By: Brian Dernulc
I have to be honest. I don’t remember the last time I was this uninterested in a Final Four. Some may say it has to do with my disappointment over the end of Syracuse’s season and they would probably be right, but there is more to it than that. I just don’t think this year’s field is really that good. I could hear an argument from Duke and West Virginia fans should they win the title (and I think the winner of their game will) that they are, indeed, the best team in the country), but I think their presence in this game is more of a product of their path there than anything else (save West Va’s game against Kentucky). However, on the other side of the bracket, when was the last time there was a final four game as unanticipated as the Butler and Michigan St. game is? I know Butler has the Cinderella thing going for them and they are playing only 7 miles from home, but is that really enough to get you excited for the game? Not me. That being said, I will be watching the games and probably enjoying them. Plus I got a job to do, so on to the games…
#5 Michigan St. v. #5 Butler
Statistically speaking Michigan St. is the worst Final Four team since 1985. Its combined margin of victory in the first four games is 13 points. 13 points. That’s really unimpressive. It took a questionable lane violation, a buzzer beater, a late escape, and a couple of last second free throws just to get to where they are now. I said at the beginning Tom Izzo could coach his ass off in March and he has proven it once again. Judging by their performances in the games they’ve played so far, I am convinced they dodged a bullet by not having to face Kansas, but such is life in the NCAA tournament. Breaks happen, both good and bad, and Michigan St. has caught a lot of good breaks. They deserve credit for playing with so much heart though. They could’ve folded up shop when their leader and best player, Kalin Lucas, went down for the season, but instead they have rallied around each other and have had others step up in big ways. They are so beat up at this point, I’m just not sure how much longer they can continue this run.
It’s time to recognize Butler for what they really are: a really good team. I apologize for simplifying it so much, but it’s the truth. This team has not lost a game since December 22nd, putting together a streak of 24 straight wins. That doesn’t happen on accident. I don’t care what conference you are in or what teams you’re playing, that’s damn remarkable. Their defense has been extraordinary against teams that are more athletic, more talented, and bigger than them and their ability to control the pace of the game is astonishing. They just impose their will and their style of play on their opponents and I think they will do the same against Michigan St. Brad Stevens is making the case that he is not only one of the best young coaches in college basketball, but one of the best coaches, period. He has coached circles around Jim Boeheim and Frank Martin the last couple of games, putting on a clinic on how to stop teams that fit the aforementioned description. Gordon Hayward has started to show why people have been calling him an NBA prospect the last couple of games and the Bulldogs’ guards just make enough plays to make the difference. I was shocked to find out that Vegas has Butler as favorites in this game, but I can’t say I disagree with that assessment. The home court advantage should help, but I think more than anything they will this game because they are the better team.
The Pick: Butler
#1 Duke v. #2 West Virginia
The Blue Devils have continued to win games they should win, just as I expected. I knew their road to the Elite 8 would be easy (although Purdue deserves credit for making it a little tough), but I thought they might run into some trouble against a real athletic Baylor team. They did, for a little while, but then Scheyer and Smith made a few big plays and they got to the free throw line too much for Baylor to overcome. I have made it clear that I really don’t like Duke so this may be sour grapes but I still am not convinced they are this good. I think they got a very good coach and a nice mix of experienced players, but I still think the formula to beat them is quite simple if you have the personnel. First, play them man to man. I know one of Butler’s strength is their zone defense, but this Duke team is smart enough to find open holes in the zone and talented enough to nail the looks they get outside the arc. Secondly, leave the big men alone. Duke’s big men absolutely do not score. Smother Singler, Scheyer, and Smith and tempt the big men to attempt to score. They can’t do it. If you shut down or even just contain 2 of their big 3 they are very beatable. They rely on the three point shot to win and will kill you if you give it to them, but an athletic team that plays good defense can beat them.
West Virginia is that team. I have heard countless times about how Duke will just eat up the 1-3-1 zone that West Virginia played against Kentucky. Do I agree with that? Yea, sort of. Here is the problem, though. Nobody is pointing out that they played that zone against Kentucky because they can’t shoot the 3 and John Wall and Demarcus Cousins were tough matchups for the Mountaineers personnel. It is a defense they have played throughout the season, but usually as nothing more than a change of look to throw off the offense. However, as I said a bunch of times, Kentucky was the worst 3 point shooting team in the NCAA tournament. It was not a shock to me that West Va. went almost entirely 1-3-1 on them, nor was it a shock that Kentucky shot that poorly. It was well below their season average, but when a team has a glaring weakness it tends to show up in the tournament. It was a smart move by Bob Huggins to try and exploit this weakness and it worked. There will be very little 1-3-1 played against Duke. I promise you that. They match up well man to man against Duke. They are smaller than Duke’s big men, but more athletic than Scheyer and Singler. Plus, because of the similarities in size and athletic ability in West Virginia’s players (a plethora of 6’6” – 6’8”), they will switch screens all game long and avoid giving Scheyer and Singler open looks. The one problem could be Nolan Smith’s ability to get into the paint and make tough shots, but as long as they contain the other ones, they should be fine. They also need to try and keep the rebounding battle close, but I think they’ll be able to do that as well.
The Pick: West Virginia
Stay Tuned for my Championship Breakdown!