Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jim Calhoun Wins, Butler Loses

By Brad Oremland

Greg Norman. Jana Novotna. Jean Van de Velde. What happened to Butler in the second half?

When you talk about last night's national championship game between the Connecticut Huskies and Butler Bulldogs, you have to start with the loser. The numbers are staggering. Their 18.8% field goal percentage was the lowest in championship history. Their 41 points were the fewest in a tournament final since 1949. They made 12 field goals and had 10 shots blocked. They were 3-for-31 inside the arc.

The shooting was poor all game, and not just by the Bulldogs — UConn's 53 points were the fewest by a champion since 1949. Butler actually went into halftime with a 22-19 lead, and sunk a three-pointer to open the second half: 25-19, Cinderella City. Then two things happened: (1) Connecticut started scoring, not a lot, but more than either team had to that point, and (2) Butler stopped making shots. At all.

12-of-64. That's 12 baskets, 52 misses. Fifty-two. That includes decent three-point shooting, 9-of-33, 27.3%. That's not good, but it's not terrible — a reasonable percentage against a good defensive team like UConn. But subtract 9-of-33 from 12-of-64 (52 misses) and you're left with 3-for-31 on two-pointers. That's 9.7%. I mean, holy crap. How does a college team shoot that badly? 9.7%, that's bad for a kid's rec league team. I was shooting 9.7%, guarded, from the time I was 6 years old.

I hate to single out one player, because these are young guys who I'm sure were doing their best, and who probably are crushed now at how close they came to the ultimate Cinderella story. I hate to single out one player, because the loss wasn't any one guy's fault. I mean, 12-of-64, you don't do that by yourself. I hate to single out one player, because the more I dwell on Butler's mistakes, the more I'm taking away from a fine Connecticut team, the new national champions.

Matt Howard, who is a serious NBA prospect, was a disaster in the second half. He was 1-of-13 from the field, 12 of those 52 misses by himself, more than any other Butler player. Malcolm Gladwell, in his superb essay on choking, describes the phenomenon as something akin to over-thinking. You realize you've missed your last 6 shots, or whatever, and you start thinking about the mechanics of shooting, doing it the way you did as a kid, step-by-step, rather than a fluid whole. That's what Butler's second half looked like to me. During a 14-minute span in which the team made only one field goal, it looked like the players were thinking too much on offense. It looked to me like Butler got psyched out and stopped playing on instinct.

Of course, Connecticut's defense played a role, too. Butler had a hell of a time getting open, especially from close range, and the three-pointers were probably the only shots falling because those were the only shots the Huskies were giving them. I thought the CBS announcing team did a fine job, except that UConn's defense didn't get quite as much credit as it probably deserved. What a performance.

Freshman Jeremy Lamb played a nice second half to help spark the UConn comeback and victory, but the man of the hour is Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun, who became just the fifth person to win three NCAA men's basketball championships, joining immortals John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, and Bobby Knight. Calhoun, who is 68, also became the oldest head coach ever to lead his team to the championship. Told by Jim Nantz that he had broken the record, Calhoun joked of the previous record-holder, "Phog Allen's just a baby."

This was Calhoun's third title, all in the last 12 seasons, and with a group of young men he made clear are special to him. Calhoun even suggested that the victory might be the happiest moment in all of those 68 years. Even if you were mesmerized by Butler's underdog story, it's easy to feel happy for Coach Calhoun. One presumes that his halftime adjustments helped spark the team's offense in the second half, with baseline screens looking like a deliberate strategy, and an effective one.

When people remember this game, years from now, it will be about Calhoun winning with a young team, and Butler's offensive struggles. I've invoked choking terminology, an accusation I think is often leveled unfairly, to describe the latter. I don't think the situation was "too big" for Butler. The Bulldogs came ready to play, and for the first half, they did. But these things can snowball, and that's what it looked like in the second half. A few tough offensive possessions, a couple bad shots, airtight defense, and next thing you know, 12-of-64. In its own way, a truly remarkable game, and a fitting end to a crazy tournament.

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