John Gasaway: Welcome everyone to our annual and always spirited John-Ken discussion in advance of the national championship game!
Ken, before we get down to cases and start discussing Butler yet again (I mean, seriously, they're in a rut -- it seems like we do this every year), why don't we start with a word about this weird tournament. Start here: Least chalky Final Four ever. What's up with that? What, if anything, does this mean for college hoops? Whole new era? Random wackiness? Something in between? Clue us in!
Ken Pomeroy: The simple and most boring explanation is random wackiness. Odds are usually against any particular team reaching the Final Four. It just so happened those odds came true simultaneously on every one and two seed in this tourney. When you look back on Pitt's or Ohio State's exit, it took some bad breaks for them to be defeated. Otherwise, we may have had a normal amount of chalk show up in Houston. That said, there may be specific, more exciting, reasons we got the particular bunch we did. You have any ideas?
John: Yes, I have it on good authority that Jamie Dixon has watched Source Code many times. If he succeeds in going all Jake Gyllenhaal on his recent past, many fewer people will be proclaiming a new dawn of parity. Now, I'll grant that things have indeed leveled a bit. I think there's a growing realization among coaches and recruits alike that it's better to be a part of the best mid-major programs (Butler, Gonzaga, et al.) than it is to be entombed within the worst major-conference ones (uh, I won't name any names here). But even this commonplace can be overstated. Take the idea that these "experienced" mid-majors are beating up on all the poor defenseless NBA-bound freshmen. Hey, if experience alone were enough come March, you and I would be talking about St. John's chances in the national championship game.
Ken: I'll just add that parity is a very difficult thing to judge. What strikes me every year is that you do get a fairly similar group of teams ranked in the preseason top 25, and you also get a similar group of teams predicted to do well within their conference, regardless of its national prestige. This tournament will go a long way to furthering the notion that any team can win it, but I'm not sure the landscape is as crazy as this year's even makes it look.
John: Not to mention people can't seem to decide whether they want parity or not. But, hey, this year they got it! Behold the Big East's ninth-place team vs. the No. 2 seed from the Horizon League tournament. Ken, I'll let you tip this off topically. Either team, any player, either coach, mascots....What you will be watching in this one?
Ken: I want to see how well Butler is able to keep UConn of the offensive glass. Forget about Kemba Walker, the Huskies pretty much need offensive boards to have success offensively. We saw an example of that against Kentucky. Butler was able to keep Pitt off the glass very effectively, and has a nice season-long track record in this department. Will they keep it up against UConn?
John: Good point. If UConn's defense hadn't come to play against UK, they're sitting at home today. I don't think they can win scoring just 0.89 points per trip, like they did against the Cats. I'll go out on a limb here and say, yes, Butler will hold their own on the defensive glass. They've done it all tournament long against some pretty robust offensive rebounding opponents. My question to you is whether the Huskies can keep offensive rebounding maniac Khyle Marshall from doing some damage. Have you been as impressed with his ninja cameos as I've been?
Ken: Marshall was an under-publicized gem on the offensive glass all season, but obviously he's taken it to a new level in the tourney. The secret's out now, and he'll be a popular candidate for a breakout performance next season when he gobbles up some of Matt Howard's minutes. He should do all right against a UConn team that hasn't been effective limiting second chances. The thing I'm unsure about is how well Butler can make them pay. They seem to love to score the three on offensive rebounds. That might be their best offense in this one.
John: Ah, yes. Offensive rebounds leading to threes. We have seen that before from a national champion. But, yeah, Marshall's insane. In the tournament he's rebounding 29 percent of Butler's misses during his (admittedly limited) minutes. Plus the Bulldogs as a team have upped their offensive rebounding significantly over what they did in the tournament last year. That being said, wow, did UConn's D look feisty against Kentucky. Put it this way: Connecticut defending Kentucky looked like Kentucky defending (non-Sullinger) Ohio State. Am I wrong to envision yet another close game here?
Ken: I thought UConn did to Kentucky exactly what a Calhoun defense tries to do to everybody -- force you into tough twos. How many wild heaves did we see from Brandon Knight inside of ten feet? Kentucky fans had to be disappointed with how the Wildcats played into UConn's strength. Low 60s sounds about right for a final score between Butler and the Huskies, but perhaps more due to pace than offensive ineffectiveness. I can't imagine much in the way of transition points here. But if either team has its way on the offensive boards, we could see efficiencies well above a point per possession.
John: Agree completely. Jeremy Lamb and Shelvin Mack are both shooting too well from outside to be stopped now. Matt Howard is drawing fouls with almost Kemba-like frequency. And while he may be no Marshall, Alex Oriakhi's been known to get to an offensive board or two. Even if the game comes in at less than 60 possessions, there should be some points scored. Anything else we need to address before we indulge in "What if UConn wins" and "What if Butler wins"?
Ken: Nope, let's dive in, though I prefer to rephrase your question as "Is Tyler Olander about to become the least used starter on a national champion?"
John: Um, Lance Thomas? No, wait, you're right. Olander makes Thomas look like Jimmer. I will say I find it interesting that people are trying to portray UConn as a big bad power-conference favorite in this game. I mean, it's possible they'll wipe the floor with Butler. Anything can happen. But both of these teams did play Pitt on a neutral floor in the past three weeks and both of those games came down to the last possession. So I see irony all around. If UConn wins it will render all those "What the heck happened to the Big East" pieces from two weeks ago a little more antique-looking. By the same token if Butler wins, all those "What if Hayward's shot had gone in?" pieces need an update. Guess what? We get to find out "what if"! I just want to know if Brad Stevens will still do the Foreword for our book if he's Mr. Big Shot National Championship Coach.
Ken: My understanding is that we have a better chance of snagging Stevens for a second time than we do of getting Jim Calhoun to return our calls. I'm really hoping we can ignore the ramifications of the outcome of this game on conference reputation. I mean, what will it say if the No. 2 seed from the Horizon tournament wins it? Where's the outrage for Milwaukee not getting an at-large bid?
John: Pretty sure Coach Calhoun's been meaning to call me. Coach, if you're reading this, that blimp above Reliant Stadium has my number on it. Look for it. Anyway, I know some YSU Penguins who'll be pulling for Butler. In Youngstown the "We Beat the National Champions" t-shirts are ready to roll.
Ken: Ah yes, if Butler wins, let the debate begin -- does 2011 Youngstown State beat 2000 Wright State for honors of the worst team to beat the national champ? Let's wrap this up. Unfortunately, I have no incriminating e-mails to reveal this season.
John: Oh, last thing. Thank you, CBS, for taking up my suggestion on the three announcers. Also appreciate the two-point shooting graphics. Well done! And, Ken, thanks for the time. Keep searching for those incriminating emails. Meantime enjoy the last 40 minutes of what's been a wild season.
Ken: Will do. See you back here in 365 days.
John: When we'll be right back here at the old stand, folks, no doubt for "Back and Forth: Butler vs. NJIT." ("John: I feel strongly that this was an aberrant occurrence that does not reflect any larger trend!") Until then, good night, and good hoops!
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.