Over the next two days, RTC will break down the regional final 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 night’s games from the East and West Regionals.
4:30 pm – #2 Kansas State vs. #5 Butler (West Region)
This is an unusual regional final, in that two teams that are not typically in this position are facing off for a right to go to the Final Four next weekend. Which is not to say that either team is undeserving or somehow less worthy, it’s just to point out the uniqueness of it. The last time the Wildcats were playing this far into the NCAA Tournament, Ronald Reagan was still governing the country and the four letters USSR actually meant something to people under thirty. The last time Butler played this deep into March? Well, they haven’t. As in, this is the Bulldogs’ first trip to the Elite Eight. So from the perspective of seeing some new blood pushing through to the game’s grandest stage in Indianapolis, this should be compelling theater. And the hoops ain’t half bad either. K-State brings an athletic, gritty, defensive-minded team into this game, led by their duo of electrifying guards, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. They don’t always shoot the ball well and they sometimes utilize questionable shot selection, but when the game is on the line as it was on Thursday evening against Xavier, Clemente (25/5/5 assts) and Pullen (28/4) made the plays necessary to win the game. Butler, on the other hand, is a bit more balanced in their offense with scoring threats at every position, but the Bulldog defense is really what defines Brad Stevens’ team. Riding a 23-game winning streak on the backs of the stickiness of it, there simply are no completely open looks against this team. When Pullen and Clemente come off their curls and screens, they’ll find a Butler player waiting for them in much the same way that Andy Rautins and the other Syracuse shooters did on Thursday. Correspondingly, the one area where SU held a significant advantage over Butler — powerful inside players — ended up being neutralized by the extreme difficulty that the Orange had in getting the ball into those players on the blocks. K-State’s inside trio of Dominique Sutton, Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels are all talented but not the offensive threats posed by Syracuse’s bigs, so we think that this game will ultimately be decided on the perimeter. If the Butler team defense can force a relatively poor shooting night from the Wildcat guards, a combined 11-30 or so, we think that the game will be low-scoring enough for the Bulldogs to sneak through and head back home to Indy with a regional championship in tow. Butler can get enough points from their options of Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, or Willie Veasley, so if any one player is off, another is capable of stepping up. All they really will need to score is in the 60-70 point range. Similar to the Syracuse game, if they can hang with KSU until the end, they’re poised enough to pull the victory out.
The Skinny: Call us crazy or just plain sentimental, but we’re going Norman Dale with the upset. The rims are still only ten feet tall no matter who you’re lined up against, and there’s no telling when Butler will have another shot like this. We think the Bulldogs will shock the world with its own personal Cinderella story by heading back home to Indianapolis, a mere five miles from their campus.
7:05 pm – #1 Kentucky vs. #2 West Virginia (East Region)
The best regional final this season will take place in Syracuse, where chalk prevailed to bring us a 1 vs. 2 matchup of Kentucky and West Virginia. Of course, if the Selection Committee had any sense two weeks ago, this game wouldn’t have happened until Indianapolis. One can make the argument that these are the two best teams remaining in the field. West Virginia methodically dispatched of red hot Washington in their semifinal while Kentucky amassed one of the more impressive Tournament in-game runs in recent memory to vanquish Cornell’s season. The two teams meet on the Carrier Dome floor playing their best basketball of the season- Kentucky running and gunning behind their three lottery picks and West Virginia molding into an elite rebounding and defensive squad that simply wears you out.
This should be an ultra competitive and physical game, especially in the post. The key for the Mountaineers on the defensive end will be containing John Wall. Darryl Bryant is injured and Joe Mazzulla isn’t quick enough to hang with Wall for an extended period of time, so look for Huggins to plug 6’8 point forward Devin Ebanks and his incredible wingspan on the future #1 pick. The problem that poses for Huggins is that decision keeps Ebanks out of the post where Kentucky can play both DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. It’s going to take a stellar effort from Wellington Smith, Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and John Flowers to keep the two Kentucky behemoths in check. With four serviceable big men, they shouldn’t be afraid to foul and send Cousins to the free throw line to earn his points. Also, analysts talk about how no team works harder than West Virginia. They’ll need to work as hard for 40 minutes as they have all season, most notably on the backboards.
The other question: can West Virginia score enough points to match Kentucky? The Wildcats scored just over seven points per contest more than the Mountaineers during the regular season and numbers on defense are about identical. If Kentucky defends similarly to their effort against Cornell, I have a hard time seeing West Virginia stay with Big Blue, especially if Darius Miller replicates his stalwart defense on Da’Sean Butler. John Calipari’s UMass and Memphis teams that were successful always gave 100% on the defensive end of the floor. With so many young and hyped players, that was a constant question mark. If anyone has watched their three games in this NCAA Tournament, though, that question has turned into a statement.
Skinny: Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite remaining in the Dance, but West Virginia is more than capable of crashing the party. It will take their best performance of the season on both ends, from neutralizing the stronger Cousins and Patterson on the glass to dismissing Kentucky’s transition game to keeping John Wall in front of them to Butler scoring at least 25 points. I believe Kentucky will impose their style of play about midway through the second half, go on one of their patented runs and pull away for a spot in Indianapolis. The way Kentucky is playing right now, how can anyone pick against them unless you bleed blue and gold? But that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.