One of the wildest and most unpredictable NCAA tournaments in recent memory is now over, and at the end -- the very end -- normalcy reasserted itself with a vengeance.
This was the most improbable Final Four of the modern era, but over the season's final three games the brackets went according to form. (Such as that form was.) In Houston the higher seed won every game.
(3) Connecticut 53, (8) Butler 41 [57 possessions]
Resist the low-hanging interpretative fruit:
1. Seasons can end ugly. There have been multi-year stretches where each Super Bowl seems more boring and uncompetitive than the last. A World Series can be decided in four games every now and then. And a national championship game can be won by a team that scores 0.94 points per possession (which was an improvement over their performance in the national semifinal, by the way). It does happen, and we like sports because we don't know what will happen. Ceding that sovereignty means sometimes we'll get a 2010 national championship game, and sometimes we'll get a 2011 national championship game. That's the deal we've accepted.
2. There were great teams this year -- Ohio State and Kansas qualify -- but it just so happens that the great teams lost. Again, it does happen, and I thought we knew it does. (What's the point of all those endless "greatest teams not to win the title" disputes if great teams always win?) If you don't think there were great teams at loose and abroad on our sport's landscape this season, we haven't been doing our job here at Prospectus.
3. Many writers will love a visual like Ohio State athletic director and NCAA men's basketball committee chair Gene Smith handing the championship trophy to Jim Calhoun. A tableau like that -- confetti and investigations! -- gives said writers the opportunity to look knowing and bemused. There's nothing wrong with being knowing and bemused, of course, just as there's nothing wrong with applying distinctions between two fairly deep shades of gray. Such as the difference between a coach whose program placed too many calls and sent too many texts and paid too many tuition and medical bills for a recruit who never played a minute, versus an athletic director whose football coach is accused of concealing the truth about several star football players who otherwise would have been ineligible but instead appeared in every game. Before last night's trophy presentation we knew that college basketball and college football share an imposed philosophical incoherence in common. We still know it, and we'd know it if the trophy had been handed to Brad Stevens by Ned Flanders.
In any other year, the ninth-place team from the Big East would have been a decided underdog in the championship game. In their previous two games Connecticut had watched threes attempted by the other team in the closing seconds -- threes that, at best, would have cost them their lead (Kentucky) and, at worst, would have cost them their survival (Arizona). But neither shot fell, and the Huskies found themselves transformed overnight from improbable team of destiny to odds-on favorite.
Last night the script changed, just like Butler had talked about but not at all in the way they hoped. The Bulldogs thought they would write a new ending this time, but, just like last year, the higher seed won. What was new about this script was that the Bulldogs found themselves in a game that was not all that close, for once. Meanwhile an opponent that had been getting the job done for nine postseason games with offense arrived in Houston and suddenly switched over to dominance on defense.
And here the Huskies clearly had help. You don't hold an opponent to 41 points in a 57-possession game without two things happening: you have to play incredible D, and the opponent has to be perfectly awful on offense. Both conditions held last night. Watching the Bulldogs take the ball past mid-court against this defense in the second half last night was a little like watching your kid's team playing an opponent in the wrong age class. (And CBS kept showing Matt Howard's increasingly grim parents in the stands to reinforce the parallel.) In theory a 12-point margin of victory reflects a relatively competitive contest. Tell that to anyone who saw the last 20 minutes of this game.
I can't help but feel that this Connecticut team is somewhat misunderstood. My colleague Ken Pomeroy put it well yesterday: Forget Kemba Walker. I don't mean that literally, of course. The Huskies don't win the national championship without him. Then again they don't win it without Jeremy Lamb, either, and it's not Walker's fault the talk-to-reality ratio in his case has been unusually out of whack the last few weeks. UConn won a game with ease last night where Walker went 5-of-19 from the field.
Too many comparisons were made this year between Walker and Jimmer Fredette. Their two situations were incomparable. If Fredette had a teammate who could make 56 percent of his twos and 52 percent of his threes while taking 23 percent of the offense's shots during his minutes (Lamb's postseason numbers), the Naismith Award winner would have made it much further than the Sweet 16. Over the course of Connecticut's 11-game postseason Lamb shot better on his threes than Walker did on his twos.
Commentators who took to the airwaves at every halftime and said it was time for Walker to "step up" and "take over" didn't really understand the UConn miracle. The miracle didn't arrive via the medium of Kemba Walker shooting from the field. It arrived thanks to Walker getting to the line and creating for his teammates, Alex Oriakhi crashing the offensive glass, Lamb draining shots from everywhere on the floor, and, of course, absolutely brutal defense over the last two games in Houston. Don't blame Butler alone for last night's ugliness. Kentucky didn't do a whole lot better against this D.
This tournament seemed different -- ask the No. 1 seeds -- but, really, this is the way the brackets work every year. Teams that look like they have unbelievable momentum are required to keep playing until, in all instances but one, we learn that the momentum was perishable. As amazing as VCU looked in winning five games, they were made to look normal by Butler. And as solid as the Bulldogs looked in once again toppling a series of higher-seeded opponents to reach the national championship game, they were made to look overmatched by UConn.
And yet maybe this year really was different. Last night Connecticut beat Butler. On Saturday the Bulldogs beat Virginia Commonwealth. Last weekend the Rams beat Kansas. In the Sweet 16 the Jayhawks beat Richmond. In the round of 32, the Spiders beat Morehead State. And in their first game in the tournament, the Eagles beat Louisville. In bracket theory this means the national champions are a world apart from the Cardinals. In fact those two teams played on a neutral floor 25 days ago, and the game came down to the final possession.
It was that kind of a tournament, one that comes along but once in a while. Connecticut wasn't even ranked in the top 25 in the preseason. They were an underdog, one that had to beat a fellow underdog in the final game. Last year they were an NIT team, and coming into this season they had said goodbye to three starters. The reality is that some championship games are harder to watch than others, of course, but the larger reality is that what Connecticut has just done is amazing.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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