Experience counts, but so does talent

HOUSTON – If Kemba Walker appears fatigued in Monday’s NCAA title game against Butler, it won’t be because of weary legs or sore muscles caused by a 40-game season.

It will be from a lack of sleep.

Walker, Connecticut’s standout guard, hasn’t been able to get much shut-eye in Houston thanks to the hallucinations that occur shortly after he tucks himself into bed.

“I keep having these visions of us on the court, celebrating and cutting down the nets,” Walker said. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Shabazz Napier and UConn's talented freshmen will face a battle-tested Butler squad in the national title game.
(Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire)

Walker – who averages 23.9 points – is one of the better players college basketball has seen in years. But to defeat Butler in Monday’s championship, the Huskies will depend just as much on a group of highly-touted freshmen as they will Walker, a junior and first-team All-American.

Who will be the 2011 National Champions?

In contrast, the Bulldogs have a senior and two juniors who started in last season’s NCAA title game loss to Duke. It’s the classic case of talent vs. experience.

Which trait is more important?

We’ll find out Monday.

“If I have a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I’m taking talent every time,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I really believe you have to have the best players.”

In that case, Monday’s matchup would favor Connecticut. Walker is a lock to be a Top 10 selection in this summer’s NBA draft and sophomore Alex Oriakhi projects as a second round pick next season. Freshmen Roscoe Smith, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier were Top 100 prospects in Rivals.com’s Class of 2010.

Butler, meanwhile, touts just one player (Shelvin Mack) who is listed in a current mock draft on draftexpress.com. Mack projects as a second-round pick in 2012.

Another interesting stat: The last 12 national championship teams have had at least one NBA lottery pick on their roster. Even last year’s runner-up Butler team had a high-level player in Gordon Hayward, who went ninth overall to the Utah Jazz.

“Talent is obviously a big factor,” Walker said. “But the most talented teams don’t always win basketball games.”

Especially these days.

Before this season, only five teams in 19 years had made the Final Four from non-power leagues. But this year Butler was joined in the field by Virginia Commonwealth, the team it defeated in Saturday’s other semifinal.

“You don’t have to be the best team for the whole year,” Mack said. “You just have to be the best team for that day.”

No team has proven that more than Butler, which has won 10 of its last 11 NCAA tournament games. Butler has reached the NCAA title game the last two years despite lackluster showings during the non-conference portion of the season. In 2010-11 the Bulldogs weren’t even able to win the Horizon League crown outright.

Walker said he isn’t shocked the Bulldogs advanced to the championship game.

“You can’t call those guys Cinderellas anymore,” he said. “They’ve run with the big dogs.”

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun agreed.

“When you have two seniors and a junior starting from a national runner-up, you’re usually in a pretty good place,” he said.

Seniors Matt Howard, Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored enrolled at Butler four years ago – the same time as head coach Brad Stevens. Mack came a year later and the Bulldogs have been winning ever since.

While Butler’s success may come as a surprise to most college basketball fans, it’s hardly stunning to those closely involved in the sport.

“Historically,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “those schools don’t recruit high-major players every year, so the advantages are that they usually coach guys for four years. The guys become accustomed to each other because there isn’t as much turnover.

“[Advancing to the Final Four] at a mid-major isn’t a phenomenal feat. What would be a phenomenal feat is if one of those schools would be in the mix to do it consistently.”

Which is exactly what Butler has been able to do. This year the Bulldogs’ poise has seemed to improve with each round of the tournament. That’s no small feat – especially when more than 75,000 fans and a live national television audience are involved.

“It helps that we’ve been there before,” said Mack, referring to last year’s title game appearance. “We’ve been together three years now. We’ve spent a lot of time together on and off the court. That gives us a lot of confidence, especially on a stage like this.”

Still, even the Bulldogs realize that experience can only take you so far.

“In the end,” Vanzant said, “you still have to go out there and perform.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Apr 3, 2011