On one side of the bracket that went busted a day into the NCAA Tournament, we have two Cinderella teams hoping that the crystal shoe will fit them at the end. On the other, we have two power-conference juggernauts trying to spoil the folk tale’s happy ending.
It’s not a good vs. evil story. It’s merely the Final Four, and its two No. 5 seeds (injury-riddled Michigan State and Butler) battling each other for one spot in the championship game while the ACC’s and No. 1 seed Duke combats the Big East’s and No. 2 West Virginia for the other. Two feel-good stories vs. two bracket-saving, household names.
It should be fun. Let’s take a look at those Final Four-ers.
Even though it’s a second consecutive Final Four trip for the Spartans (28-8), the state of Michigan should still be pleasantly shocked to find them there. Michigan State has walked on the borderline of survival in every round to reach these instances, having won its four games by an average of 3.25 points. Clutchness and healthy doses of guards Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers have done the trick. They have the Spartans feeling they can go from 2009 runner-ups to 2010 champions despite their major underdog status.
However, when it comes to underdogs, no team barks louder than the Bulldogs of Butler (32-4). Fans are growing either hopeful or tired of hearing about how this team’s run is not unlike that of the Hickory team from the “Hoosiers” movie, the story of a small-town Indiana high school squad that wins the state championship — my apologies if I ruined the movie for anyone.
The similarities are there. Butler is also from Indiana and plays in the mid-major Horizon League. Adding to that, the Bulldogs have pulled their set of upsets to get to the Final Four. They beat their region’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds — Syracuse and Kansas State, respectively — to get a shot at the title while playing in their home state.
As it’s been the case all tournament long, swingman Gordon Hayward will be key for Butler, not just because of his team-leading scoring but because of his rebounding. The sophomore will need to set a tone on the glass and hope his teammates follow. Michigan State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and extra possessions could be the difference. The Spartans, for their part, must take Butler’s playing-at-home spirit out right off the bat. And they shouldn’t rely on their crunch-time skills. Butler, which comes into the game having won 24 consecutive games, has been just as good in those instances this tournament.
Whichever squad remains alive after the underdog-off will have to face a powerhouse in the championship game. Duke (33-5), thought by many to be the most vulnerable No. 1 Tournament seed, is the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. The “Big Three,” guards Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler, combine for about 70 percent of the Blue Devils’ total scoring and has carried Duke past every team it was supposed to beat. Now, however, Duke, a team that relies heavily on three-point shooting, will face its biggest offensive test against a lengthy West Virginia (31-6) squad that forced another No. 1 seed, Kentucky, into misfiring on 28-of-32 three-point attempts in their Elite Eight match.
The Mountaineers not only are long and effective zone defenders but also feature one of the most exciting players in the field: forward Da’Sean Butler. Butler hasn’t needed to hit any big shots this post-season as West Virginia hasn’t had any major scares during its run, but Butler is one bad dude when called upon, as proven by his two game-winners in the Big East Tournament. He and forward Devin Ebanks are the Mountaineers’ main offensive weapons.
Smith is the guy for Duke. His ability to break down defenses and create, along with his reliable jump shot, could have West Virginia scrambling out of their zone defense rather early. The Blue Devils are an outstanding shooting team, and the Mountaineers might not have a choice but to play them man-to-man. How West Virginia adjusts to Duke’s shooting ability will be the deciding factor. And it would also help the Mountaineers if they could make a couple of shots. Defense is what’s gotten them this far, but they’re the worst shooting team remaining. West Virginia has shot less than 42 percent in all of their tournament wins.
Because of its underdog of underdogs’ status, Butler is the team that seemingly everyone wants to win it all, especially because the Bulldogs are playing in front of their home crowd. Michigan State will be a tough rival, but these teams are evenly-matched. Meanwhile, on the other side, Duke will need a good shooting day to get past the Mountaineers, who will pray for an average shooting day to help them get back to the championship game for the first time since 1959. It should be fun.
Predictions that will probably be completely wrong: Butler and Duke advance. And Duke wins it all.