Rare sight in Butler-Connecticut title matchup: Stars who stuck around

Here's something you probably know: Most players who can leave early for the NBA do.

The age rule requiring players to delay their NBA dreams for the betterment of who-knows-what has led to one-year cameos by Derrick Rose (Memphis) and John Wall (Kentucky).

Shoot (and they did), half of Kentucky's roster last season had a coming-out-early party.

The rarest sight in this sport is not Dick Vitale with his mouth closed; it's a star junior or senior finishing his degree.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari offers no apology for his philosophy.

"If I had a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I'm taking talent every time," he said last week.

That's what makes the NCAA championship game between Connecticut and Butler on Monday night at Reliant Stadium more than a morality play.

It is that, too, with the perceived "goodness" of Butler stacked against Connecticut's "evilness."

It is midmajor against megamajor, and a Gerber-jar coach (Brad Stevens) versus Old Spice (Jim Calhoun).

Count it as another small victory, though, that some of the adults get to participate.

The prime-time players in the final Monday are veterans who, thankfully, were just flawed enough.

Isn't it great that a senior and a junior, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, stayed to lead Butler back to the title game?

Connecticut's best player is junior Kemba Walker, who, as brilliant and NBA-ready as he seems now, is not far removed from work-in-progress.

"We gave him a road map," Calhoun said. "And he drove it tremendously."

Where can you find a top-flight junior at Kentucky?

Try the alumni game.

Thank you, Matt Howard, for pulling up a Butler chair and staying awhile. Thanks for being 6 feet 8, selfless and borderline gawky during your collegiate career.

Kudos for boxing out, setting screens and not caring about only one statistic: wins and losses.

"I'm more intrinsically motivated," he said Sunday.

What NBA-bound freshman says that?

Thanks for not being able to stay out of foul trouble for three years but finally learning how to defend without hacking.

Howard has not fouled out once during Butler's 14-game winning streak. He picked up his fourth foul with 9:22 left in Saturday's semifinal win over Virginia Commonwealth but managed to not pick up his fifth while scoring six key points in the final minute.

What a boon for the industry that Howard was not good enough to leave for the NBA after his 19th birthday.

Thanks for acting as though you've been here before — because you have.

"I don't think we let our surroundings get to us," Howard said after Butler's victory Saturday. "It didn't really feel necessarily like a national semifinal. And I think that's a good thing. It helps us play like you normally would."

Mack is another rare treat. He is a terrific player with daggerlike instincts. He scored 24 points in the win over VCU, making five of six three-point shots.

"There's no secret we're here because he's carried us in a few games," Howard said.

Yet at 6-3, 215 pounds, Mack would not win a basketball-body contest standing next to a lot of players no longer involved with this tournament.

Mack was asked Sunday about forgoing his senior season and testing NBA waters.

These days, that's almost like, "Don't you wish you were better sooner?"

The most intriguing matchup Monday figures to be junior Mack going against junior Walker.

How nice it is to be having that conversation.

What a break we caught that it took Walker three years to develop, under Calhoun, into what he is now.

"Coach, you know, he's given me the chance to be a leader," Walker said Sunday.

Thank goodness Walker is only a tick over 6 feet and was too inconsistent to be a one-and-done.

Yet there is talk that this might be the last game for Jeremy Lamb, Walker's lanky 6-5 freshman teammate.

"I'm not focused on that now," Lamb said of leaving for the NBA.

Some might not even recall that Walker has been to another Final Four. Two years ago, he was a freshman on the Huskies team that lost to Michigan State in the national semifinals in Detroit.

Walker did not remind anyone of Derrick Rose then because he played 20 minutes and scored one basket while amassing twice as many turnovers (four) as assists.

NBA scouts were not drooling when Walker started as a sophomore and led his team to 16 defeats.

It took Walker time — something few young players have — to smooth out his edges.

He toured campus long enough to cement his legacy by taking his team on one of the most remarkable rides in tournament history.

Connecticut, dating to the Big East Conference tournament, has won 10 consecutive postseason games since March 8.

Walker did not play 40 spectacular minutes in the win against Kentucky. He totaled 18 points and seven assists. It appeared at times he finally was tiring.

"I thought he was fatigued, quite frankly, most of the game," Calhoun said.

During a timeout, Walker was bent over in the huddle. Calhoun asked him if he needed to briefly come out of the game. Walker did not respond, so Calhoun left him in.

At one pivotal point in the second half, Walker trailed a Kentucky play down the court and blocked Doron Lamb's layup from behind.

"It isn't just the jump shot or the drive," Calhoun said of Walker. "It's all the intangibles, the joy of playing basketball that he brings to the game. That separates him, in my opinion, from everybody else."

Thanks, selfishly, for the memories. Mostly, though, thanks for being a junior.



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