HOUSTON -- How long would it take to convince you the more surprising team in this national championship game is Connecticut, not Butler?
Believe it or not, that is the case. Forget the names stitched on the front of the mesh. Disregard the eight-seed next to Butler's name and the three next to Connecticut's. Butler has altered our mindset and has the potential to alter how we view mid-majors entirely, should it win Monday night here in the Space City.
Despite how amazing this feat is for the Bulldogs, one of these teams was ranked in the preseason, and it wasn't the Huskies. Butler was tabbed 18th; UConn did not receive a vote.
|Kemba Walker has lifted UConn to stunningly unexpected heights in the past month. (AP)|
It's easy to inject yourself into the present, or even beam back to the recent past and see how well Connecticut has played. The Huskies found something in March at the start of the Big East tournament, and behind the play of one of the most beloved, important players in Connecticut men's basketball history, have catapulted themselves into a run unlike anything ever seen from a major-conference team.
This Connecticut team is playing for the national championship. It's a fact that still has UConn fans shaking their heads in disbelief. So young, so different from any really good-to-great team Jim Calhoun has coached deep into previous tournaments. With all Calhoun and this program have gone through this year (NCAA sanctions were handed down a little more than a month ago; Calhoun will serve a three-game suspension next season, should he return), it was that much more unforeseen.
There was a time when the shine wore off UConn. We tend to get caught up in the now-now-now that our short-term memories take over our brains. After a 17-2 start, Connecticut finished its regular season with a 4-7 record and had a .500 mark in the Big East.
For a while, Kemba Walker wasn't the Kemba Walker we know now. He had his share of big shots, but there also were games with late turnovers, shots forced in tough situations and passing off to teammates when his team needed him to take charge.
Butler, on the other hand, has done what you might expect: take a double-digit winning streak into March, and now to the title game, which is exactly what it did last year. The Bulldogs have continued to win close, keep their heads down and change the rules of the game.
"I saw Butler, and Butler's no mid-major to me," Calhoun said. "If they were to win the game, I'd have great respect for them. They're certainly good enough to beat us. It's two good programs. Mid-, upper-, lower-programs, none of that means very much to me."
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Brad Stevens has successfully brainwashed us all into thinking this type of performance in March should be expected out of a mid-major team, outliers be damned. He has done this for his team, too.
"It is about having a belief. That's throughout the whole team," forward Matt Howard said. "I don't know if that's selfish or not, but we want to do it for ourselves. We don't look at it as doing it for everyone else or feeling like we need to disable some theory."
Stevens mutes our reaction to Butler's winning with the way he handles success. He has raised our expectation level for his program with two six-game March marches.
"Anybody can stand up here and say they believe," Stevens said, "but truly believing you can do it and you can do it together is a unique thing."
So which team is really the underdog here? Neither will own up to that mantle. Neither wants to stand up and say it's the favorite, either.
"I don't consider us the underdog anymore, and I don't think UConn will consider us the underdog," Butler's Andrew Smith said.
Teammate Shawn Vanzant doesn't know what to think. All these questions about his team -- and expectations and underdogs and favorites and mindset and mentality -- have him a little confused about the public's perception of the Bulldogs.
"Name one time we've been projected to win this whole tournament; I can't think of one," he said, before being notified his team had been, in fact, favored in its semifinal win over VCU. "We were picked to win yesterday? ... I didn't know that."
Vanzant's attitude going into Monday's game is about as direct and straightforward as anyone on Butler. He's the closest thing to serious outside of Brad Stevens.
"I felt like we were happy to be there last year," Vanzant said. "This year I think we've been more businesslike."
Calhoun is possibly coaching in his last Final Four. There were calls for him to retire over the past five years, not only for the fact his program was caught cheating, but also because of his health. The 68-year-old coach has defeated cancer three times. He has missed games because of illness. Nobody expected Connecticut to have one last hurrah like this; the 2009 Final Four was a bit unexpected, and even then questions lingered if Calhoun would stay.
This didn't seem like an NCAA tournament team in October, and it certainly didn't look like a Final Four team in February. Again and again, the Huskies defy the odds. Calhoun likes to equate the run to his personal story of overcoming things in getting to coach at Connecticut and turning the program into a national power. That allegory works. The run became the streak, which led to the Big East title. We expected it to end at some point, yet it still hasn't. It's still odds-defying.
Butler's two-year run may be among the most staggering in American sports history. But for this year only, UConn's title-game run can't be topped for surprise value.