We have reached the end of the 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket: the NCAA Championship Game matches Butler vs. UConn in a semi-literal dogfight — you know, because it's Bulldogs vs. Huskies — that has all the makings of a scrappy game for the record books. Kemba Walker has UConn on a historic run in the postseason, but Butler's second straight NCAA Tournament final appearance may be more incredible, and the Bulldogs' titanium spines have helped them withstand a series of thrillers in this year's March Madness. Tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, we get the last game of the 2011 Final Four, and Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg, and Steve Kerr will have the call in Houston.
Butler's NCAA Tournament run has been nothing short of spectacular, but the Bulldogs have done things differently on their second consecutive trip to the national title game. These Bulldogs were buoyed by their offense all year, then have alternated between winning with offense (Pittsburgh, Florida) and clamping down (Wisconsin, VCU) in the NCAA Tournament. If Shelvin Mack is on, the Bulldogs can do either: he's Butler's best perimeter player, has great range, and takes good shots. But if he's not, expect the Bulldogs to grind inside, using Matt Howard's post play as the fulcrum of their offense. Ronald Nored, Butler's renowned defensive stopper, is all but a cinch to draw Kemba Walker on defense; Shawn Vanzant's quickness could provide a spark if he's matched up against Walker on offense, especially if he takes advantage on possessions after Walker expends a ton of effort on offense.
The Huskies will have more tools to work with on offense than Butler does. Mid-Major Madness broke down the Xs and Os of Butler vs. UConn to show how both teams score, and while you can see there that Walker is the Huskies' leader and workhorse, he's got a strong trio in his supporting cast in the form of Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and Jeremy Lamb. Walker will get his points, but if the rest of the young UConn roster can play well for another game, Butler is going to be picking its poison all night. Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu, and Roscoe Smith will also have a tough task before them in the wily Howard and the tall, raw Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall, but their interior defense has been superb throughout the NCAA Tournament.
Star Watch: Kemba Walker will be by far the best player on the floor tonight. But Lamb's play will determine whether the Huskies win: if he can give UConn a second reliable shooter and Walker a target on dribble-kick plays, Butler is going to struggle to keep up with the Huskies' offense.
Prediction: If Walker hasn't convinced you by now that he has been college basketball's best player this season, he might do that Monday night: expect UConn's star to get his 20-30 points, even against Butler's suddenly stiff defense. But in a game like this, with Butler's Bulldogs more than aware that they are playing for history and may never even sniff glory like this again, I have to lean to the team that has been tougher than Damascus steel throughout the NCAA Tournament: Butler wins, 59-56, in a game for the ages.
More Reading: SB Nation Indiana has full coverage of the Butler Bulldogs' tremendous NCAA Tournament run, while The UConn Blog is your fan community for the Huskies and Kemba Walker. Want to learn more about the 2011 NCAA Tournament in general? Check out SB Nation's NCAA Tournament hub.