sharing a sideline with a living legend.

In 2010, that coach was Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. In 2011, that coach is Connecticut's Jim Calhoun.

[+] EnlargeShelvin Mack, Brad Stevens
AP Photo/Eric GayLightning struck twice for Butler's Brad Stevens, who finds himself facing off against a Hall of Fame coach for the title for the second straight year.

Last year, it was fair to ask whether Stevens -- a three-year head coaching veteran and one-time pharmaceutical sales representative whose baby face accentuated his youthfulness -- was capable of scheming alongside one of the game's premier figures. That question is no longer applicable. Stevens isn't considered merely one of the best young coaches in the game. Simply put -- no modifier required -- he's one of the best coaches in college hoops, and his reputation for preparedness, for giving his teams simple but ruthlessly accurate game plans, is among the most lauded in the sport.

So, how will Stevens, two-time March master, prepare his team for Connecticut? As he said Sunday, he's "not in the business of giving advice to people we're trying to beat." In other words, he knows. We're just guessing. That's why he's Brad Stevens and we're not.

Still, let's take that educated guess. Here's a look at what Stevens might be telling his team in advance of Monday night's title-game matchup with the Connecticut Huskies.

Offensive game plan: There's a sneaky truth about this season's Butler team, one overshadowed by the team's long-standing reputation -- forged in the NCAA tournament last year, and with good reason -- as a defensive stalwart. That truth? The 2011 Butler Bulldogs are really an offensive team.

This was true throughout the season. When Butler struggled in late January and early February, it was because the Bulldogs' defense -- which famously held its five pre-Duke opponents in the 2010 NCAA tournament to less than 60 points (and Duke scored only 61) -- had fallen off a rather steep, surprising cliff. Butler has made huge strides since then, and Stevens' defensive game plan against a red-hot VCU team was a thing to behold in the national semifinals. But as ESPN Insider's John Gasaway wrote Sunday, the Bulldogs owe their 2011 run as much to their consistently efficient offense. Butler's defense has been good, but sporadic. Its offense, on the other hand, has just been plain good.

In other words, the common angle you've heard all about already (how does Butler's defense stop Kemba Walker?) is only part of the story. After all, Butler will need to slow down Walker and Jeremy Lamb and the rest of Connecticut's high-powered scoring attack. But it will be just as crucial -- maybe even more so -- that Butler brings its offense and matches the Huskies possession for possession on the offensive end.

[+] EnlargeZach Hahn
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImageZach Hahn provided Butler with an offensive boost against VCU; the Bulldogs would like more of the same against UConn.

That means Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard have to be big. It means Butler's array of complementary players -- Shawn Vanzant, Chase Stigall, Zach Hahn -- has to drain the open looks it'll find when Connecticut's defense collapses on the Butler stars. One thing's for sure: Those shots will come. Butler ranks No. 25 in the nation in turnover rate; Connecticut ranks No. 312 in opponents' turnover rate. The Bulldogs are going to have plenty of opportunities for shots, plenty of possessions that won't end until the ball is fired. The quality of those looks -- who they come from, where and when -- could be the difference.

Meanwhile, if you're Stevens, you might consider telling your bigs (Howard, Andrew Smith and athletic freshman Khyle Marshall) to crash the glass. Weirdly enough, though Connecticut is a great offensive rebounding team -- more on that below -- the Huskies rank No. 235 in the nation in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage. In other words, the boards are there. Butler doesn't like to crash the offensive glass -- the Bulldogs prefer to race back on defense and form that famous defensive shell -- but Marshall, Smith and Howard were able to wreak occasional havoc against VCU on the offensive glass, and several of the Bulldogs' biggest buckets came after they scored on putbacks around the rim.

In any case, Butler has to get buckets, however they come. Unlike 2010, for these Bulldogs, simply stopping the other team hasn't been -- and, on Monday night, won't be -- enough.

Defensive game plan: Sure, Butler earned its reputation as a defensive unit in its 2010 runner-up run. But the Bulldogs have maintained that recognition in 2011 for good reason. Butler's thorough Sweet 16 destruction of Wisconsin's hyperefficient offense was a thing to behold, and Saturday's win over VCU came because the Bulldogs understood and executed the simplest of directives from their coach: Get back on defense. Guard shooters. Rebound.

Stevens' scouting ability is revered throughout college basketball, and he began scouting the Huskies the minute he returned to his hotel room Saturday night. What did Stevens see in UConn's offense? It's hard to miss Kemba Walker, the undisputed individual star of this NCAA tournament, who does more for his team -- scoring, ballhandling, facilitating, decoying -- than any other player Butler has played all season. (Walker's usage rate of 28.2 was the highest of any player in the NCAA tournament not named Jimmer Fredette.) The problem is that stopping Walker is nearly impossible. The old SportsCenter cliche -- "you can only hope to contain him" -- applies perfectly to the Huskies and their star.

[+] EnlargeRonald Nored
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRonald Nored will have his hands full defending UConn's array of guards.

This task is made doubly difficult by the continued excellence of guards Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Lamb has become a ruthlessly excellent shooter -- he's scored an insane 2.0 points per possession in spot-up situations in the NCAA tournament, according to Synergy -- and Napier's ability to handle the ball and allow Walker to run defenders off baseline screens has added another dimension to guarding UConn's star that doesn't require him to work for open shots with the ball in his hand. The Huskies still rely on Walker, but the ever-savvy Jim Calhoun has constantly evolved the way Walker gets touches, and opposing defenses can't count on stopping any one look -- say, running a defender at Walker at the top of the key -- as the magic bullet for slowing UConn's offense down.

Throw in Alex Oriakhi's place as one of the nation's best offensive rebounders, and the contributions Connecticut gets around the rim from freshman forward Roscoe Smith, and, well, yeah: This team is plenty of Kemba, but it's also much, much more than that.

If that sounds unstoppable, well, there's a reason Connecticut is playing for a national title Monday. But Butler does have one thing most teams don't: guard Ronald Nored, who -- when healthy, as he is now -- is one of the nation's premier perimeter defenders. Nored won't be able to stop Kemba single-handedly. Frankly, no one can. But few players are as dually capable of stopping penetration and chasing shooters around screens as Nored.

More than anything, though, to beat UConn, you have to make Lamb a nonfactor. How do you do that? For one, you don't rotate off him when you try to stop Kemba's penetration. (If there are ways to collapse on penetration without rotating all the way off Lamb, rest assured Stevens will find them.) Two, you have to -- have to -- prevent Lamb from running at the rim. His best offensive possessions come when he takes a step or two into the lane and launches a high floater, or finishes at the rim with his extraordinary wingspan; in March, Lamb has used back cuts, off-ball screens, and dribble penetration as well as any wing player in the nation. Butler has to bump the gangly Lamb relentlessly. It has to make sure every catch is challenged. And once he gets moving toward the rim, the Bulldogs have to collapse fast enough to make him a passer and not a scorer.

And then, the final step of any defense -- but especially one playing against Connecticut -- is rebounding. With Oriakhi in the lineup, this is no easy task. Oriakhi is bigger and stronger than anyone on the Bulldogs' roster, and his ability to push smaller forwards under the rim has been one of the keys to his excellence on the offensive glass all season. Butler doesn't expect to be able to jump with Oriakhi. On Sunday, Howard admitted he wouldn't win any jumping contests with Oriakhi. Instead, Howard said, Butler had to "do its work early": It had to establish position, keep Connecticut on its back, and force Oriakhi to go over the top as much as possible.

As Stevens pointed out, Connecticut isn't just a great offensive rebounding team because it's athletic and big. It's also great because so much attention is focused on Walker, and the Huskies create so much penetration, that opposing defenses get out of place and create lots of opportunities for long rebounds, which the quick Huskies often chase down.

In other words, for Butler, stopping Connecticut is a four-part process:

1. Slow down Kemba, or at the very least make him a jump shooter.
2. Play Lamb physically, challenge his spot-up shots, and force him to give the ball up on penetration.
3. Don't get pulled out of position on penetration.
4. Turn that position into rebounds.

None of those steps can come without the one that preceded it. That's why Connecticut is so difficult to stop. That's why Butler -- with its always-prepared coach and its single-minded, execution-obsessed players -- might be one of the few teams capable of doing so.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.