Breaking Down The Final Four

By Jeff Rapp, April 3rd, 2010

I limp into this segment after struggling mightily to predict the Midwest Regional portion of the bracket but, hey, I am in good company there. Plus, last time I checked in I successfully picked Duke and Baylor to advance and meet in the Southeast Regional final.

Anyone who had 5-seed Michigan State taking on 6-seed Tennessee for the right to go to the Final Four, please step forward. Anyone? Didn’t think so.

As has been discussed elsewhere in this site, Michigan State emerged and in the process stole the thunder of Big Ten family member Ohio State. But apparently it is time for OSU followers and the rest of the disappointed to move on and tune in for tonight’s Final Four matchups.

In the first encounter, a pair of 5-seeds battle with the winner to take on an apparent underdog role in Monday night’s national championship game. In the nightcap, the kingpins of the Big East will battle the champions of the ACC.

Four very good and fortunate teams, three highly accomplished coaches and one who looks like the paperboy. This should be fun.

A peek at what’s in store follows:

NATIONAL SEMIFINAL #1

Who: Michigan State (28-8) vs. Butler (32-4)
When: 6:07 p.m. Eastern
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Line: Butler by 1
What To Watch: This is the alleged “warm-up” to the marquee matchup of the night, but it is highly intriguing. I am left wondering how the Spartans are still playing given their near slip-ups in the first two rounds against New Mexico State and Maryland and the fact that star guard Kalin Lucas is out with a torn Achilles tendon. However, they deserve lots of credit for the clutch play and determination they showed in taking down Northern Iowa and UT in St. Louis.

With Lucas out, guard Durrell Summers has emerged as a qualified star, averaging right around 20 points per game in the tourney. Also, Korie Lucious, the hero against Maryland, is doing all he can at point guard in place of Lucas and is showing the grit that head coach Tom Izzo loves. Meanwhile, the front line play appears to be much improved with senior Raymar Morgan dialed in and Draymond Green playing his best basketball. Morgan is versatile and capable of changing a game on either end of the court. It doesn’t hurt that he will be playing in his 16th NCAA Tournament contest.

The ever-confident Green is a huge key for MSU on both ends of the floor as he often guards the other team’s most dangerous big, keys the rebounding effort and can score and pass out of the high post. Butler is going to have to frustrate him a bit and that may be a tough challenge for BU center Matt Howard, who tends to pick up silly fouls.

With all that said, it’s difficult, almost downright silly, to predict that Butler will crumble in this game. The facts that the Bulldogs have won 32 games this season and will be playing 6 miles from their campus are hard to refute, not to mention the way this team has played to get here.

Ask the national coach of the year, Jim Boeheim, if Syracuse’s Sweet 16 loss to BU was a fluke. Or dig up the box score from the Bulldogs’ shutdown of Kansas State in the Elite Eight and see how the numbers prove that they did indeed hold one of the nation’s most explosive teams to 56 points.

Yes, Butler barely nipped Murray State in the second round but that is the same Murray State squad that took out 4-seed Vanderbilt. And, yes, this appears at first to be a case of a team that will be in over its head – the team starts three sophomores and the expected crowd of 70,000 for tonight’s games doesn’t even compare to the four-figure attendance numbers that are commonplace in the Horizon League – but the pressure really isn’t on Butler.

It would be storybook, of course, for Jimmy Chitwood, er, Gordon Hayward, to win this game in dramatic fashion with a picturesque jump shot, but BU can move on without those kind of dramatics. The Bulldogs have done a very good job of grabbing early leads, controlling tempo and hanging on, and here’s guessing they will do it one more time, provided they hold up on the backboards and Shelvin Mack can keep a hot hand.

Plus, the penalty for losing Lucas has to be paid at some point.

Butler by 4

NATIONAL SEMIFINAL #2

Who: West Virginia (31-6) vs. Duke (33-5)
When: approx. 8:47 p.m. Eastern
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Line: Duke by 2½
What To Watch: I went against conventional wisdom in the first game and I’m inclined to do the same thing here considering WVU appears to be the fashionable pick.

There’s no question that West Virginia is good enough to win this thing now. The Mountaineers have a superstar in Da’Sean Butler and a rebounding force in Devin Ebanks, they play wonderful defense and there is plenty of athleticism to go around and make plays on the offensive end.

Bob Huggins is not exactly a beloved figure outside of Morgantown and Cincinnati but his record speaks for itself. Plus, he led his alma mater to an NCAA Tournament wipeout of Duke in 2008 to highlight his first season at WVU.

However, that leads to the lean toward the Blue Devils, who were humiliated during that defeat and would love to pay back West Virginia.

Plus, Duke, despite its golden boy reputation, has done a very good job in this tournament at coming up with big rebounds. The Devils scored several key buckets down the stretch of the Elite Eight victory over Baylor after snaring offensive boards and have the best rebounding margin of any team in the tournament.

Even though I was in the camp that felt Duke was provided a relatively easy road to the Final Four, one has to admit that the Blue Devils are playing very good basketball. And coach Mike Krzyzewski is blessed with the assets of three legitimate star players in guards Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer and forward Kyle Singler. Meanwhile, center Brian Zoubek has been more than serviceable in the postseason.

This could be a low-scoring game in which both teams have a hard time opening up much ground, but I favor Duke in late-game situations for several reasons – Scheyer is fearless and more than able to hit clutch jump shots, WVU point guard Darryl Bryant is doubtful to play at all, and West Virginia has been very fortunate in close games this seasons.

That luck is going to run out tonight.

Duke by 2

And the winner is … CBS.

If this scenario plays out, the television network stands to reap a potential ratings bonanza on Monday night. Why?

Well, Duke turns on TVs. We already know that. The Blue Devils, as the Indianapolis Star reminded us earlier in the week, are not well-liked. While Michigan State is a proven commodity a lot of fans may not flock to watch if the opponent is Sparty considering MSU was flogged by an ACC team, North Carolina, in last year’s finale.

Also, Butler’s presence keeps the Cinderella notion alive. The Bulldogs have the longest winning streak in the nation and viewers across the country will wonder if they are destined to win it all and beat big, bad Duke. They will be playing in their hometown and a 5-seed probably is due to win this event.

I’m not sure how West Virginia adds any panache to the championship picture and because of that one has to wonder if Duke might benefit from a closely called game tonight. We’ve certainly seen it before, particularly in the 2001 title game with Arizona, which was disgustingly one-sided, and the 2004 Elite Eight contest with Xavier, which denied Thad Matta his first trip to the Final Four.

Butler will have to earn a win over savvy Michigan State but the Bulldogs are more than capable of playing just enough defense and finding a way to triumph in the first semi.

Anyway, there are a few thoughts to chew on before you flip on your TV set or alight at a local establishment tonight. Enjoy the games!