Championship Monday Preview

UCONN (-3.5) Gets the money and the Under (128.5)
as they beat Butler 53-41

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR WHEN
BUTLER BATTLES UCONN FOR ALL THE MARBLES ...
PLUS OUR EXTENSIVE TOURNEY COVERAGE INCLUDES
THE ANNUAL 10-YEAR LOOK BACK AT PAST TITLE GAMES

Maybe it's only fitting that we've come down to this matchup -- it's Butler versus Connecticut with the winner cutting down the nets sometime shortly before midnight come Monday evening: The Butler Bulldogs, after all, now have come to represent the mid-major powers of the College Basketball World and make no doubt about it that this Horizon League club is a superpower as this marks the team's second straight trip into the NCAA Tournament Championship Game.

On the flip side, there's the Connecticut Huskies who started winning back on March 8th -- remember that otherwise non-descript 97-61 rollover win against DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament? -- and haven't stopped winning since with 11 consecutive elimination game triumphs in the past 24 days ... simply incredible!

When this whole 2011 NCAA Tournament began there were 32 mid-major teams in the “Big Dance” and 36 power conference teams -- again, we wanted a dead-even split at 34 apiece, but that's okay -- and no question that the “little guys” more than held their own with both Butler and VCU getting into the famed Final Four while the likes of Richmond (two tourney wins), Morehead State, Gonzaga and George Mason all struck up at least one winning pose in this one-and-done tourney.

Still, it could well be the Big East -- the conference that sent a record 11 teams into this 68-team NCAA Tournament field -- that walks away with a national crown after all the dust settles and, as you can see in our accompanying chart below, it would mark the league's first national championship since Syracuse (2003) and Connecticut (2004) went back-to-back and belly-to-belly all those years ago.

We'll dig into the Final Four games that were played this past weekend and get you an in-depth preview of the NCAA Tournament National Championship Game too in this edition of Jim Sez -- but first this important reminder: Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers get you the NCAA Championship Game Winners -- that's both the Side & the Totals -- when you check in anytime after 1 p.m. ET on game day and don't forget there's a ton of Major-League Baseball and NBA games all week long. Check in after 11 a.m. ET on weekdays for all the afternoon Baseball action and after 1 p.m. Monday-thru-Friday for all the night action in the NBA and MLB and be back with us on weekends anytime after 10 a.m. ET. Don't just stop now that we've reached College Basketball's finest hour -- go ahead and keep piling up all those profits right through the spring time with a reminder that the NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday, April 16th.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES, 2001-2010

Here's a look at the last 10 NCAA Tournament Championship Games: Take note that Betting Favorites are a nifty 7-3 ATS (against the spread) in these past 10 title tilts although Butler did “get the cash” in last year's ultra-tight 61-59 Duke win as hefty 7-point favorites. Also, note that we have not had a championship team from outside the “super six” leagues during this 10-year time span with the ACC garnering half of the last 10 championships (including a pair apiece for Duke and North Carolina and one for Maryland) while the SEC's won a pair (both by Florida), the Big East has two and the Big 12 copped the 2008 title thanks to that overtime win by Kansas.

2010 Duke - 7 Butler 61-59
2009 North Carolina - 7.5 Michigan State 89-72
2008 Kansas + 2 Memphis 75-68 (OT)
2007 Florida - 4 Ohio State 84-75
2006 Florida - 1 UCLA 73-57
2005 North Carolina - 2 Illinois 75-70
2004 Connecticut - 5 Georgia Tech 82-73
2003 Syracuse + 5.5 Kansas 81-78
2002 Maryland - 7.5 Indiana 64-52
2001 Duke - 4 Arizona 82-72

Now, here's a quick look back at this past Saturday's Final Four games:

BUTLER 70, VCU 62 -- So here's the real $64,000 question ... how does a team march its way to a Championship Game when shooting a dreary 35.6 percent from the field in the national semifinal tilt? The answer: They put an even bigger squeeze on the opponent's offensive attack.

Okay, so Virginia Commonwealth (28-12) wound up shooting a tad better than that -- 39.7 percent on 23-of-58 FG shooting -- but save for an 11-0 flurry early in the game that put the Rams up 15-7 (and thus sparked a change in strategy from Butler's brainy head coach Brad Stevens) and a 7-0 run early in the second half, VCU never really did play with any consistency on offense and you can blame that on a bunch of dogged Bulldogs.

Note that Butler (28-9) absolutely dominated the backboards 46-to-30 and -- as we warned you all last week while providing game previews of the Final Four -- the Bulldogs were stout on the offensive glass with 15 offensive caroms and once again there was F Matt Howard scoring a key last-minute hoop off an offensive rebound/put-back ... now tell us you didn't see that happen 50 times already in this tourney!

Offensively, the Butler win was headlined by do-it-all veteran G Shelvin Mack (team-high 24 points on 8-of-11 FG shooting) who drained a pair of triples and hit another conventional two-point hoop midway into second-half action that provided some separation (see 52-45 Butler lead) but it all really came back to defense, those offensive boards and the ability to close down VCU's three-point shooters who had carried Shaka Smart's right through March but nailed just 8-of- 22 triple tries in the semis ... game, set, match!

CONNECTICUT 56, KENTUCKY 55 -- Can you say exhausted?
Sorry, we don't necessarily have the answer here but both Connecticut (31-9) and Kentucky (29-9) were clearly pooped throughout much of this national semifinal tilt and it really dragged down the overall play -- or didn't you notice all those Kentucky jumper hitting the front rim or those UConn three-point tries (the Huskies were a dreadful 1-of-12 from beyond the arc) that never quite reached its destination. The game went Under by 29 points, a win the Hurley Network cashed in on.

If you're looking for hard-and-fast reasons why Jim Calhoun's club nosed out the UK Wildcats than you naturally begin-and-end with G Kemba Walker who finished with a modest game-high 18 points on just 6-of-15 FG shooting but a rainbow jumper that stopped the bleeding in the second half was key and so were Walker's game-best 7 assists as he deferred to the likes of freshman Jeremy Lamb (12 points) at times. Save for two rotten passes very late in the game there was Walker again astutely leading the Huskies as he's done right through this post-season that began with the lopsided win against DePaul in the Big East Tournament.

If Walker at times appeared gassed in this national semifinal win, than how would you describe Kentucky's freshman G Brandon Knight who clanged 17 of his 23 FG attempts that included a shabby 3-of-11 night from the three-point land. Knight forced up a slew of ill-advised shots and never was quite as ever as his stat line suggested: 17 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists but a truly flat performance helped to sink John Calipari's club who -- save for a great burst out of the second- half starting gate -- truly looked like it suffered from a case of stage fright.

P.S., we absolutely disdained Calipari's late-game strategies here that included having DeAndre Liggins (1-of-7 FGs for 4 points) fire up a three-point shot late in an attempt to win the game instead of getting a potential game-tying two-point shot from in close plus Calipari should have extended the game once UConn had the ball and a 54-52 lead with 42 seconds left. Kentucky got the ball back with 17 seconds left thanks to a turnover by Connecticut G Shabazz Napier but the ‘Cats wasted precious clock in the meantime -- awful coaching by Calipari who might be showing some folks why he hasn't won a title despite three different trips to the Final Four (with UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 prior to this appearance).

NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW
At Reliant Stadium -- Houston, TX
#8 BUTLER (28-9) vs. #3 CONNECTICUT (31-9) -- 9:23 p.m. ET, CBS

All eyes will be on the all-important guards here with UConn's Walker the unabashed star of this show going in while Butler's Mack has not exactly been a shrinking violet in this tourney but let's face facts -- this could be your basic “wash” with Bulldogs' Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant ready/willing/able to step up to the plate and make some big plays but that's the key: Butler's “supporting cast” players must make major contributions here while the UConn Huskies can survive/thrive even if it's just Walker and star frosh Lamb getting the majority of the points.

If Butler boss-man Brad Stevens wants to throw a proverbial curveball at the Huskies here than he could rotate a handful of players on Walker and attempt to wear him down so he won't have so much energy in his tank late in a close game -- keep in mind that Calhoun truly can't afford to keep Walker off the floor at all here and so exhaustion -- the buzz word of this tourney, folks -- could be the key here for upset-minded Butler.

No doubt that Butler -- especially aforementioned forward Howard -- has scored a boatload of points in this tourney on offensive rebound put-backs but that could be what sends Connecticut into the national championship winner's circle here -- center Alex Oriakhi already has one monster offensive board and assist in this tournament (see key play and pass out to Lamb for a dagger jumper to beat San Diego State in the Sweet 16) and it says here that if Oriakhi gets 3-or-more offensive boards here it could suck the life from a Butler team that ranks among the best defensive rebounding teams in the land.

Memo to Butler here: Have Howard and Company “draw out” Oriakhi to the top of the foul line and make him guard away from the basket or risk the UConn big man snagging double-digit rebs altogether here.

THE X FACTOR -- Simply put, it's the mental toughness factor. Connecticut has shown major grit in winning practical “road games” against San Diego State and Arizona and on both occasions the Huskies could have folded their tents late but didn't do so while Butler may be -- and we are not kidding -- might be the most mentally tough team in all of college sports the past 10 years. Keep in mind that the Bulldogs are back here in a national title tilt one year after losing NBA lottery pick Gordan Hayward and that's merely amazing stuff.

Who cracks under the pressure late? Heck, maybe neither one of ‘em.

Current Las Vegas Line: Connecticut (- 3.5) over Butler

Now here's what Butler and Connecticut have done so far in this year's NCAA Tournament

BUTLER

Old Dominion -1.5 Butler 60-58
Pittsburgh - 8 Butler 71-70
Wisconsin - 4.5 Butler 61-54
Florida - 3.5 Butler 74-71 (OT)
Butler - 3.5 VCU 70-62

CONNECTICUT

Connecticut - 10 Bucknell 81-52
Connecticut - 4 Cincinnati 69-58
San Diego State - 2 Connecticut 74-67
Connecticut - 3.5 Arizona 65-63
Kentucky - 2.5 Connecticut 56-55

NOTE: Catch our Mid-Week Sports Potpourri in the next Jim Sez and remember that we'll start bringing you our NFL Draft '09 updates in the coming days.

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