Will Duke Wonder How Butler Did It?

By Jeff Rapp, April 5th, 2010

First of all, I admitted defeat in this space two days ago as my bracket most definitely was busted, especially in the impossible-to-predict Midwest Region.

So I can at least feel like I redeemed myself somewhat by correctly tabbing mighty mite Butler and big, bad Duke to win Saturday night’s national semifinals and advance to tonight’s championship game.

It’s still kind of hard to believe, even after all the Madness that occurred on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and all the unpredictability throughout, that Butler is playing for the national championship. It’s one of those deals that has to be broken up by periods for full effect. NCAA title game. Butler. In its hometown. That’s Butler.

With that said, the Bulldogs might actually pull this off (and I hope they do).

Dick Vitale related tonight’s matchup to Georgetown-Villanova of 1985. That’s not far off at all. If Butler earns the crown tonight, people are going to remember the moment for decades, they are going to be able to associate the year to it and they are going to recall the 2010 NCAA Tournament as one of the wackiest of all time.

And then they are going to wonder why they expanded to 96 teams the following year, but I digress.

Still, here we go: Butler, a 5-seed and the champion of the Horizon League in its first-ever Final Four vs. Duke, kingpin of the ACC playing in its 15th Final Four and as the only remaining 1-seed.

David vs. Goliath? Yeah, why not.

Here is my breakdown on tonight’s game:

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Who: Butler (33-4) vs. Duke (34-5)
When: 9:21 p.m. Eastern
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Line: Duke by 6½

Path To The Final: Butler was the only team in the nation to win every single game in its conference and entered the tournament with a nation’s best 19-game win string. As a 5-seed in the West Region, the Bulldogs took down 12-seed UTEP and nipped 13-seed Murray State to advance to the Sweet 16 then played some high-level basketball to dispose of top-seeded Syracuse and second-seeded Kansas State in Salt Lake City to reach the Final Four. On Saturday night, BU took down Midwest champ Michigan State by two points to keep this improbable run alive.

Duke is in its first Final Four since 2004 and in the title game for the first time since 2001. The Blue Devils received a No. 1 seed in the South Region after tying for the ACC Championship and then winning the conference tournament. They opened with an easy win over play-in winner Arkansas-Pine Bluff and then bested 8-seed California, 4-seed Purdue and 3-seed Baylor, all by double digits, to reach the Final Four. In Saturday night’s nightcap, they pulled away from East champion West Virginia in an impressive 21-point win. WVU star Da’Sean Butler was injured in that game, but not until Duke already had a 15-point lead.

What To Watch: This is must-see TV, at least for those in the Eastern time zone who can stay up until nearly midnight to see it.

Duke is supposed to win this game going away and the Blue Devils certainly have made their mark so far in this tournament with deadly outside shooting, laudable team defense and efficiency on the backboards. Plus, add in the experience factor and that Mike Krzyzewski will be manning the sideline and it’s difficult – very difficult – to go against the favorites here.

Duke has three scorers who can erupt at any moment in forward Kyle Singler and guards Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. Plus, frontliners Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas have done a very good job of fulfilling their roles with solid defense, rebounding at key times and keeping the ball moved to shooters.

The most pleasant surprise for Dookies – who, let’s face it are usually only surprised when their team loses – has been the Blue Devils’ dominance on the offensive glass so far. Duke grabbed 23 offensive rebounds against Baylor in the Elite Eight, and then picked up another 11 against West Virginia in the semifinals on Saturday. The Devils rank sixth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 40.4 percent of the available boards.

Butler, meanwhile, ranks 14th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing offensive boards just 27.6 percent of the time. Still, Zoubek is going to be hard to handle inside with his burly 7-foot frame and energy while Thomas and Smith are outstanding athletes who are tough to block out.

Duke is not a very deep team, but Coach K has some towers to call on in twins Miles and Mason Plumlee. Plus, Butler could be severely hindered if crafty center Matt Howard can’t play. He was bonked on the head Saturday and is considered to be a game-time decision (although I would expect him to go). Howard has battled foul trouble throughout the tourney and is averaging just 6.0 points per game because of it, but he can make a difference in the paint and, ultimately, the game.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also are crossing their fingers that star guard Shelvin Mack is ready to go after he missed much of the MSU contest with leg cramps. Mack is a former point guard who can handle the ball and also go on the attack. He’s not afraid at all to take big shots. Plus, he’s a physical guard who could slow down Smith. Clearly, Butler needs Mack on the court playing at top level to think about pulling off this upset.

Even while Duke was deconstructing West Virginia I felt while watching that Butler would be able to do a better job on both ends of the floor. The Bulldogs have more patience and better ball movement and should get respectable looks from the field against Duke. However, it’s safe to say they are not going to be able to get away with shooting 30.6 percent, including 23.8 percent from long range, as they did against Michigan State.

Mack and forward Gordon Hayward are going to have to come up big and contributions from others are a must as well. Forward Willie Veasley and sixth man Zach Hahn need to join the party offensively.

On defense, Butler should do a better job than WVU of protecting the paint but still getting out on shooters. Still, Duke is capable of putting on an outside shooting clinic, and that would be death even for a Butler team that has managed to keep every NCAA tourney foe below 60 points.

Key Facet: Defending without fouling.

This may explain the game’s outcome as much as anything. Butler actually is not a great outside shooting team and excels as much as anything offensively at getting to the charity stripe. Duke, as usual, plays an aggressive, gambling style on defense but will have to dial that back a bit so as not to give BU the free-throw/foul advantage. The same goes for Butler defensively considering Duke is an outstanding free-throw shooting team.

The way these two teams defend – and the way that defense is interpreted by the referees – is going to go a long, long way in deciding the national championship.

Key matchup: Scheyer vs. Ronald Nored

Plainly put, if Scheyer goes off tonight, the Blue Devils are going to be kissing a plaque with confetti falling from the arena rafters around them. That’s where Nored comes into the picture.

The defensive player of the year in the Horizon League, Nored is only a sophomore and is listed just 6-0 and 174 pounds. However, he is a gritty and willing defender who is adept at shuffling his feet to cut off the drive. He also does a laudable job of challenging shots. Sometimes Nored gets a little overzealous and picks up fouls on reaches and grabs and because of that you can bet Duke is still going to test him by setting high picks in an attempt to work Scheyer free.

The other key matchup, it could be argued, is on the opposing benches as the 63-year-old Krzyzewski is right at home in this setting while the 33-year-old Brad Stevens, is trying to prove to the world that he belongs. Look for Stevens to maintain his impressive poise and even come up with a wrinkle or two for Coach K. Still, it’s likely that the elder statesman is going to get more consideration from the zebras.

Duke by 5