With #1 playing #2, Duke versus West Virginia, and #5 against #5, Michigan State versus Butler you could ask for a more evenly matched semi-final round in the Final Four of the NCAA National Basketball Championship being played this weekend in Indianapolis. But that being said, who wins tonight and goes on to play in the championship game on Monday night? Let's look at each matchup.
Butler (32-4) is on a 24 game winning streak that dates back to 2009 before Christmas, their record is the third best in the country and Brad Stevens is 88-14 nearing the end of his third season as a Head Coach. Butler plays possession basketball and has lost 3 of its 4 ball games when teams, Georgetown, Minnesota and UAB did not allow Butler to play control basketball and pushed the game, allowing the winning teams to gain more possessions than Butler. In its fourth loss to Clemson, Butler was able to establish a half court game, but failed to shoot the ball well and could not stop Clemson from penetrating the paint and were out rebounded on the offensive glass late in the game. The defensive minded Butler Bulldogs live up to their mascot title, as they guard the ball extremely well and do not allow its opponents to get into fast transition games. They are very efficient with its possessions and rarely take bad shots. In four tournament games this year, the Bulldogs have not allowed a team to score 60 points. They are very comfortable playing games in the 50's, but while holding their opponents to under 60 points, Butler has scored 77, 63 twice and slipped by Murray State 54-52. As a disciplined half court team, Butler rebounds the ball extremely well and appears as fundamentally prepared as any team in America. To beat Butler, a team will need to increase tempo and try to beat the set defense down the floor and create offensive advantages. Force the actions and don't fall into the slow half court tempo. And by all means, rebound the ball and reduce the second chance opportunities for a team that scores at a high rate during normal single possessions.
Michigan State (28-8), the only returning team from last year's Final Four, is coached by Tom Izzo, that alone is a notable team advantage, now considered one of the best college coaches in the country. During the regular season the team was somewhat inconsistent, but only one loss in the eight came from a team not playing in the field of 64, Illinois. The Spartans have played a number of close games this year and appear to be playing their best basketball of the season after an overtime loss (72-67) to Minnesota to end their conference season. Coach Izzo's group attacks the offensive glass, and plays the game extremely aggressive. Izzo will play possession games at times using timeout possessions to execute set plays for baskets more often than most teams in the country. The Spartans have had some turnover problems this year and will need to protect the ball, rebound and attempt to play the game at their pace which somewhat up tempo, creating baskets in transition. Statistics reveal that the Spartans rebound approximately 40% of their misses, so poor shooting does not always play against MSU, but they will have to defend the ball consistently for 25-30 seconds per Butler possession to have a chance to move on to the Finals.
Duke (33-5) was considered the weakest of the #1 seeds in the tournament, but has been playing great basketball with a real emphasis on rebounding. Once Coach Mike Krzyzewski was able to motivate Brian Zoubek to become a presence on the boards, Duke has been able to allow its perimeter dominating game to open the floor and its length is a advantage factor with Miles and Mason Plumlee at 6'10", Zoubek at 7'1" and high flying Lance Thomas now is allowed to gain fromthe offensive board volley ball match generated by the Duke size. Duke then has the scoring trio of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, who is struggling in post season, along with Jon Scheyer. Defensively Duke is aggressive on the perimeter, relying on size to cover the penetration and post entry. Duke has really cruised through the tournament and even dominated the final five minutes of a close Baylor game by just pounding the glass and then shooting with confidence from the perimeter down the stretch. Smith is playing with an emotional and spiritual-like motivation and his deceased father, Derek Smith led a Louisville team to the Final Four 30 years ago and Smith has dedicated this tournament to his late father. Coach K is the most experienced Final Four coach in the mix of all four high profile coaches, which includes the new "young gun" Brad Stevens of Butler. Duke will have to guard against an early slump and allowing an early early leads by their opponent. If Dukes kick out threes are falling they will be hard to beat, along with second chance possessions and scoring opportunities.
West Virginia (31-6) Coached by Bob Huggins, the controversial coach who has been criticized for low graduation rates, a demanding practice philosophy and a sarcastic demeanor seems to irk the general sports fan. The result a physical and athletic basketball team that plays an aggressive 1-3-1 matching defense and alternating in your face man to man schemes. The Mountaineers are returning to the Final Four for the first time since 1959, when a Jerry West led West Virginia team lost in the finals to California 71-70 . This team has the son of Jerry West, Jonnie on the roster and believes they are playing this weekend for the National Championship in representation of the entire state of West Virginia. It will take more than inspiration and nostalgia to get to the championship game on Monday. Coach Huggins' team will have to play their physical style on defense and on the glass. They will have to defend the perimeter and contest all kick outs and limit the second chance opportunities of their opponent. WV needs to push the ball and not allow their contenders to establish defensive rhythm often, as WV scores more proficiently when attacking early and not getting late into their shot clock. The Mountaineers have suffered from high turnover games and have survived some through sheer athleticism, but in the Final Four they will need to protect the ball and try to emerge with more possessions than their opponent.
Both games will be close, and as stated the semis offer the best personnel and team playing styles, in regards to match ups, and should prove to be close games. Dukes length appears to bed the advantage, along with its perimeter shooting threats, but WV has a very skilled team, even with injuries they have depth, but no match for the length, late game second chances should give Duke the 2 point winning advantage, plus there is always Coach K in his 11th Final Hour. In the early game you will see two teams that really match up well from position to position, but Coach Izzo has been able to survive without his starting point guard and key big play shooter, as others have stepped up cover the loss, but the young coach of Butler may look like a kid, but his 88-14 record is nothing to kid about, he is a true student of the game and has his team playing the most efficient and consistent basketball in the tournament, next to Duke. Butler should shock the country and please the home crowd with a close 4 point victory over the future "Hall of Famer" and give Coach Stevens the spotlight going into Monday's Championship game. Both games are really to close to call, but enjoy the ride, but expect a Duke versus Butler National Championship game on Monday night.