HOUSTON — Kemba Walker’s name, number and weight flashed across the screen during a Butler team meeting, and the Bulldogs tried not to laugh.
“We were like, we know who he is,” said Butler senior guard Alex Anglin.
Of course they do.
So does everybody else who has faced Connecticut’s singular superstar this season.
Yet meticulous Butler coach Brad Stevens wasn’t about to break routine, not with another shot at a national title on the line.
So the Bulldogs spent the usual 45 minutes running through tape of UConn’s strengths on Sunday morning, spending no more time on Walker than they have on any other high-profile player this year. They watched 8-10 clips of Walker doing what he does best — getting to the basket, creating his shot off the dribble and finding open teammates — before moving on to the next Husky in line.
“You try not to overwhelm them,” said Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves. “Obviously, they’re familiar with him. He’s one of the best players in the country.”
One who poses Butler with a challenge they haven’t faced while crashing college basketball’s biggest party two years running.
Though the Bulldogs have knocked off a series of Goliaths during their remarkable run to consecutive national title games — their victim list includes Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Florida and Syracuse — they haven’t faced a player as vital to one team as Walker is to the Huskies.
“He’s a guy that puts you in a lot of unique positions,” Stevens said.
Most of them bad.
Lay off Walker, and he’ll pull up from 3. Body him, and he’ll blow by you with a vertigo-inducing first step. Throw two players at him, and he’ll find an open teammate.
Graves, who splits the scouting with assistants Terry Johnson and Micah Shrewsberry, called Walker “without a doubt the best individual player in terms of importance to his team that we’ve faced.”
Shutting him down is almost an impossible task. Slowing him down isn’t much easier.
Kentucky did as good a job as anyone on Saturday, holding Walker to “only” 18 points in UConn’s narrow 56-55 win. Yet he added six rebounds and seven assists to send the Huskies to their 10th straight victory and a spot in the national championship game.
“Kemba makes it tough for you,” said guard Ronald Nored, who could get one of the first cracks at guarding Walker on Monday. “But the great thing about people is they all have tendencies. Everyone has something that they’re good at; everyone has something that they’re probably not as good at, or they’re not as efficient at. In the next few hours, there’s going to be a lot of breakdown s.”
None of them nervous ones. Butler doesn’t do nervous.
Credit the even-keeled Stevens, who has perfected “the Butler Way” during his four seasons on the bench. The Bulldogs respect every opponent, regardless of what it says on the front of their jersey.
The fear factor, however, is long gone.
Yes, they’re concerned about Walker. Saying they’re obsessed would be stretching it.
“You really just can’t focus the defense all on him,” said guard Shawn Vanzant. “They’ve got excellent other guards on the team who can hurt you. (Jeremy) Lamb’s a very good player. It’s going to be a team collective to guard their three guards.”
Meaning everybody has to take a look at the scouting report on each player, no exceptions. Forward Matt Howard won’t be anywhere near Walker when the Bulldogs set up their halfcourt defense. Yet he has to know where to go when Walker inevitably comes his way.
“You have to have a team awareness on him; it’s not going to be one guy,” Howard said. “I know we’ll probably be rotating guys onto him.”
Nored and Vanzant certainly will get a shot, and the assistants have prepared extra tape so the players can spend all Sunday night studying where Walker likes to go when he gets the ball on the left baseline if they want.
Every minute of tape represents hours of work by the coaching staff. Distilling 40 games worth of highlights into a palatable package that can be quickly grasped can be exhausting. Graves estimates the staff is averaging between 4-5 hours of sleep a night during the tournament.
If it means they know where to go when UConn runs a pick-and-roll at the top of the key with Walker and center Alex Oriahki, then it’s worth it.
Anglin likens the scouting reports to SparkNotes, the popular series of study aides that condenses classic books into easily digestible morsels.
The Bulldogs, however, have been better than most at taking away an opponent’s strengths. They harassed Virginia Commonwealth’s sharp-shooting Joey Rodriguez into a 1-of-8 performance on Saturday and limited SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons to just five points in the regional final a week ago.
Yet neither Rodriguez or Parsons are on Walker’s level. Nobody in college basketball is. He’ll step into the spotlight one more time on Monday, a place opponents have found mighty uncomfortable the last month.
Butler watched in person as Walker shred through the first weekend of the tournament in Washington D.C., and paid close attention on Saturday when he guided the Huskies to within 40 minutes of their third national title.
The Bulldogs are the last obstacle standing between Walker and a place in history reserved for the likes of Danny Manning, who carried Kansas to a national title 23 years ago.
Their admiration for Walker is palpable. So is their determination to succeed where so many other teams have failed.
“I’ve been cheering for him making game-winning shots all year so it’s exciting to have this opportunity,” Nored said. “It’s going to be a tall task and not just him, the other two guards. It’s going to be a tall task for us.”