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Ugly Basketball?

Brad Stevens hadn't even inhaled to make his classy post-game statements last night before people all over the internet were calling UConn's victory over Butler the worst championship game in NCAA history. Setting aside the knee-jerk historical hyperbole (and the fact that "low-scoring" doesn't necessarily mean "bad"), I wanted to look into what factors went into making the game what it was.

Brad Stevens got the pace, but not the production
The first of these was the pace of the game. Butler, as pretty much every American media outlet may have mentioned before the game, was a team well-suited to playing an ugly, grinding style of basketball. Conventional wisdom was that a slower pace and a more physical game would benefit them. While it is true that Butler was 277th in the nation in adjusted tempo this season, it somehow escaped mention that UConn was 240th in the country - having played about a possession per game faster than Butler on the year. The Huskies were at the end of a grueling stretch of games (the national title game was their 11th in 27 days) and hadn't had their best player off the floor since the first round. Neither team was looking to turn this game into a track meet, especially not early.

Both teams were in the top 26 in keeping care of the ball and the bottom 100 in forcing turnovers on defenses. A prodigal approach to ball security or a ball-hawking defense usually leads to live-ball turnovers and quick baskets on the other end. With both teams patient on defense as well as offense, opportunities for such easy points were few and far between.

A rare clean look
As the game played out, it became obvious that both teams were having miserable shooting nights. Whether this was due to nerves, tight rims, the shooting background, or just bad basketball is immaterial. It wasn't all about good defense, either; both teams had clean looks at jumpers and struggled mightily to convert them. Where Butler was hurt was an inability to make an adjustment to an off night.

UConn was able to get the ball inside to Oriakhi (11-11-0 on 5-6/0-0/1-1) or penetrate with their guards against a Butler defense whose strength was shutting down the three-point game. The Huskies' defensive calling card all year had been defending the paint; they were 19th in the nation in percentage of two-point shots blocked and 7th in the nation in 2P% defense. They held Butler's bigs (Howard, Smith, Marshall, and Butcher) to 12 points 3-25 shooting. Oriakhi, Smith, and Okwandu combined to block 9 shots and were integral in Butler's 1-14 performance on layups on the night. By the time Butler picked up their first points in the paint with 6:21 remaining in the game the game was alerady well away from them.

With it obvious that Butler couldn't get anything going on offense, Stevens put in a little zone trap to try to force UConn into some turnovers that could lead to easy buckets for Butler. Instead, UConn's guards held their nerve and picked apart the zone, stretching a five point lead into double digits and effectively ending the game. Though it backfired on him in a big way, I think Stevens made the right decision. When your team is on the way to shooting .188/.273/.571, you have to try something to get them uncontested layups with their strong hands. If there were a strategy that offered that and didn't have any risk involved, everyone would shoot 100% from the floor.

Napier's ability to penetrate effectually sealed the game
From the time Shelvin Mack missed two layups before the first media timeout to the point at which Shabazz Napier's beautiful diagonal pass bisected Butler's zone and gave Alex Oriakhi an easy dunk, it was clear last night was going to be an uphill struggle for Butler. I'll grant that there were some ugly factors to the game, particularly the shooting, but that shouldn't have been entirely unexpected. Both teams played hard but showed discipline in sticking to their game plans. When one team gained the upper hand, the other coach rose to the moment and gambled his team's season to try to get back into the game. It might not have been a barn-burner, but I hope I'm not alone in thinking that last night's national championship was a very good basketball game.