NCAA Tourney: Final Four Preview
Butler Bulldogs (32-4) vs.
Michigan State Spartans (28-8)
6:07 pm EDT
Butler enters the Final Four for the very first time in school history, but does so with a flourish, sporting not only the best record of all participants, but also the longest winning streak in the nation, a solid 24 straight.
The Bulldogs will have the advantage of playing just 7 miles from their campus, in what amounts to a short home tournament. They will benefit from having many of their fans n hand, though that could also work as a distraction leading up to the Saturday games and possibly a final game showdown for all the marbles.
Butler is led by Gordon Hayward, the Horizon League Player of the Year, who brings size and talent to the front court. In the big games, Hayward has stepped up. He scored 17 points with 5 rebounds against Syracuse and had 22 and 9 in the reginal final win over Kansas State. A lean, 6'9" forward, he's a nightmare to defend.
Shelvin Mack is the scoring guard for the Bulldogs. He too has been on his game in the tournament. Ouside of his 1-for-10 3-point effort against Syracuse, Mack has nailed 12 of 18 from beyond the arc. His scoring will be essential, but Butler wins with defense, mostly in the form of a 2-1-2 zone.
The Spartans have become accustomed to playing under big lights in big pressure games, so Tom Izzo will have his players ready for action. Michigan State has been hobbled by injury, most notably the loss of point guard Kalin Lucas, who is out for the duration of the tourney but has been admirably replaced by Korie Lucious, who staved off elimination with a last-second three-pointer to shock Maryland in the regional semi-final.
Forwards Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers will be called upon again to carry the scoring load for the Spartans, while Delvon Roe and Draymond Green will do the dirty work under the rim. Summers has carried the team through the tournament, all of which have been close calls for the Spartans. He's scoring at a 20 points per game clip, nearly double his seasonal average. Michigan State comes with grit and determination, but the Bulldogs display much the same attitude. This game will be a war. Butler is a slim, 1 1/2 point favorite.
West Virginia Mountaineers (31-6) vs.
Duke Blue Devils (33-5)
8:47 pm EDT
After the Butler - Michigan St. melange, this game will look like the Varsity kids following the JV game onto the floor. While the previous two teams will be engaged in what may look, at times, like a cage fight, the two more polished squads out of the Big East and ACC bring more finesse and subtlety in their games, especially the Blue Devils.
It's not likely that West Virginia will hold Duke's regular season leading scorer, Kyle Singler, to the 5 points he had in his prior game. Expect Singler to take his shots from the perimeter (he's a 38% three-point shooter) and also bang away inside, though the Mountaineers inside presence should slow him down a little.
Duke's other two top scorers - Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith - both have been on the money during the past two games of the tourney. Smith had a career-high 29 points in the win over Baylor which got Duke on its way to Indianapolis. Scheyer scored 18 against Purdue and poured in 20 against Baylor, hitting 5 3-pointers in the process.
Of the many edges Duke has in this game, their front court size and free throw shooting should serve them well. Brian Zoubek goes 7'1", starter Lance Thomas stands 6'8" and the two Plumlees - Miles and Mason - each go 6'10" and should see plenty of floor time. At the foul line, Scheyer hits at an 88% clip; Singler, 79%, Smith, 78%, and all three get there with stunning regularity.
West Virginia appears to have destiny on their side. Coach Bob Huggins, who played for the Mountaineers from 1975-77, is in his third year with the school, and has developed a great rapport with his players, many of whom he personally recruited. The go-to guy is slick DaSean Butler, who has made a case for himself as tournament MOP. After seeing limited action - and just 9 points - in the opening round win over Morgan St., he put up 28, 14 and 18 points in wins over Missouri, Washington and Kentucky, nabbing 27 rebounds along the way. Butler, a senior, is the floor leader and, if the game comes down to one shot, he will be the one taking it.
Up front, the Mountaineers can keep fresh, tall bodies flowing into the game. Deniz Kilicli, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones can all rebound and defend, though they, like most of the West Virginia squad, are not particularly deadly on the perimeter. Point guard Joe Mazzula played a pivotal role in the win over Kentucky and he'll need to step it up again. The condition of Darryl "Truck" Bryant, who was the regular point guard until suffering a broken bone in his foot, is still up in the air. He hasn't practiced as of Tuesday, though it was announced that he would play against Duke. Having him back would be a boost.
In order to win this game, West Virginia will have to challenge Duke's outside shooters and maintain a solid presence inside, easier said than done. The match-ups favor Duke in many regards and the Mountainers are not a good free throw shooting team. Of the starters, Butler is the leader, at 78%. Not surprisingly, Duke is favored by 3 points.