A confession: I spent more than one night in my college dorm room watching the official '99 championship game DVD (which they sell at the Co-Op, or at least did at the time) and imagining that I was watching them live. Living and dying with outcomes already determined, trying to capture what most of you felt in March 1999 and April 2004.
To be alive for nights like that, to experience the drama, the tension and the nervous energy of a game with the highest stakes imaginable ... my god, this is exactly why I watch sports.
Tonight is another of those rare nights, and I can tell you, even writing this now, that my heart is beating a mile a minute. UConn and Butler are just hours away from deciding which school is lucky enough to be forever associated as the craziest champion of the craziest NCAA Tournament of all time.
Will it be UConn, which was unheralded and in turmoil in November and written off in February? Or will it be Butler, that paradoxical creature known as a "repeat Cinderella," the clean-cut program with the clean-cut coach?
We'll find out tonight, and hopefully you'll join us for our 41st and final TheOpenThread tonight around 8.
Until then, five thoughts before tonight's national championship game, below the jump:
1) Offensive rebounding
Despite getting outmanned at times on Saturday, UConn has lived off of offensive boards during this 10-game run. They're seventh in the country in offensive rebound rate this season, and they make up for being a fairly poor-shooting team with second and third chances.
If there's one team that can neutralize the Huskies on the glass, though, it's Butler. The Bulldogs are 15th in the country in keeping opponents from getting offensive rebounds, and they have a ton of size for UConn to contend with.
6-foot-8 Matt Howard (60th in the country in offensive rating) you know about, and 6-10 Andrew Smith (25th!) are efficient scorers and superb offensive rebounders, both ranking in the top 200 nationally in OR%. The guy you really have to watch out for is 6-7 Khyle Marshall, who would be in the top 75 nationally in o-rebound rate if he had played enough minutes (13.1 OR%, 17.2 DR%).
This is one final major test for Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Charles Okwandu, who have performed so admirably throughout the first 10 games of this run. We're going to need a big game from our big fellas.
2) Interior offense
Though I wouldn't expect UConn to shoot 1-for-12 from 3-point land (like they did Saturday), it's apparent to me that UConn's best chance is to get the ball inside. Butler's defense does not block shots (ranked 334th in blocked shot percentage), they rarely play zone (though they do seem to switch screens a ton), and guys like Howard, Smith and Ronald Nored are prone to foul trouble.
There aren't many guards as quick as Kemba Walker, nor are there many as long as Jeremy Lamb, and I don't think Butler's played anyone quite like either. UConn will have to put that to use and get inside on Butler to score.
3) The bounces
If ever there were a reason to discount the whole "single-elimination tournament champion is the best team" argument, it's this year.
Butler might have gone home in the first round (or at least gone to overtime) but for a funny bounce off a missed jumper that went right to Matt Howard. The Bulldogs might have gone home in the second round but for Pitt pulling a Pitt and missing a free throw and then committing the dumbest foul in the history of basketball. They might have gone home had Florida hit a three.
UConn might have gone home in the Sweet 16 if Random San Diego State Guy doesn't feel the need to act "hard" and lower a shoulder into Kemba Walker. The Huskies might have gone home in the Elite Eight if Jamelle Horne's textbook 3-pointer was 2 inches shorter, or if Derrick Williams doesn't pick up a terribly stupid third foul in the first half. Or they might have gone home if DeAndre Liggins' shot was true.
Tonight's national championship is, as it is every year, a celebration of the teams that were fortunate enough to defy the odds.
I happen to think that's why the NCAA Tournament is so special, and why the BCS is a laughable construct, but that's a rant for a different day.
4) Fan support
I would expect that a good 80% or more of the arena crowd will be rooting for Butler, and that 90% or more of America will do the same.
That's not generally a good thing, but if there's one guy who can motivate the hell out of his guys and one guy who thrives on being backed up against the wall by the closing-in mobs, it's Jim Calhoun.
The Huskies have displayed incredible toughness in pretty much every game since the Pitt Big East Tournament game. They've battled back from deficits, played basically every game (save perhaps the BET championship game) in front of an at-the-very-least-majority unfriendly crowd.
Hopefully, this is right in their wheelhouse.
Tonight's game has legacy-altering potential for everyone involved.
Butler, of course, can become the ultimate dragon-slayer if it can win tonight, beating two Big East teams, an SEC team and a Big 10 team - all perennial powers, to boot - en route to a national championship. A win by Butler tonight would make them the most improbable champion since Villanova in 1985, and it would make their coach, Brad Stevens, an instant legend.
On the flip side, this game means just as much to UConn, Jim Calhoun and Kemba Walker. A third title in 13 seasons would put the Huskies in an elite group (going back to the expansion of the tournament in 1985, only UNC and Duke have won three titles), and it would put Calhoun in the pantheon of all-time great coaches (among three-time national champions: Bob Knight, Coach K, Dean Smith). And Kemba Walker? GOAT is in play, and that's all I'll say for now.
Can 9:23 get here already?