Duke, West Virginia, Michigan State, Butler. Yes, these are your final four teams of the 2009-2010 NCAA basketball season. Obviously there is so much more to talk about than just these teams since two more rounds passed this weekend, but just like last time, it still makes much sense to me to talk about the teams that are still around first. So if you are Syracuse, Kentucky, or Kansas State fan, you are going to have to wait, but we will get to you. But first and foremost, the Final Four is for the teams involved. Sure, it is great for the fans and the sport but above all else, it shows us which four teams have a shot at cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
Perhaps the least surprising of this year’s final four teams, Duke did it the same way they have all year. They got big performancesfrom Scheyer and Smith (Singler not so much), did work on the offensive boards with the brothers Plumlee, Zoubek, and Lance Thomas, and were ruthlessly efficient both on offense and defense. They were surgical against Baylor’s zone, and for much of the game made Baylor slow down and play in the half court. They were clearly less athletic than the freakishly athletic Bears, but their experience and clutch performers were more than enough to carry them to the Final Four. Frankly, their collection of scalps has not been especially impressive (Arkansas Pine-Bluff, California, Hummel-less Purdue, and an underrated Baylor team), but they can only beat the team on the floor and they do not really control who they play. However, Duke should be considered the odds-on favorite to win the tournament at this point. Take the name off the front of their jerseys and the perception that comes with it lately (chokers, not champs) and they should have been among the favorites all year. They have the guard play to win, the big men who can score a little inside and get big rebounds, and the matchup nightmare in Singler who can throw a monkey wrench into teams’ defensive plans. Add to that one of the best coaches in college basketball, senior leadership, and the overall feel of their team and they should be considered the favorites to cut down the nets at the end of the weekend.
Be honest. How weird did it feel to be rooting for Bob Huggins because he was the more stand-up coach in the game? I am guessing it has never happened before and may not happen again unless he faces Calipari again. Apart from that I cannot help but feel that West Virginia got lucky in beating Kentucky. I think they are an outstanding team, and and yet to really lay an egg in a game this tournament, but if I told you that shoots 33% from 3 on the year did not make a 2 point FG in the first half against Kentucky, you would have them down by at least double digits. However, WVU was cooking, hitting 7 3s and 4 free throws to lead 28-26. Combine this anomaly of a three point barrage by WVU and an even worse than normal 3 point shooting performance by Kentucky (4-32 on the game, yikes) and the Mountaineers are only up 2 at the half? What is going on? Watching the first half of that game, two things were clear: Kentucky REALLY cannot shoot, and West Virginia was not going to lose that game because they had clearly hijacked three hundred leprechauns and were forcing them to work for WVU for the next 40 minutes. Not to mention Da’Sean Butler is among the better players that does not get enough credit nationally. He has ice water in his veins and is as versatile as they come. West Virginia is also very long, but lack a big man. The result is looking like they are playing 4 swingmen and a point guard. This is obviously a trade off, but WVU plays very good defense that plays to their long, athletic guys (Jay Bilas would approve of the terminology) and keeps them in games even when they struggle. This is not something you can say about many Final Four teams, but West Virginia really struggles to score sometimes. If not for their superb offensive rebounding and defense, they would be in trouble. It should be very interesting to see them go up against Duke since they both make a living on the offensive glass.
Most people, myself included, wrote off Sparty after they lost Kalin Lucas, but thanks to some fortunate scheduling and great coaching, Tom Izzo is back in the Fianl Four for the 7th time in the last 13 years.Take a minute and think about that. Yeah, 7 out of the last13.Over 50% of the last 13 years, the Spartans have been in the Final Four. I am not sure how else to put it. That is unbelievable. Granted, they have not cashed in quite as many as other teams, but that kind of consistency says a lot about their coach. The Spartans did only have to beat a 12 seed (New Mexico State by 3), 4 seed (at the buzzer against Maryland), a 9 in Northern Iowa, and a 6 in Tennessee. But like Duke, you cannot really hold their competition against them. You can say they have not played elite competition, but with how the field looks this year, there were very few teams who played elite competition with so many flawed teams. The Spartans are not at all sexy, and I doubt most people thought the Spartans would be where they are, but they have booked their tickets to Indy with only three other teams and I would bet a hefty sum that Izzo’s boys do not care who picked them.
Finally we get to the real story. As I have stated in earlier college basketball articles, Butler is not some mid-major sweet 16 team that has no ambitions of more, the Butler Bulldogs are a force, regardless of enrollment (4,300 for the record). Do we start with rising star Gordon Hayward who was outstanding against both Syracuse and Kansas State? Do we start with sparkplug Shelvin Mack who provided instant offense to spark big runs? Or do we start with the usually offensivly-challenged Ronald Nored who all of a sudden is slashing, getting to the rim and just generally being a threat. Surely Syracuse fans would want to start with Willie Veasley, whose dagger 3 from the corner rimmed out, straight up, and back in, which will henceforth be known as The Butler Bounce in and around Indianapolis. You can start in any of these places, but I would rather start with Brad Stevens. No one is getting more out of each of their guys and getting them to work together than Coach Stevens is right now. They are probably one of the least athletic teams in recent memory, but the fact that they absolutely deserved to win all their games so far this tournament while being the less talented team speaks volumes about the team. They have won close games all tournament beating UTEP by decent margin, Murray State by 2, Syracuse in a close game and Kansas State in another close game. What has been so phenomenal while watching these games is that down the stretch, the team with the better athletes and probably individual prospects were not the ones to take over in clutch time, it was the Butler Bulldogs over and over again. Hayward’s steal against Murray State after halting a furious Murray State comeback was epidode 1, the 11-0 run to close out Syracuse after Syracuse woke up was episode 2, and Closing out another hard-charging team in Kansas State late was episode 3. If you had any doubts about Butler’s capabilities in big games, or about their talent level, these games should have assuaged these concerns. They are as clutch as they are unassuming, and teams have been served notice of this several times already. If two more notices are served, you can put another one on top of that: a notice that the National Champion resides in Indianapolis.
Much has been made of Butler playing at home. Some say advantage because of the fan support, some say disadvantage because it is a change in routine, and some say the game is decided on the court by the players, not the fans. I tend to fall somewhere between the three, as all are valid points, but that in the end, the crowd cannot help Butler win. They did just fine without the crowds out West, so I am not sure there is any advantage. However, being a proud resident of Indianapolis, I consider it an advantage for me. It will almost certainly set the city on fire if Butler is able to win even once, and the city is smoldering in Butler’s white hote streak (23 in a row) as it is. I would not dare to suggest that Butler is Indiana’s team, as Purdue, Indiana, and maybe even Notre Dame (if they even care about basketball) fans would have be drawn and quartered for it, but they are definitely climbing the ranks. I cannot say enough about Butler, in fact they are probably deserving of their own column, but all in good time. I mean, really, ask Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen if the Bulldogs deserve more attention, 2 points in the first half for teh best remaining guard combo says a lot. Until then, let us just enjoy the majesty of a mid-major that is not in the Final Four because they landed one amazing prospect and a bunch of other guys, but because they are a phenomenal team. One last quick note about Butler. Michigan State, West Virginia, and Duke are all outstanding offensive rebounding teams, and Butler is undersized. This would seem to be a problem for the Bulldogs, but they hung right in there with larger Kansas State and Syracuse teams on the boards despite their size disadvantage. Their ability to advance, as with all the teams, will lie in their ability to clean the glass.
I could talk about Butler all day, but believe it or not there were other teams playing this weekend. In fact there were a whole 12 other teams which we have not really talked about yet, so why not touch on each one briefly, or in other cases less briefly.
Northern Iowa, the second round’s darlings, could not keep the magic going. The old horseshoe ran out of luck and the Panthers were sent packing by a hard-boarding Michigan State team. It was bound to happen at some point, but with Kalin Lucas out, many thought the Panthers’ magical journey could go on for at least another round. Ohio State was probably the favorite to advance once Kansas bit the dust, but as we find every year, one player is not enough to win a Championship. Tennessee played a very good, team game and Ohio State could not match them as Turner turned in another spectacular performance but it was not enough. Tennessee has probably deserving of a shot in the Final Four with Michigan State, but they missed free throws down the stretch, an unforgivable sin in the tournament. They were good enough defensively and in the paint, but no team can miss important free throws and feel confident in its ability to move on. Tennessee was no exception.
Syracuse may have laid an egg against Butler, but when Kansas State lays one as well you have to ask if it was simply good luck for Butler or if they were doing something to befuddle the Orange and Wildcats. The Orange clearly missed Arinze Onuaku inside and Rick Jackson really played poorly in the loss. I was never sure if Syracuse was deserving of a #1 seed without Onuaku, but in hindsight it appears Syracuse needed its powerful big man a lot. The Xavier-Kansas State game was also outstanding, though its excellence was somewhat lost on me as I was still in the clouds about Butler. However, each team showed that they were more than deserving of an elite eight birth. True, they got a questionable call at the end of regulation, but Jordan Crawford made a name for himself not involving LeBron James and confiscated tapes, and Jacob Pullen did likewise, turning it on in crunch time and ultimately delivering the death blow to a spirited Xavier team. Probably the bracket that delivered the best theater.
This region was by far the least entertaining. St. Marys came out and looked the the bubble team people thought they were (in part because no one realized how good Baylor was) and Purdue did what it could (not much) against Duke without Robbie Hummel. Baylor actually gave Duke a really good fight for the Final Four, and proved they were extremely underrated, but apart from Baylor vs. Duke, this region disappointed this weekend.
This region was probably the closest to what we expected as far as expectations. We got to see Cornell test its metal against Kentucky, only to find out UK was a better defensive team than they were and that a little extra athleticism never hurt. In the other game we got to see Washington’s breakneck pace catch up to the against a superior West Virginia team leading us to the matchup we all wanted to see in West Virginia vs. Kentucky. I talked earlier about this game so I will not go into too much detail here except to say the if ever karma needed proving, I would point to the luck of Coach Calipari’s team.
Well that covers everyone, but somehow it seems like more should be said. Perhaps it should, but why dilute it? We have our final four, and we have story lines even if they do not center around the major programs. I will give my picks, but frankly, as we said last time, who knows anything about college basketball? No one, and that makes it all the better.
OTC’s Final Four Picks
Michigan State over Butler
Duke over West Virginia
Duke over Michigan State (71-62)