National Championship Game AnalysisPosted by jstevrtc on April 4th, 2010
RTC has attempted to break down the NCAA Tournament and 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 our thoughts on the national title game. Whomever you’re rooting for, we hope you enjoy it.
9:07 PM — #1 Duke vs #5 Butler
The six months since practices started have passed like a dream. As fans of college basketball, we travel this road every year from mid-October to early April. We always know our destination well in advance, we just don’t know who we’re going to find there. Therein lies the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. The entirety of that six months is spent trying to determine one thing: who’s playin’ on Monday night.
What a situation in which we find ourselves at the end of this particular journey. The fates have determined that the answer to the second most important question of the season is, “Butler and Duke.” There’s only one question left, the biggest one of all. All those practices, weightlifting sessions, sprints, miles, interviews, and games for each of these players on those two teams is now distilled down to one query:
What will you do on Monday night?
You’ll hear this game described in many ways over the next 24 hours. David vs Goliath. Big vs small. Major vs mid-major. And on this day, considered so solemn by so many, you’ll even see it described as Good vs Evil. It’s not entirely true. We’ll acknowledge that it doesn’t get much more Goliath-like, big, or major than Duke. And because of that, no team in the nation is more polarizing. The mere mention of Duke Basketball can divide a room faster than a British Parliament vote. There is no neutrality on this issue among sports fans. One of the reasons so many people dislike the program is because there are so many people who like it. That is, there are countless Duke fans who have no ties to the school and would struggle to find Durham, North Carolina on a map, but defend their Duke fandom and their right to it as if they were sixth-generation alumni. On the other side, there are those who condemn Duke simply for being in a big conference and having a lot of money to spend on their athletes and the program in general. We prefer to keep the morality issues out of it and stick to basketball, but consider this: before the money and the officially unaffiliated fans will come, there has to be winning. You don’t — or shouldn’t, in a perfect world — gain such things from losing.
Butler, interestingly — because they represent everything that’s said to be the David, the small, the mid-major — has inspired little more than neutrality or apathy among college basketball followers. Yet, on this day more than any other in their history, they find themselves with legions of new fans, most of them with no ties to the school or the program. And it’s not because they, too, have developed a culture of basketball excellence that existed long before Saturday night. It’s not because of the quiet, unassuming, humble man who leads them, known more for looking less than his age than for his ability to coach beyond it. It’s not because of the 25-game winning streak. It’s not because of this NCAA Tournament run, or the Final Four. There are many reasons to be a Butler fan, and there are better ones than the ones I’ve listed. Butler’s new fans have not arrived for any of these reasons. Why do they exist? Because of who Butler plays on Monday night.
As for the game itself, there’s little that can be said about these teams that hasn’t been said. Butler knows that job one is to somehow put a dent in the Big Three, but they can’t forget about the Other Two. Brian “Don’t Call Him Greg” Zoubek has shown that he’s not just a “serviceable” big man and a space-filler. He’s found his niche as a rebounder and you can see him improve at it each game. He’s also become one of the best in the nation at moving the ball from the post to the hands of an open three-point shooter. Wonder why Duke seems to get more wide open three-point shots than other teams? Watch where the pass came from. Lance Thomas can go on game-turning rebounding runs and is begging the Bulldogs to forget about him. The Big Three are massive, but the Other Two — along with the physical play of the Brothers Plumlee — can bury you by a different route. Part of The Krzyzewski Way is that he brings in kids whom he knows he can get to embrace these allegedly lesser roles.
Butler will change exactly nothing as part of their mission to dilute the Big Three. By now, their defense is famous and their physicality is not so much sneaky as it is just imposing. Gordon Hayward is a viable defender for either Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith or Kyle Singler (or, to be sure, any Duke player except for Zoubek), and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him guard all three of them over the course of the night. The only scenario in which we see Matt Howard not playing is if he’s actually lassoed by a neurologist, but the story here is how Butler has learned how to play without him as the year progressed. Avery Jukes has had a lot to do with that. Indeed, the Howard-Jukes “secondary” defensive effort on whomever they’re assigned should have a major impact on this game.
The most intriguing aspect of this game might not even take place within the lines, but rather just to the side of them. Mike Krzyzewski has seen this movie. Hell, he’s STARRED in this movie several times. Brad Stevens obviously hasn’t, but from looking at him, you’d think that if a fault line opened up right under Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night, he’d just maintain expression, shrug his shoulders, and calmly start helping people out of the craggy abyss. He’s unflappable, to say the least. If he’s intimidated, he won’t show it, and sometimes that’s enough. We can’t wait, though, to see what Krzyzewski’s concocted in order to poke holes in that steely Butler defense, and we can’t wait to see how Stevens responds, and what defensve assignments he makes to start.
The Skinny: To make a prediction seems insulting to these teams, but we won’t stop now. There are no two teams in the nation who execute what’s in their coaches’ heads better than these two. Brad Stevens knows that beating Duke is a two-pronged proposition: you’ve got to guard the three, and you’ve got to own the glass. If there’s one team that can match up with Duke in that way, it’s Butler. Butler closes out on threes (and sometimes even prevents the catch before the three) better than anyone else, so Bulldog fans should have no fear, there. That leaves the question of rebounding. Our feeling is that Duke, with as many as three players dedicated almost solely to this task on that team, will be too tough on the glass. In another phenomenal basketball game, we predict Duke to win. We predict that Mike Krzyzewski will earn his fourth national championship, tying him with Adolph Rupp, leaving only John Wooden to overcome, if such a thing is really possible. Butler will always be the story of this tournament and this Final Four. But we think Duke will be it’s champion.