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It Was The Ugliest NCAA Championship You Will Ever See, But It Still Counts

Shelvin Mack of the Butler Bulldogs fights for the ball against Tyler Olander and Alex Oriakhi of the Connecticut Huskies during the National Championship Game.
Streeter Lecka
Getty Images
Shelvin Mack of the Butler Bulldogs fights for the ball against Tyler Olander and Alex Oriakhi of the Connecticut Huskies during the National Championship Game.

Sure, the history-making statistic from Monday night's NCAA men's championship game was that Butler shot 18.8 percent, the lowest of any team in an NCAA men's final, ever, and the worst shooting performance in an NCAA tournament game since 1946.

But other part of the story is that at halftime, Butler had scored one two-point field goal — one, as in uno, as in "singular sensation" — and they were winning. Specifically, they were up 22-19 over a UConn team that didn't look any better than they did, but that went on to win the championship 53-41 by playing competent basketball in the second half, while Butler went on to play what may well one day be established as the worst game of the entire career of every single guy on their team.

Now, take your fingers off the keys for a moment and stop composing your angry letter about defense, and low-scoring games, and the power of Connecticut's length to disrupt shooting, and so forth. Yes, there was some very good defense. Yes, both teams guarded tenaciously. But the fact remains that many of the shots missed by both teams were simply not that tough — they were certainly not tough enough for both teams to clank so many shots off the rim that it sounded like they were driving the spikes to build the First Transcontinental Railroad.

It's not all that massively difficult to recognize a sloppy game, and this was just a sloppy game. At halftime, CBS analyst Greg Anthony said that the first half had been the worst one he'd ever seen in a championship game, and really, nobody argued. Charles Barkley, predictably, compared it to dating a lot of ugly women, and you know Charles Barkley doesn't mess around when it comes to ugly women. The ball at times seemed to be as unmanageable and elusive as a greased pig, and I believe (though confirmation is hard to find) that I saw two fouls for kicked balls, both of which seemed to be more the result of the ball being thrown at the guy's foot.

Look, great defense is a joy to behold. At its best, it makes games look taut and relentless. This game, on the other hand, looked chaotic and random in the first half, then sad and dull in the second half. It's not just about a lack of scoring. It's about how few sequences seemed to be executed with any intent. That's part of what made a lovely UConn alley-oop with a few minutes left in the game so jarring — it seemed to create the sudden, shocking sense that someone had a plan.

Other than a general pro-underdog sentiment I share with, I would guess, just about everyone watching that game who isn't specifically a UConn fan, I had no particular dog in this fight. I'm not a fan of holding kids responsible for the sins of their coaches, so coach Jim Calhoun's NCAA woes shouldn't take anything away from his team's accomplishment.

But what does take away from it, unfortunately, is the fact that they didn't play very well. Remember: they only managed a 12-point margin against a team that shot worse than any team has shot in the entire NCAA tournament in more than 60 years.

I hear you: winning ugly is just fine, all you need is the W, a win is a win. Believe me, every fan is familiar with that sentiment, and — if they're honest — with the slight pang of regret that accompanies it. On a stage this big, you don't want to win in such a way that the next morning, the story is the historically poor performance of the other team.

The problem with the game wasn't that just that it was ugly and boring, though it was, in fact, ugly and boring. There's no "I love defense" argument that's going to make it fun to watch an entire half — at the very least — made up mostly of one team running down the floor, putting up the ball, clank, scramble, run the other way, clank, scramble, lather, rinse, repeat.

The thing that was too bad about the game was that it seemed like such a fluke. Butler could play that game 100 times, and they'd probably never execute worse than they did last night. UConn could play that game 100 times, and they'd probably execute better in 80 of them. It doesn't mean the win doesn't count, and it certainly doesn't mean they didn't earn it — remember, it takes a series of hard-fought wins to even be in the position to put on that kind of unmemorable championship-game performance.

It's fun when the NCAA tournament is whimsical and goofy in the way everybody loves, where a big, powerful teams gets upset by an underdog that plays really well, or has one guy who makes spectacular plays. Butler was also an underdog when it played Duke last year, and it came very, very close to winning. Nobody except Duke fans wouldn't have loved that result. All teams are capable of playing really well or really badly on any given night, and that is, indeed, part of the charm. It's a little bit sad when that same capacity for unpredictability just means that for at least three-fourths of the game, practically everybody on the court is playing about as ineffectively as he's ever going to, at least offensively.

You have to take the bitter with the sweet, though, I suppose. If all those heart-stopping buzzer beaters and Jim Valvano running all over the court when his kids won in 1983 — maybe one of my favorite moments in sports, ever — if that's all part of it, then this is all part of it too.

Maybe it's true in basketball just like it is in baseball: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains. In this case, it rains bricks.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.