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Point/counterpoint: Which team will win the men’s basketball national title?

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Butler

Against all odds, the Butler Bulldogs are back in the Final Four.

And this year, the ending will be different.

Riding a stout defense and the production of senior Matt Howard and junior Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs have earned their way back to the grandest stage of college basketball. Butler’s defense will cause problems for Virginia Commonwealth and either Connecticut or Kentucky. Add in veterans who have Final Four experience from their 2010 run, and you have the formula for Butler to become the first non-BCS conference school to win the national title since Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990.

Entering the national semifinals, no team is hotter than Butler. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs are on a 13-game winning streak, going undefeated since a loss to lowly Youngstown State on Feb. 3. Butler’s 34-year-old head coach, Brad Stevens, has galvanized the Bulldogs to make a run to the Final Four, and they have responded. Under the leadership of the youthful coach, the Bulldogs are definitely capable of hoisting the trophy following the title game on April 4.

The Bulldogs are battle-tested. Every game of their run in the tournament has been tight — the margins of the wins have been 1, 2, 7, and 3, including a buzzer-beater in the first-round against Old Dominion and an overtime win over Florida in the Elite Eight. Butler knows what it’s like to be in close games, and more importantly, the Bulldogs know how to win them.

They’re not the Cinderella of this year’s tourney. That title belongs to VCU, an 11th seed. Instead, Butler has proved it belongs on this stage. And when the final notes of “One Shining Moment” play on April 4, you will see Stevens, Howard, Mack, and the Bulldogs cutting down the nets in Houston as national champions.

— by Ryan Murphy

Kentucky

Big Blue nation will cut down the nets in Houston at this year’s Final Four.

It just makes sense, Kentucky is the most talented team remaining, and John Calipari is the best coach in the country.

Calipari’s last appearance in the championship game was with Memphis in 2008, when he was a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer away from winning his first title.

Last year, people thought it was Cal’s best team when he had five players — John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton — taken in the first round of the NBA draft.

As he always does, he reloaded with a talented class of incoming freshmen in Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb. This group is the most talented team in the country and is poised to dominate UConn as well as the winner of Butler/VCU.

Knight, as Bill Raftery likes to say, has major “onions.” The point guard has emerged in this tournament as Kentucky’s go-to player and has hit numerous game-winning shots.

Jones is one of the most versatile and difficult to guard players in the country. Standing at a towering 6-9, he can play inside or outside, and he not only excels at scoring, he is an outstanding point forward and often handles the ball on the fast break.

Darius Miller, Lamb, and DeAndre Liggins are all lengthy athletes on the perimeter who are keen 3-point shooters and do something that most college teams don’t — play suffocating defense.

The man in the middle for the Wildcats is a burly 6-10 senior named Josh Harrellson. Despite looking like he should be on the show “Swamp People,” he has emerged as a force in the paint.

Kentucky is the most complete team in the country, and its balance will lead the Wildcats to a national championship for the first time in John Calipari’s illustrious career.

— by Ben Wolfson

Virginia Commonwealth

Virginia Commonwealth is, right now, the best basketball team left in the NCAA Tournament. Rather, they’re playing the best basketball.

The 11th-seeded Rams have played the most dominating games over the course of Big Dance, including a double-digit domination of No. 1 seed Kansas and early round trouncings of sixth-seeded Georgetown and third-seeded Purdue.

Heading into the Final Four, the school from Richmond, Va., will probably still be considered an underdog, likely just because of its seeding. But think of it this way: If you had watched the Kansas game, the Georgetown game, the Purdue game, and even the first round play-in game against Southern California without knowing the team’s names and their seeds, it would be tough to say that VCU wasn’t the higher ranked team.

Now, while there have been four games won with ease by VCU, critics could point to its narrow escape in the Sweet Sixteen against Florida State — an overtime victory against a low seed on a late lay-up by Bradford Burgess.

But this is a good thing. VCU has shown it can win the gritty tournament game, in between in its bludgeoning of usual NCAA powerhouses. As far as matchups in the semifinals and finals are concerned, only UConn could present real problems for the Rams.

Butler is slow, and VCU is fast. It’s simple logic, and the Bulldogs have slowed teams down before, but the Rams have been playing too well to fall prey to Butler coach Brad Stevens’ trap schemes.
Kentucky is young, barely beat Princeton, and is coached by John Calipari. All negatives.

Last, UConn. Jim Calhoun is a great coach, and Kemba Walker is a great player, but if VCU continues to play to its maximum potential, raining 3s and running transition, then coach Shaka Smart and the Rams will claim the championship.

— by Ian Martin

Connecticut

Connecticut is the best team in the Final Four, and it will prove it in Houston.

Before the tournament began, many basketball analysts predicted the Huskies would make a deep tournament run and would be one of the last four standing.

Really, who can say they are surprised this team is still alive and well?

Kemba Walker should be the tournament MVP. He carried his team in the Big East Tournament and strung together five big wins in five depleting days of high-stakes basketball.

Doubters thought Walker was gassed.

Lo and behold, the 6-1 guard continues to amaze everybody with his tremendous will and high basketball IQ.

The junior has averaged 26.3 points per game during the No. 3 seed’s nine-game winning streak.

It’s like ESPN college-basketball analyst Hubert Davis said: “You can’t stop him.”

The Bronx native’s points can come from just about anywhere on the floor, and his shot selection is brilliant. He knows when to take the shot, and if he’s not open, he can dish the ball off to Jeremy Lamb — the freshman guard-forward hybrid who’s averaging 16 points per game throughout tournament play after contributing only 9.6 per game during the regular season.

Move over, Kentucky. Walker is hungry for a championship and will stop at nothing to get it.

— by Jon Frank


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