Final Four Game AnalysisPosted by rtmsf on April 2nd, 2010
RTC will break down the Final Four games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses. Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds. Here are Saturday evening’s national semifinals…aka…THE FINAL FOUR!
6:07 pm – #5 Michigan State vs. #5 Butler The winner of this game will have a built-in motivational mechanism, since this game is popularly considered the “Who will lose to West Virginia or Duke on Monday?” game. Best be careful, because as we know, there’s almost no better way to get your guys ready to play than to tell them that it’s them against the world. That nobody respects them. That everyone expects them to lose and lose big. In the case of Butler, I know I wouldn’t want to face a team playing in their home city and with that motivational tool. A lot is being made of the home crowd advantage that Butler supposed to enjoy this weekend, but I ask you: because people love the storyline of a mid-major getting to the Final Four, in what city could you play this thing where Butler wouldn’t have most of the fans in the arena rooting for them? I’ll tell you — East Lansing, Durham, and Morgantown (or anywhere else in West Virginia). Well, we’re not in any of those towns. Let me just add this…walking around this downtown area, I see mostly Butler fans, which is understandable. But it’s not like the Duke, Michigan State, and West Virginia fans stayed home. It’s Lucas Oil Stadium, people. It seats over 70,000 (it must, to qualify to host this thing). The freakin’ Colts play here. The Butler cheers might be loud, but the other squads will have their supporters, too. As to what’s going to happen on the floor, watch the boards. This will be a rebounding battle for the ages, because it’s the biggest disparity between the two teams. It’s not something Butler does particularly well, and it’s Michigan State’s greatest strength. Brad Stevens knows his boys have to swarm the glass to have a chance. They’ve done everything else he’s asked of them in each tournament game, not to mention the rest of the season, and I wouldn’t doubt that you’ll see them turn in their biggest effort on the boards this whole year on Saturday evening. Can Butler do it but still stay out of foul trouble?
What you’ll also see in this game are two of the most efficient basketball teams in the country. Butler might be a little more famous for it, but the Spartans can match them. It’s a strange delight to watch two teams that excel at that aspect of the game; you’ve got perfect offensive sets, multiple players moving without the basketball, screens, rolls, back door cuts, great interior passing, scores on almost every possession, and exemplary shooting…and yet you’ll look at the scoreboard and be flummoxed to find that both teams have combined for only about 80 points with five minutes left. This game gives us two of the best at this. Butler will not back down from a physical battle. Of any ranked team this year, the ‘Dawgs are one of the most bullying — they’re just really sneaky about it (except Matt Howard). They don’t just turn and look at the rim; they box out, hard. They don’t just give up position down low; they’re right at home in wrestling with you on the block; they don’t just let guys cut through the lane without letting the cutters feel it. And most impressively, they don’t stand on defense; they — gasp! — get down in a defensive stance and play guys tight in the backcourt. The individual matchups are even remarkably appealing on paper — Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers vs Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley, Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward vs Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green (and Delvon Roe). It’s going to be a pleasure to watch.
The Skinny: To make a prediction seems like an insult to one of these teams, and that’s tough to do, having enjoyed them both all season. We’ve picked against Tom Izzo and his Spartans in all but one of their tournament games this time around, and look where that’s gotten us. Our readers in the MSU camp probably wish we’d do it again, but we can’t do that. High-scoring, low-scoring…who cares? What fun it will be. If we have to go on the record, though, we’ve learned our lesson, Spartan fans. Trusting Butler doesn’t go on a three-point barrage early behind Mack, Hayward, and Zach Hahn, we’ll take Michigan State to pull away with about three minutes left as the Bulldogs’ foul trouble takes its toll. Now you know why we’re not telling any of these Indianapolis people where we’re staying.
8:37 pm – #1 Duke vs. #2 West Virginia. This semifinal has been touted as the de facto national title game by some media members. While we don’t agree with that assessment we do agree that the winner will be a pretty heavy favorite heading into Monday night. The Mountaineers come into this game as slight underdogs, but after their performance against Kentucky last weekend most analysts would probably consider this game a toss-up. Even though West Virginia comes into this game as the lower seed and underdog, they will not be the ones with chips on their shoulders. That distinction belongs to the Duke Blue Devils, who lost to West Virginia two years ago and then were mocked in the post-game comments by several Mountaineer players. It was one thing for the Blue Devils to be mocked by the Mountaineers star Joe Alexander (now with a career 4.2 PPG and 1.8 RPG average as the #8 overall pick in 2008) who, when told by a reporter that eight Duke players had been McDonald’s all-Americans, responded by asking, “Who?” It was quite another thing to be shown up by little-used (at the time) Mountaineer guard Joe Mazzulla who entered the game by mocking the Duke floor-slap, then proceeded to torch the Blue Devils for 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists prompting Coach K to refer to him as a “mini-Jason Kidd” after the game. And then there was Cam Thoroughman (averaging 1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.5 APG, and 1.4 fouls per game) who, when told that Greg Paulus had been a McDonald’s all-American, replied “Oh, my God. Are you kidding?” While it may seem like a distant memory with all of Duke’s recent NCAA Tournament failures, and while Krzyzewski has downplayed the significance of those comments leading up to this game, we guarantee you that several of Duke’s upperclassmen who played in that game — that is, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas – are well-aware of those barbs.
This time, West Virginia is more of a known entity, but it still has a defined superstar in Da’Sean Butler and Mazzulla can still fill up a box score (just ask any Kentucky fan about that), and Duke still has a bevy of McDonald’s all-Americans. However that is where the similarities stop. In 2008, Duke was a talented team that was either unwilling or unable to compete on the boards against the Mountaineers getting out-rebounded 45-19 (that’s not a typo). That will not be the case on Saturday night with this Duke team that works as hard in the paint as any team in the country, to which Scott Drew, Ekpe Udoh, and the rest of the Baylor Bears can attest. This time Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, and Butler will have their hands full underneath the basket with Zoubek, Singler, Thomas, and the Plumlees. While Duke won’t dominate them offensively under the basket like DeMarcus Cousins did, they certainly will compete with the Mountaineers for every rebound and might even hold the rebounding advantage. On the perimeter the game will probably come down to a few key factors: Duke’s shooting from the outside, whether or not Truck Bryant will play, and Duke’s ability to defend Butler. While much of the attention following the Mountaineers’ win was focused on Mazzulla and their great 3-point shooting, the real key to the game was Kentucky’s atrocious shooting from beyond the arc (4-32). Even though Duke lacks the long-range bomber in the mold of Trajan Langdon, Jason Williams, and J.J. Redick, they still manage to shoot 38.5% from 3-point range as a team, so we highly doubt that the Mountaineers will be able to accumulate such a big advantage from the perimeter. On the other end, Duke will need to find a way to contain Butler and quite frankly they don’t have an individual defender who can match-up with him, so they will need to utilize a team-oriented approach to defending him — or hope that Bob Huggins forgets to utilize him for large stretches of the game like Scott Drew did with LaceDarius Dunn in the Elite 8. Even with Butler’s brilliance, the Mountaineers will need another player to step-up and provide Butler with some support offensively. The question is, which Mountaineer will it be? Jones, the almost forgotten man on this team? Ebanks, the potential lottery pick? Mazzulla, the one who has shown up in big games again and again? If the Mountaineers are able to find that secondary scorer, they just might be able to push Coach K’s “title-less” streak to nearly a decade. If they don’t, the Yankees of college basketball could be playing for yet another title on Monday night.
The Skinny: In the Elite Eight, Kentucky couldn’t hit a shot from outside to save their season. West Virginia won’t be so fortunate on Saturday, as Singler, Scheyer, and Smith will find a way to hit from the outside. Even if one of them has an off night, the other two should be enough to push Duke over the top and Coach K will return to the title game for the first time in nearly a decade.