Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hot Dogs: UConn Basketball Wins Men's National Title

For a scrappy group of young men from Storrs, Connecticut, the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies were itching to get into the Final Four and win the national championship from day one.

They had every reason to.

UConn had a disappointing 2009-10 campaign, going 18-16 overall and 7-11 in the Big East Conference before losing in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament to the Virginia Tech Hokies. Just the year before, in 2008-09, the Huskies were playing in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to the eventual runner-up Michigan State Spartans 82-73.

A fall from grace like that was due for a triumphant return at redemption.

Despite having a top-20 recruiting class, they were a preseason pick to finish ninth overall in the Big East, arguably the premeir conference for men's Division I basketball. They were also unranked in national preseason polls.

However, the Huskies got off to a strong start by winning the Maui Invitational, a prestigious early-season tournament featuring some of the top teams from the country. UConn handedly defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the finals, and junior point guard Kemba Walker was named the tournament's MVP.

The regular season was a continuation of their good fortune, though they struggled against conference opponents. All nine of their regular season losses came against teams from the Big East, and the Huskies lost four of their last five conference games heading into the Big East Tournament. UConn was exactly where they were expected to finish: ninth. As such, they missed out on receiving a bye or a double-bye and had to play their way through the opening round.

Incredibly, the Huskies won five Big East Tournament games in five consecutive days from March 8 to March 12 to receive an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. They beat the DePaul Blue Demons, Georgetown Hoyas, Pittsburgh Panthers, Syracuse Orange, and Louisville Cardinals to win the conference championship, with the latter three contests decided by five points or less. For their efforts, UConn was given a three seed to the Big Dance.

The Huskies' run through the NCAA Tournament was a rehash of their Big East success. They easily won their opening round game over the Bucknell Bisons by 29 points. In the "third" round, they had a much tougher time against the Cincinnati Bearcats, another Big East team, but the Huskies staved off elimination in the final minutes. Then, they withstood a surging San Diego State Aztecs team in the Sweet Sixteen. They met up with the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite Eight, outlasting them in the final minutes, as well. And in the Final Four, the Huskies faced a tough rematch with Kentucky, but UConn delivered the same winning result en route to the title game.

There they faced the Butler Bulldogs, the previous year's national runner-up that came within inches of having a miraculous half-court heave win the game at the buzzer. Like UConn, Butler went on an incredible tear to reach the finals, winning 14 consecutive games after dropping their overall record to 14-9 on February 3. Also, like UConn, Butler had to play their way through their conference tournament to win the Horizon League's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The game itself was a defensive struggle. Butler led 22-19 at halftime, but UConn outplayed the Bulldogs in the second half and won, 53-41, to become the first three seed to win the NCAA Tournament since the Florida Gators in 2006. Kemba Walker won the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.

The championship is the third NCAA title by UConn under it's men's basketball program, having won previously in 1999 and 2004.

With their championship comes two conflicting points. It shows that any basketball program in America, no matter where they start, can finish as a national champion. Unlike other collegiate sports, say football, parity is both encouraged and expected. That's what makes March Madness maddening to people who fill out brackets. Yet that's also the other side of the double-edged sword the NCAA wields. The tournament itself is all about single-elimination matchups, regardless of one's regular season record. And it means the best team doesn't always win. If that were true, the NCAA would've handed the Ohio State Buckeyes the national title by mid-March.

But try telling that to UConn now.

After a month of playing tenacious basketball with their backs against the wall, it's only fitting that the Huskies are the last team dancing on the court. You'd do it, too, if you just earned the title of national champion.

The UConn Huskies truly are the best in show.

Photo courtesy of Newsday.com

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