ATB: Selected Thoughts on the Final Four TeamsPosted by rtmsf on March 29th, 2010
We’re down to the Four. Here are some of the thoughts we had about the last couple of days of games while looking ahead to next weekend in Indy…
Forget the Seedings, These Teams Are Good. With a #1, #2 and two #5 seeds making the Final Four this year, the immediate reaction is that we’ve got a wide-open bracket with the potential for a true Cinderella to cut down the nets this year. Closer examination, however, reveals that all of the four teams left standing were thought pretty highly of in the preseason. In both the AP and Coaches Polls, Michigan State was ranked #2 behind Kansas, while Duke, West Virginia and Butler all populated the top ten as well (Butler was #11 in the AP). So while it may have taken some time for Izzo’s Spartans to get it together (like seemingly every year), they eventually did and they’re playing well enought to be a worthy Final Four participant; the same is definitely true for Butler, penalized by the pollsters and Selection Committee for early losses in November and December, but who is playing as well as anyone left right now. It’s difficult to lose the mindset that a team is a Cinderella or not based on its Tourney seed, but the truth is that these four teams are all playing like #1 and #2 seeds and they have the talent to back it up.
Izzo the Stray Cat. Tom Izzo is like the stray cat in your neighborhood that you can’t get to stay off your front stoop no matter how hard you try. Just when you think he’s out of your hair for good, he shows up again with that Cheshire grin belying his belief that he’s the luckiest dude alive. Six Final Fours in twelve years is one better than it was last year (five in eleven), and yet everyone acts completely shocked and amazed that he’s back in the Four with much the same group of players. How weak are people’s memories? This is what Izzo does — this trip will make the second time that his team has reached the final weekend as a #5 seed — and it’s not a mere coincidence. Everyone knew that he had the talent this season (see above re: preseason ranking), but all of the turmoil surrounding player roles and injuries led people (including us) to believe he wasn’t going to be able to find the combinations to get it done again. Here’s a bracketing lesson for all of us next year and the years beyond that: Wherever Michigan State is seeded, just put the Spartans in the Final Four and don’t look back. Your odds are much better doing it that way than actually trying to analyze the matchups and break down the games. Izzo is a March master, and how anyone can doubt this guy’s abilities is beyond comprehension.
Butler is No George Mason. To a casual fan, he sees that Butler is in the Final Four this weekend and he’s thinking George Mason all over again. This lazy thinking is a serious mistake. Mason was an #11 seed who benefited from catching two teams by surprise in the first two rounds, followed by veritable home games in DC against another Cindy Wichita State in the regional semis and an uber-talented but frustratingly underachieving UConn team in the regional finals. They deserve all the credit they can muster for winning those games, without question, but things broke well for them to make the run possible. Butler had to play and beat the top two seeds in its region to make the Final Four this year, and they did it by forcing both Syracuse and Kansas State to bend to their style of play and make numerous atypical mistakes. Butler’s defense subjugated two of the most efficient offenses in America into their worst performances of the year, and that’s no more a coincidence than Izzo above still having games to play. Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen (combined 20-52 FGs) are undoubtedly still having nightmares of Butler defenders securing temporary eminent domain over their jockstraps. The key takeaway here is that Butler will defend Michigan State just like the others, and if they can find enough offense themselves through Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and friends, they are plenty good enough to continue to advance.
Bob Huggins, White Knight. One thing we noticed traveling around over the weekend was that every hoophead around the country was unilaterally rooting for West Virginia to take out John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night. In the sports bar we were in during that game, Syracuse, Butler, K-State and Xavier fans were teamed up pulling for the Mountaineers. We’ve picked up similar anecdotes from around the country since then — nobody wanted Kentucky to win that game. We believe that this sentiment derives from a general feeling that Calipari is a dirty coach who cheats to get his players, but the irony of everyone outside of the Bluegrass backing Bob Huggins wasn’t lost on us. Since when is tHuggins Huggins the white knight here to save college basketball from agents, cheaters and bags full of money? Surely people remember his endless problems at Cincinnati with players failing to graduate, numerous asundry brushes with the law, and failing to exert institutional control? No? Look, we get that people don’t like Calipari and, by proxy, Kentucky; but isn’t Huggins quite possibly worse given the history of lawlessness on his teams?
Raise Your Hand if You Had Zoubek. If you were thinking that Brian Zoubek (and to a lesser extent, the Plumlees) was the key to Duke’s long-term success prior to this season, make sure to pat yourself on the back for us. His double-wide presence in the post allows Duke to do two things that they weren’t able to do in previous years with this group of mostly perimeter scorers. First, on the defensive end, he allows the Duke man defense to overplay as K’s best teams are accustomed to doing. It’s not like Zoubek is Tim Duncan back there patrolling the rim, but he’s big enough to get in the way of opposing drivers and he’s not afraid to use all five of his fouls to inflict punishment on those wayfarers into the paint. This is a major reason Duke’s defensive efficiency is up to third in the country this season. Second, he’s the best per-minute offensive rebounder in the nation (yes, even better than DeMarcus Cousins), and he has seven double-figure rebounding games since Valentine’s Day. In the Tournament, he’s corralled sixteen additional possessions for the Devils, and with the nation’s most efficient offense, that equals points. In close games, an extra 4-6 points on putbacks and kickouts can make the difference between advancing and going home. Say what you like about Duke’s three-S trio of Scheyer, Smith and Singler, but Zoubek is the lesser-known but just as important reason that Duke is back in the Final Four for the first time in six seasons.
The Do-Everything Forward. It’s an odd peculiarity that every one of the four teams remaining is led by a versatile do-it-all forward, without whom’s play last weekend they most certainly wouldn’t still be around. WVU’s Da’Sean Butler, Butler’s Gordon Hayward, MSU’s Raymar Morgan and Duke’s Kyle Singler represent the ongoing evolution of the college game away from back-to-the-basket forwards/centers to centerpiece players who can handle, shoot, drive and rebound from anywhere on the court. In eight games this weekend, these four players averaged 15/6 and generally acted as the conduits through which their team’s offense flowed. It will likely be on the backs and talents of these four players that ultimately decides who will take home the hardware next weekend.
Butler’s Home Angle Will Be Cool. In 1994, Duke played two quasi-home games in the Charlotte Coliseum at the Final Four (losing in the title game to Arkansas), and in 1972, LA played host to the final weekend while nearby UCLA won its sixth straight national championship. Neither of those situations will be anything like this coming weekend, though. Even though Duke is on Tobacco Road, it’s still a long way from the preferred program, finding itself behind UNC and NC State on most Carolinian’s lists. In Los Angeles, UCLA hoops was a bigger deal then that it is now, but it remains laid-back and balmy Southern California and the attention deficit disorder inherent in Angelenos was no different then than it is today. But Butler? In Indy? It’s no secret that Hoosiers are obsessive about their basketball, so we liken this situation to something that much more closely resembles what the Canadian men’s hockey team had last month in the Vancouver Olympics — every other team is going to be playing a true road game. We expect that the entire state of Indiana — including Purdue, IU and Notre Dame fans — has already rallied around the small college on the north side of Indianapolis, and any ‘neutral’ observer in the 75,000 seat Lucas Oil Stadium will come to the games ready to scream for the Bulldogs. If this were such an inherent home court advantage for any other team, we’d probably be writing screeds about how unfair it all will be. But we don’t care. This is a mid-major program who knocked off Syracuse and Kansas State to get to play at home — they say that every dog has its day, well Butler’s is now.
Very Good But Not Good Enough. Kansas State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Baylor all had great seasons that their fans should be proud of. But each also had a significant weakness that their coaches should address in the coming offseason through either repetition or recruiting. K-State needs to develop another reliable inside threat to go along with the less-reliable Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels. Rising sophomore and Burger Boy Wally Judge needs to be that player. UK needs to find a drop-dead outside shooter — the Lee Humphrey to go along with all the nasty pro prospects that Calipari will continue to bring to the school. There’s no excuse for taking and missing twenty threes in a row in a single game. Tennessee needs Scotty Hopson to make the leap and become the dominant wing that we all know he can be. Next year could be and should be his breakout season. Baylor has everything going in the right direction, but Scott Drew needs to make sure that he continues to find athletes who will defend for him rather than falling into the trap of recruiting me-first stars now that Baylor has name recognition beyond Waco for once. There should be minimal dropoff among these four teams next year, though. Obviously, Kentucky will lose the most but we expect that Calipari will just reload and once again dominate a relatively weak SEC.