As soon as the national championship game matchup was set between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Virginia Cavaliers, you probably saw at least a few people compare Monday night’s event to the 2011 Butler-UConn national title game in Houston.
Yes, Texas Tech-Virginia is very likely to be a low-scoring game. Yes, it figures to be a slow game, a defense-first game, and a game which won’t pull in huge TV ratings. To that extent, the comparisons are accurate and reasonable.
However, a lot of the Butler-UConn comparisons come from a less sincere and more unreasonable place. The comparisons — I would venture to bet — come from a mindset which views TTU-UVA as:
— bad for college basketball
— a game which will be boring and terrible to watch
— or both.
Pre-judging a game doesn’t do anyone any favors. Beyond that, however, looking down on two teams which made the national championship game — winning five NCAA Tournament games over three weeks under supreme pressure — is simply bad form.
No one looks down on Clemson and Alabama in college football. No one should. Why should it be any different in basketball? The lack of empathy is bad; the lack of critical thinking is worse.
Sure, 2011 Butler-UConn was a horrible basketball game.
Know something else? Other national title games have been stinkers. They involved sexy, star-laden rosters. Saving the dismissive attitudes for the unsexy teams gives away the game and reveals an unwillingness to play fair.
With all this in mind — and while not denying how hard it was to watch 2011 Butler-UConn — let’s acknowledge the terrific achievements of these two teams eight years ago. One should be prepared to similarly praise and appreciate Texas Tech and Virginia as their seasons come to an end in Minneapolis this April.
UConn had won two national championships heading into the 2011 NCAA Tournament, but within the context of that season alone, the Huskies were seen as a dark horse rather than a leading contender for the Final Four and the national title. Duke — with Kyrie Irving — was in UConn’s region. So was Kawhi Leonard, playing for San Diego State. UConn began March of 2011 playing an 8-9 game in the Big East Tournament. Kemba Walker caught fire and led UConn to the tournament championship, all the way to a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. Yet, it was still an uphill climb for this team, sent to the West Regional to deal with Kawhi in the Sweet 16 and, presumably, Kyrie in the Elite Eight.
Kemba led UConn past Kawhi and San Diego State, but in the other West Regional semifinal, Arizona upset Duke and knocked Kyrie out of the Dance. The bracket had opened, and UConn wore home whites as the higher seed against Arizona. The U of A played the Huskies closely in the Elite Eight, but a potential game-winning jumper by Jamelle Horne did not drop in the final moments. UConn went to the Final Four in Houston.
Guess what? Ohio State and North Carolina, the top two seeds in the East Region, failed to make the Final Four. Top-seeded Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight and the Midwest Regional. Second-seeded Florida could not get out of the South Regional.
The Huskies made their way to the title game as a No. 3 seed. They might have seen it coming, but not until Duke lost did it seem possible.
One could very realistically say that when Duke lost to Michigan State, Texas Tech’s road to Monday night as a No. 3 seed also became easier. This team was always a threat, but rarely a favorite, much like UConn in 2011.
On the other side of the divide stood Butler.
If you know the deeper story of Tony Bennett’s basketball life and evolution — over a decade before he began to win big at Virginia — you know that his father, Dick Bennett, spread the gospel of basketball according to a set of principles. This message spread through a number of coaches and schools; one of them was Butler.
The stylistic and method-based dimensions of Tony Bennett basketball can easily be found in the way the 2010 and 2011 Butler teams played under Brad Stevens. The attention to detail, the discipline, the ability to control the tempo, the connectedness on defense, the selflessness — they were all in evidence.
It was remarkable enough that Butler made the national title game in 2010. It was exponentially more remarkable that Butler returned to the title game in 2011.
In much the same way, it is incredible that Virginia shoved aside Duke and North Carolina in the ACC and has become a No. 1 seed in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments in four of the last six seasons. Butler might have come from nowhere in 2010, but in 2011, Butler was a proven entity which played a certain style, played a bunch of close games, and got the breaks it needed, chiefly in a win over Pittsburgh in the round of 32. Virginia has lived on the edge even more than that Butler team did in March; these were not identical March journeys. The larger patterns and similarities are evident, however.
UConn roared through March as a 3 seed. Butler adhered to its style and pace, escaping multiple close shaves but digging out victories with a lot of persistence and some timely good fortune. Two teams forged remarkable accomplishments. Their title game was not easy to watch, but their stories remain just as impressive today as they were eight years ago.
Butler making back-to-back national title games is one of the most amazing achievements in the 21st century. The 2010 team might have been objectively better, but the 2011 team’s run — when everyone knew what Butler was capable of — probably rates as the more noteworthy March feat. Viewed through that prism, Butler’s 2011 season could be seen as the best in the program’s history.
UConn — by winning a third national title for Jim Calhoun — moved to a much higher place in the annals of college basketball. UConn stamped itself as a program which could be counted on to close the sale at Final Fours after suffering an unusual loss in 2009 to Michigan State.
UConn became — in 2011 — what Indiana became under Bob Knight and what Mike Krzyzewski has become at Duke in the 21st century: an operation which doesn’t frequently get to the Final Four, but wins when it gets there. We clearly wouldn’t view UConn as a program greater than Michigan State or Florida if it won only one of its five Final Fours from 1999-2014, but because it won four of those five, it enjoys elevated status.
2011 UConn is an extremely important team in 21st-century college basketball. Butler took what George Mason started in the mid-major world in 2006 and carried it to another level.
Yes, their 2011 title game was rough on the eyes, but Butler and UConn were special teams in their own ways, just as Virginia and Texas Tech have been this season.
It is unfair to 2011 Butler and UConn to remember them for the one bad game they played. It is lazy on the part of fans. It is irresponsible on the part of journalists and commentators if that’s all they can come up with. It is doubly irresponsible if the 2011 comparison to 2019 Texas Tech-Virginia is based on a belief that this is bad for college basketball, as opposed to a more cosmetic and harmless interpretation.
2011 Butler and UConn deserve better, not just 2019 Texas Tech and Virginia.
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