Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Tale of 2 Ball Games

After Monday night' s debacle, Tuesday night's game came as a breath of fresh air.

Monday night: Connecticut 53 Butler 41. The Bulldogs shot a historically terrible 19 percent from the field, and made a mind-boggling 3-for-31 shots from inside the arc. The previous record for futility in an NCAA championship game was 21.5 percent by Washington State in 1941. And, hey, the Huskies shot 34 percent--9 percent from 3-point land--and won going away.

Yahoo! Sports asked, "Was UConn-Butler the modern era's worst national title game?," and answered, no, it was only the 2nd worst title game. They charitably noted that "stifling defense" was responsible for the terrible shooting "until Butler started panicking and rushing routine shots in the second half," and that the game remained close for 30 minutes.

I thought, by the way, that 6-9 sophomore Alex Oriakhi was UConn's MVP with 11 points, 11 boards and, especially, 4 of the Huskies' 10 blocked shots. If you want one stat that tells the tale, forget even 19 percent, it's those 10 blocks. Butler was afraid to shoot a lay-up afterwhile, and that is when and how the game was lost.

Tuesday night: Texas A&M 76 Notre Dame 70. The Aggies shot 55 percent, including 58 percent in the 2nd half. Even the Fighting Irish shot 46 percent and 77 percent on FT in losing. All-America post Danielle Adams posted a classic, hitting 13-of-22 shots for 30 points and adding 9 rebounds. Irish post Deveraux Peters was almost as good, making 8-of-10 shots for 21 points, to go along with 11 boards. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel added 12-of-29 shooting for 37 points. Unfortunately, their supporting cast made just 4-of-13 shots, while Adams' supporting cast made 16-of-31.

And there was some of that back-and-forth that makes for a fun game, if nerve-wracking for fans of the two combatants. A&M led through most of the 1st half including 25-12, 27-14 and 29-16. But the Irish closed the half with a 13-4 run to get within 33-29.

Notre Dame picked up where it left off in the 2nd half, taking a 48-41 lead. But the Aggies responded by making 11-of-their-next-13 shots to take a 60-57 lead with 7:32 left to play. Now it was the Irish's turn to respond, making 4-of-5--the last 5 points coming on a 3 and a 2 by Diggins--to tie things up at 66.

Now it was Adams' turn. She scored a pair of buckets to make it 70-66, then blocked and rebounded a Becca Bruszewski shot at 2:17. The Irish never got closer than 70-68, and then Tyra White hit a 3 and 2 FT sandwiched around a steal. An Adams FT sealed the deal at 76-70.

It's good to know that at least 2 of the 4 NCAA D1 basketball finalists played well with everything on the line.

Note that I missed the Aggies' margin by 2 points, and I called Adams outscoring Diggins, but Novosel and Peters outscoring the Sydneys. It's hard to say that A&M's quickness was the difference, however, as I had predicted. The Irish had 16 turnovers, 25 points off Aggies turnovers, and 6 fastbreak points. A&M had 18 turnovers, 23 points off Irish turnovers, and 2 fastbreak points.


It's not a Minnesota thing, so I don't have much in the way of insight into the NCAA finals tonight (Butler men vs. Connecticut) and tomorrow night (Texas A&M vs. not Connecticut). My main point is just to say the both tournaments have been in upset mode, and so you've got finalists with the following seeds:

Men--Butler #9 vs. Connecticut #3

Women--Notre Dame #2 vs. Texas A&M #2

And it's my opinion that #2 vs. #2 for the women's title is a vastly larger surprise than #3 vs. #9 for the men.

The point being that there is such parity in men's ball that a Final Four with a #3, #4, #9 and #11 was hardly surprising. The fact that #11 was Virginia Commonwealth and not, say, Virginia or Virginia Tech, makes it a bit more surprising. But it's generally acknowledged that there are at least 10 to 15 teams each year with a legitimate hope of winning the national title, and at least double that with a shot at the Final Four.

Among the women, the teams that were thought to be capable of competing for the national title were thought to be approximately 3 in number--#1 seed Connecticut, #1 seed Stanford and #1 seed Baylor. Even the 4th #1 seed, Tennessee, was thought to be overmatched. And, well, they were. #2 seeds Notre Dame and Texas A&M were given no chance against the remaining #1s.

But what now? Now that we know that there's at least incrementally greater competitiveness in the women's game than we had thought? Well, the real test will be next year. If Connecticut and Tennessee are #1 and #2 all year, and end up playing for the national title, well, then parity was just a short term thing, a mirage.

But tomorrow one of the underdogs will be the NCAA champ. I have no idea which. The 2 have a couple of common opponents. Texas A&M played 1 Big East team, Rutgers, and won 79-50 at Rutgers in December, and beat 'em 70-48 on a neutral site in the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Irish beat Rutgers once, at home, 71-48. Not much to distinguish there. Meanwhile, Notre Dame played 2 Big 12 teams, losing at Baylor 76-65, and beating Oklahoma 78-53 in the NCAAs. A&M won beat Oklahoma 92-71 at home and 81-68 in Norman. A&M lost to Baylor 63-60 at home and 67-58 at Baylor, but then beat the Bears 58-46 in the NCAAs. Edge: A&M.

I was surprised to find that Notre Dame's top scorer during the regular season was Natalie Novesel, a 6-1 senior forward, with 15 .1 ppg on 45 percent shooting. She has averaged 12 ppg in the NCAAs while 5-9 soph guard Skylar Diggins has emerged as the Irish star. She scored 14.8 ppg during the regular season, but has boosted that to 18.8 during the tournament, including 28 in the win over Connecticut yesterday. 6-2 senior F Deveraux Peters has also outscored Novesel if only 60-59 during the tournament.

Meanwhile, A&M's leading scorer both before and during the tournament has been 6-1 senior center-forward Danielle Adams at 22 points on 48 percent shooting before, and 18.8 ppg in the tournament.

The question, therefore, is whether A&M guards, the Sydneys, Carter and Colston, will have more luck stopping Diggins, or whether the Irish insider players Peters and Novesel will have more luck stopping Adams. And whose support crew will come up bigger.

I think A&M will slow down Diggins more than the Irish will slow down Adams, but Novosel and Peters will outscore the Aggies guard group. But in the end, I think A&M's quickness will settle things. Texas A&M 65 Notre Dame 61.

The Men

Connecticut and guard Kemba Walker will be tough to beat, but Butler and strongman Matt Howard will be even tougher. Walker will get his 24 ppg, but is anybody else for the Huskies capable of coming up big under the glare of the national title game? Questionable.

Meanwhile, Butler, of all people, comes in with more experience under this sort of pressure. The Huskies may hold Howard below his 17 ppg average, and they will hold Sheldon Mack below his 16, but the 2 of them will outscore Kemba Walker. And the remainder of Butler's rotation will outscore Walker's supporting cast.

Butler 55 Connecticut 53

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