Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 NCAA Championship Game: Highly Anticipated; Disappointing Showcase

First off, congratulations to the University of Connecticut Huskies for winning the NCAA national title. Their run through the tournament was impressive and they were the team that most deserved to cut down the nets at the end of the championship game.

Butler also deserves credit for another incredible push to get to their second consecutive title game. They have accomplished feats in the past two years that most big programs from power conferences could never even come close to reaching. Brad Stevens should be showered with high praises for those nearly impossible accolades.

With all that said, the actual championship game was a total nightmare and UConn was pretty much handed the trophy.

Clearly, the Final Four match ups prior to the title game suited both the Huskies and Bulldogs. When Connecticut faced off against the Kentucky Wildcats, they went up against an opponent whose talent level rivaled their own. The Butler vs VCU game put two Cinderella teams up against each other lead by brilliant coaching and gutsy, hardworking players who all bought into their team’s goal.

After escaping through their games, the final game was set and manifested itself into a hyped up title fight. Kemba Walker leading his squad, who were non-ranked at the start of the season and not viewed as a championship contender, against Matt Howard and his team, who weren’t even considered as a possible challenger last year let alone this season. The game was viewed as two teams of destiny locking up in an epic battle of talent (UConn) vs scrappy play (Butler).

In the end, all we got was a game that was there for the Bulldogs taking, but their lack of skill ended up making them runners up for the second consecutive year.

Here’s what was learned from the NCAA championship game:

1) 2009’s Butler team wins the 2010 Championship against UConn

As this year’s championship game progressed, coach Stevens must have been wishing badly that Gordon Hayward stayed for another season.

It’s just too bad that 2010 brought upon so much exposure for the team and the young star. With two years of remaining eligibility left, Hayward decided that he did all he could for his Bulldogs and declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft.

In an article in the May 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated, the topic of jumping to the pros came up with his family right after Butler’s loss to Duke for the title. His father chimes in “What else is he going to do? Get Butler all the way back to the final…”

Sadly for Stevens, while the quote sounded ridiculous at the time, it would have made all the difference in the world. Their inability to hit shots became the Achilles heel of the team, with the only cure to remedy the situation currently playing for the Utah Jazz.

Aside from possibly Jeremy Lamb, the Huskies would have had no answer for Hayward and his stroke could have given renewed energy for a team that looked desperate to make a bucket. A few shots going in could have made the biggest difference and swung momentum in their favor.

While Hayward was smart for jumping when his stock was at its highest; surely himself, Coach Stevens, and the Butler community must be wondering what might have been if he answered yes to his father’s rhetorical question.

2) If Stevens Wants To Stop Coming In Second, He Should Jump Ship

If Duke, North Carolina, or Michigan State were to make back-to-back appearances to the NCAA championship, pundits would say that it’s because of the program as well as the coaching. A school with such pedigree and recruitment privileges allows high level talent to recycle in consistently, meaning that they are more likely to make deep runs in the tournament year in and year out.

If a mid-major, or a relatively unknown college, were to make consecutive title runs as Butler did, the reason isn’t squarely because of recruiting or the talent they have, it’s because of their coach.

Stevens is a brilliant mind who brings out the best in each of his players. In each of the past two years, he’s pushed his program to the farthest regions of the tournament because they all buy into what he’s selling. Similar to Shaka Smart at VCU, Coach Stevens can get his guys to believe that winning requires each player to do their part and sacrifice personal desires for the good of the team.

Yet, despite maximizing all the talent and uniting his team to buy into his philosophy, he’ll find himself in the same circle down the road if he sticks in Butler.

The 2010 Duke and 2011 UConn teams illustrated that while having a team that plays well together can go a long way, talent is what ultimately puts you over the edge. Butler will be a program that can hang with the big boys, but it will never be one of them.

So what should Stevens do?

Easy, just head to a bigger program.

It will be understandable if Stevens doesn’t move anywhere and continues to try to build his program into a possible powerhouse. Yet, that may take years and it may only happen with one class of kids he brings in rather than consistent regeneration of talent that goes through the big programs each year.

Joining a new program with big exposure would do wonders for the 34-year-old coach. The idea of gaining All-Americans and a highly touted class would make any team an instant contender with Stevens at the helm. His high basketball IQ and ability to mesh his players into a team would be an unbelievable combo with big-time talent.

Stevens will have time to figure out his future and Butler will always be there for him. Yet, at this juncture in his life, the young coach is at a crossroads: stay on at Butler and take a lengthy period of time to possibly build the program into the second coming of Duke or move onward to a new school and become an instant winner?

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