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Monday, March 29, 2010

A Look at the 2010 Final Four Teams

Final Four Look Ahead: An unlikely quartet, for several reasons
good article from Gary Parish
Kyle Singler summarized things rather well.
"I don't think many people had this Final Four," he said late Sunday, at which point I shook my head in agreement, then scratched it in amazement.
Seriously, who had this Final Four?
It's Michigan State vs. Butler and Duke vs. West Virginia.
Let's do the Final Four Look Ahead.

Prediction? It will be Butler vs. Butler next Monday night, with West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler snipping twine. (US Presswire)
I had it kind of wrong: I'm one of the millions who, like Singler said, did not have this Final Four. In fact, I had none of this Final Four. If my bracket were any worse I would be President Obama. But I would like to point out that Michigan State, Duke, West Virginia and Butler were ranked No. 3, No. 9, No. 10 and No. 11 in the preseason Top 25 (and one). So I had these teams pegged pretty well ... way back in November. In March, not so much.

Duke's path wasn't all that easy: There is a difference between being in the easiest regional and having the easiest path, and I'm pointing that out because I would like to put an end to the theory that Duke had the easiest path to the Final Four. The Blue Devils ended up being the only Final Four school to play three teams seeded eighth or better. They had to beat the Pac-10 champ (California), Big Ten champ (Purdue), and a top-20 team from the Big 12 (Baylor) led by a possible lottery pick (Ekpe Udoh). Meantime, West Virginia played only one team seeded better than 10th, and Michigan State didn't deal with anybody seeded better than fourth.

Notes for gamblers

1. Duke is now the favorite to win the national title, according to Sportsbook.com. In order, it goes Duke (+120), West Virginia (+180), Butler (+300), and Michigan State (+650). That means oddsmakers believe the 2010 national champion will be the winner of the Duke-West Virginia game, though I'm sure the winner of the Butler-Michigan State game will still show up next Monday night.

2. Duke is a 2½-point favorite over West Virginia.

3. Butler is a 1½-favorite over Michigan State.

1. You will hear people talk about how this isn't a "great" Final Four, and I understand that opinion. The nation would be more excited to watch a Kentucky-Kansas title game than, say, a Duke-Butler title game. No question about that. But what has been lost in marquee programs has been gained in great coaches -- three of the best veterans (Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo and Bob Huggins) and a rising star in the sport (Brad Stevens) will converge at Lucas Oil Stadium. Krzyzewski has now made 11 Final Fours, Izzo six in the past 12 years. This is the second for Huggins and first for Stevens. But give the guy time. He's only 33 years old.

2. This Final Four features only three players DraftExpress.com projects to be first-round picks in the 2010 NBA Draft -- Butler's Gordon Hayward, Duke's Kyle Singler and West Virginia's Devin Ebanks. Still, my theory that it takes at least three future NBA players to win a national title could still hold true if West Virginia wins the championship, because Da'Sean Butler and Kevin Jones both project as future NBA players, although likely second-round picks. Duke might also meet the criteria because Mason Plumlee will likely join Singler as a future first-round pick, and Nolan Smith or Brian Zoubek could sneak into the NBA, too. In other words, I'm not conceding defeat yet.

3. Butler making the Final Four isn't a huge surprise -- again, the Bulldogs were a preseason top 10 team -- but there's no denying its appearance is the best story. The Bulldogs are still a small program relative to the others joining them in Indianapolis. There are lots of ways to show this, but the funniest might be on the school's official athletics page, where Stevens' email address is listed in the staff directory. You really can just email Butler's head coach whenever you want. Needless to say, that's not the case at Duke, West Virginia or Michigan State.

4. So much for needing an elite point guard, huh? West Virginia is in the Final Four despite its starting point guard (Darryl Bryant) breaking his foot. Michigan State is in the Final Four despite its starting point guard (Kalin Lucas) rupturing his Achilles' tendon. Butler is in the Final Four despite having a point guard (Ronald Nored) who registers 6.0 points and 3.8 assists per game. Duke is in the Final Four despite using an untraditional point guard (Jon Scheyer) who is admittedly good but still not a natural point for the position. Think about it this way: Recent point guard matchups in the national title game have been Raymond Felton-Deron Williams (2005), Taurean Green-Jordan Farmar (2006), Taurean Green-Mike Conley (2007), Sherron Collins-Derrick Rose (2008), and Ty Lawson-Kalin Lucas (2009). This year we could get Joe Mazzulla-Korie Lucious.

National title game I expect to watch: Butler vs. West Virginia

National champion I expect to see crowned: West Virginia

Great article from Andy Katz
What will you remember about the 2010 NCAA tournament? There's been plenty to choose from.
Duke ending its mini-Final Four drought? Michigan State making an improbable run back to the Final Four? Butler giving a whole new meaning to "Final Four host school"? Conquering hometown hero Bob Huggins coaching his alma mater West Virginia past favorite Kentucky and into the Final Four for the first time in 51 years?
Or will you always think about that first weekend, a series of head-spinning games that left you wanting more and more and more?
It's hard not to remember this tournament for the greatness of that opening weekend with:

• Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh hitting not just one but two shots to essentially ice games against UNLV and top-ranked Kansas in Oklahoma City.

• The finish of the Michigan State-Maryland second-round game in Spokane and its frenetic final 20 seconds. And let's not forget Michigan State escaping against New Mexico State two nights before.

• Murray State's Danero Thomas' buzzer-beater to knock out Vanderbilt in the upset that everyone either picked or claims they picked

• BYU's Jimmer Fredette pouring in 37 points in a thrilling double-overtime victory over Florida in the first round in Oklahoma City.

• No. 14 Ohio stunning No. 3 Georgetown by 14 points in a game that is still surreal to consider when pondering the domination by the ninth-place MAC school over the Big East tournament runner-up.

• Ishmael Smith's buzzer-beater for Wake Forest knocking out Texas and mercifully end the Longhorns' disastrous 2010 portion of their schedule.

• Cornell blasting past Temple and Wisconsin.

• Purdue's Chris Kramer going to the basket to beat Texas A&M and send the Boilermakers sans Robbie Hummel to an improbable Sweet 16.

• Robert Morris not pleased with the late-game calls in missing out on a regulation win over Villanova, only to lose to the 'Cats in overtime in the first round.

• Omar Samhan's dominating performances for Saint Mary's in upsetting Richmond and Villanova en route to the Sweet 16.

Or maybe you'll take with you the road to the Final Four that included:

• A magnificent double-overtime game between Kansas State and Xavier that should go down as one of the finest we've seen. The 101-96 win by K-State reminded me in some ways of those classic Gonzaga-Arizona or Illinois-Arizona games from previous tournaments. You didn't want this one to end.

• Butler stunning top-ranked Syracuse in the West. That's still hard to fathom.

• Michigan State beating Tennessee on a free-throw by Raymar Morgan with a second left.

• Cornell opening up a 10-2 lead on Kentucky in the Sweet 16, only to get smashed by a 30-6 run to end the first half.

• At one point Kentucky missing 28 straight 3s against Cornell and West Virginia and the Mountaineers up by two at the half without making a two-point basket in the Elite Eight.
That's good stuff so far. No one seems to be whining about who wasn't in the field, that's for sure. Seeding the tournament was certainly a debatable point. Selections weren't. And the excitement of this 65-team event, one that shouldn't expand beyond maybe 68 in years to come, hasn't disappointed. Will the Final Four continue the trend? Let's hope so:

East Regional Champion
No. 2 West Virginia (31-6, 13-5, tied for second in the Big East)

Tourney run: West Virginia had little trouble in dispatching No. 15 Morgan State in the first round in Buffalo, 77-50. No. 9 Missouri was bit pesky in the second round, but was unable to dictate the tempo for the most part in the 68-59 loss to the Mountaineers. Two days before West Virginia was going to play No. 11 Washington in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, Darryl "Truck" Bryant broke his right foot in practice. That was supposed to be the story of the night but it didn't matter in a grinder of a game with the Mountaineers winning an ugly affair 69-56. And then there was Kentucky on Saturday in the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers made eight field goals in the first half -- all 3s. UK was crushing the Mountaineers on the boards, but had 10 turnovers in the first half. Kentucky would miss 28 3-pointers, make just four, and watch as Joe Mazzulla sliced through the defense in a convincing 73-66 defeat to West Virginia.

Early-season memory: I've known Bob Huggins for nearly 20 years. He has about as dry a wit as anyone. He loves to dish out zingers. He does it in a low voice, with a sly grin and with timely delivery. At a dinner I was emceeing for the 76 Classic at Disneyland, I introduced the other seven coaches and, for some reason, forgot to mention Huggins. He quickly reminded me of that as soon as the event ended. He quickly reminded me of that as soon as the Thanksgiving dinner ended. He still didn't let me live that one down as he won the East Regional in Syracuse. What was interesting about the Mountaineers back then was how they were trying to figure out if Devin Ebanks could be a major factor early in the season once he missed the first three games for unspecified reasons and whether Mazzulla was healthy enough to be a factor. Ebanks became a defensive stopper and by late in the season Mazzulla was clearly an invaluable asset.

• Big Shot Butler: Da'Sean Butler has had quite a career at West Virginia. He beat Marquette with a buzzer-beater on Dec. 29 to tip off the home Big East schedule. He knocked off Villanova with a shot in overtime on March 6 to end the regular season and then he beat Cincinnati in the Big East tournament quarterfinals and Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game with buzzer-beaters. If a WVU game is on the line in Indianapolis, Butler will be the man to take the shot.

• The Bryant foot: Bryant's injury was much ado about nothing in Syracuse. The Mountaineers missed his presence but they didn't need him to beat Washington or Kentucky. Now there is a chance Bryant will return for the national semifinal against Duke on Saturday. Bryant is getting a specialized shoe made for his right foot to help alleviate pain. If he can practice, then he'll likely get a shot to participate.

• Mazzulla: He nursed a surgically repaired shoulder all season and finally felt like he had free range of motion about a month ago. And as his confidence grew, so too did Mazzulla's ability to make key buckets and timely passes. His 17 points in 30 minutes against Kentucky has to go down as one of the best performances by any Mountaineer this season.

• Deniz Kilicli: Throughout the preseason, Huggins said Kilicli would be a factor for them. But the Turkish center was suspended for the first 20 games. Since he arrived 14 games ago, Kilicli has made the most of his minutes. He is averaging 3.4 points and roughly a rebound in just 6.6 minutes a game. Huggins uses him in spot situations but Kilicli does come into the game, bang and aggressively look for the offensive putback. He can change the possessions when he's that active, and he'll be major bench strength for the Mountaineers against Duke's size.

• The 1-3-1: Huggins has used John Beilein's leftover zone to perfection this season. It was a major problem for Kentucky on Saturday and could cause fits for Duke in Indy. Huggins mixes defenses but it's amazing to see how much he has embraced a defense that the Mountaineers are comfortable running from a previous staff.

Rising star: Kevin Jones. So much is made, and rightfully so, about Butler and Ebanks. But Jones was the guy this season that seemed to cause so many matchup problems for opposing teams. Jones could hit the 3-pointer when teams weren't keying on him and he could also score in the post. Jones wasn't much of a headline-grabber when he arrived and at times he has been overshadowed by Butler and Ebanks, but Jones is a stud and needs to get his due.

Advantage: Huggs and the passion of a people. Huggins has professed his love of the state of West Virginia throughout the run to the Final Four. He has waxed on poetically about the game being piped into the mines in West Virginia. He seems genuine about how much this run means to the people, a state in which he is beloved and returns the affection. This is Huggins' cause in Indy. A year ago, Michigan State was able to ride the depressed auto industry into rallying the people to back the Spartans. Huggins has an entire populous in West Virginia behind him in his attempt to deliver good news with a title to a state that doesn't always receive all that much positive press nationally.

Midwest Regional Champion
No. 5 Michigan State (28-8, 14-4, tied for first in Big Ten)

Tourney run: The Spartans rode the line of defeat more than any other Final Four entrant. Michigan State beat No. 12 New Mexico State in the first round in Spokane 70-67 as NMSU coach Marvin Menzies questioned a lane violation call against the Aggies on a critical late free throw. The Michigan State win over No. 4 Maryland two days later should go down as one of the best games of this tournament and easily the most exciting exchange by two teams in the final 20 seconds. Greivis Vasquez exhilarated the crowd with a layup at one end before Korie Lucious buried a 3-pointer to win the game on a pass from Draymond Green across the top of the key that got to him only because Delvon Roe ducked at the last second. Lucious replaced Kalin Lucas in the game after Lucas went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Spartans survived No. 9 Northern Iowa in a gritty game in the Sweet 16, 59-52, and then beat No. 6 Tennessee in Houston on Sunday when Raymar Morgan converted a free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining to win 70-69. That's four wins decided by a total of 13 points. Since the field expanded in 1985, no Final Four team has had that small of a margin of victory in its first four games.

Preseason memory: At the Breslin Center in late October, Lucas said to me that he would love to repeat what Mateen Cleaves did in 1999 and 2000. He looked up at the banners and saw the Final Four in '99 and the championship banner in '00. Cleaves was on both teams. Lucas led the Spartans to the championship game a year ago in Detroit. He won't have a chance to play in the Final Four, but he will still be an instrumental member of the locker room and the pregame prep.

• Lucas out: Lucas' injuries have been, perhaps, the top storyline for the Spartans. He sprained his ankle against Wisconsin in Madison on Feb. 2. MSU lost that game and then the next two at Illinois and to Purdue, the latter with Lucas playing 29 minutes but clearly not the same player. His injury came at a time when the Spartans looked like they might run away with the Big Ten. His postseason injury has also reshaped this squad. The Spartans suddenly became the underdog against Northern Iowa, at least in perception. Yet, given the prep time, MSU coach Tom Izzo found a way to handle the Panthers and snuff out the Cinderella story.

• Big-game misses: The Spartans were constantly searching for the right combinations, healthy bodies and consistent players during various stretches this season. What was rare for an Izzo-coached team was how the Spartans couldn't win big games prior to the NCAAs. Michigan State did beat Gonzaga at home in November, but following that it lost to Florida in New Jersey, at North Carolina, at Texas and at home to Ohio State when winning the Big Ten title outright was still within reach.

• Balance: Despite all the warts, the Spartans have consistently found a way to win key games at the right times to survive and advance. This team was supposed to have star potential yet due to injuries and inconsistencies never could develop headline performers outside of Lucas.

Rising star: If there was one player that has surpassed expectations it's Green. Izzo constantly talked in the preseason about missing Goran Suton and the need for a big man to play well. Green has done that for the Spartans. He has been huge when needed and he clearly has the team's ear, constantly chirping to keep everyone into the task at hand. He's also extremely skilled with the ability to score facing the basket and in the post. He was the one player after losing the title game against North Carolina last April that told his teammates they could be back in the Final Four again, just like the Tar Heels had done the previous season.

Advantage: Izzo. Seriously now, can we start to push the Izzo for the Hall of Fame campaign? What he has done with this squad is simply amazing. The Midwest bracket was supposed to be the most brutal of any and to get through you needed a tough squad and a determined coach. Who else but Izzo and the Spartans? This is his sixth Final Four and easily his most rewarding with a depleted crew. Watch Izzo at the end of these NCAA games and he's almost in disbelief that his team has advanced yet another round. Two more and the Spartans will reach their intended preseason goalall along, a path hardly expected by anyone in the program for most of the season.

South Regional Champion
No. 1 Duke (33-5, 13-3, tied for first in the ACC)

Tourney run: The easy thing to do was rip on the South Regional when the bracket was announced on Selection Sunday. The Blue Devils had the weakest No. 2 seed of any region and appeared to have a clear path to Indianapolis. It wasn't completely without a bump but Duke did get to the Final Four without much resistance. Does that mean the road was clear of any obstacles or was it because the Blue Devils were simply better than the rest and are playing as well as any one in the tournament? Duke took out No. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the first round rather handily 73-44. Cal put up a fight for a few minutes before retreating in a 68-53 loss in Jacksonville. The Purdue score wasn't as wide as it would appear. Duke beat back the 4th-seeded Boilermakers 70-57, but Purdue made this a grinder until the latter stages of the game. No. 3 Baylor pushed Duke plenty, but the Blue Devils put together a string of key buckets late from Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer and free throws from Kyle Singler to ice out the Bears 78-71 in the Elite Eight on Sunday in Houston.

Preseason memory: Prior to practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium, coach Mike Krzyzewski talked about how much different this team would be compared to prior seasons. He said they wouldn't be able to extend their press as they had been able to do in the past. But he spoke confidently of the size, length and strength of the frontcourt and how much of a different look the Blue Devils would have this season. That became the blueprint for this squad. They were tough to deal with throughout the season up front defensively because of that size and offensive rebounding.

• Road woes: Early in the season the easy thing to pick apart was Duke's home versus road stats. The Blue Devils were decidedly better at Cameron with shooting, free-throw attempts, field goals and wins. Duke didn't lose at home. The Blue Devils lost at Wisconsin, at Georgia Tech, at NC State, at Georgetown and at Maryland. But there were some glimmers of hope like winning at Clemson, gutting out a win at Boston College and then at North Carolina in consecutive road games and then winning games at Miami and at Virginia. The loss at Maryland was acceptable. But following the Georgetown loss there was a shift with this squad. The early-season storyline became moot.

• The Big Three: Scheyer, Smith and Singler can be a dominant threesome. Duke loaded up on these three for minutes, points and overall production. For months the chatter was that they would wear down. It was an easy thing to dissect. But the Blue Devils never wilted enough to lose prior to Indy.

• Brian Zoubek: No longer simply the tall guy, Zoubek became a serious player. He had previous injury issues that seemed to derail his progress. But Zoubek was the defensive presence throughout the season that the Blue Devils desperately needed to be a major factor in the national chase. Watch him bark at his teammates in an encouraging way Sunday in the win against Baylor and you can see just how much he has meant to this team's leadership.

• Tragedy: No one will really know what it would be like to walk in Andre Dawkins' shoes. His sister Lacey was killed in a car accident earlier this season. Dawkins got to campus a year earlier than expected after graduating high school last summer. He was supposed to be a vital piece of the Blue Devils' perimeter. Dawkins has had his moments when he has been a key contributor, but expecting anything from him this season should be a bonus. His heart must be heavy at all times and just being on the court and with the team is a monumental achievement while dealing with immense grief.

Rising stars: Mason and Miles Plumlee. The Plumlee brothers continue to be quite a pair of reserve forwards who change the game when they enter. Think about how rare it is for a team to have that kind of length and rebound potential coming off the bench. Duke is one of the tallest teams in the country this season and it's not like that's going to change in the Final Four. No other team will have its size inside.

Advantage: Clearly, three of the four coaches enter the Final Four without hesitation about the task at hand. Three of the four have been in this event and two of three have won titles. But there is a confidence that Krzyzewski exudes with his Duke players that is hard to match. The Blue Devils have been knocked down throughout the season as a team that really isn't as good as its ranking. Everyone seems to be waiting for Duke to lose in the tourney. Well, the Devils haven't. Coach K gets a lot of credit for infusing his club with the confident attitude that has driven them to this stage.

West Regional Champion
No. 5 Butler (32-4, 18-0, first in Horizon League)

Tourney run: Fools. Well, fool. That was me, who for some reason didn't think this No. 5 Butler team would handle No. 12 UTEP in a first-round NCAA tournament game. It wasn't close in the second half after the Bulldogs trailed by six at the break. Butler outscored UTEP 50-26 in the second half and won 77-59 in San Jose. I was a believer in the Bulldogs in the second round but it took a gutty Gordon Hayward defensive dive to prevent a last-possession shot by No. 13 Murray State in the second round to win 54-52. Syracuse posed the next mountain to climb for the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 in Salt Lake City. Butler looked like it had met its match before Syracuse sort of self-destructed against Butler's defense. Instead of SU's zone, it was Butler's man-to-man that had the Orange flustered, and they lost 63-59. Butler then had to face a tough No. 2 Kansas State squad in the Elite Eight. But the Bulldogs once again made the plays at the end in the 63-56 victory over the Wildcats. Hayward was terrific in scoring 22 points and the defense on the perimeter by Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley was lock-down tight when the game mattered most.

Early season memory: I didn't visit with Butler prior to the season, but I was with the Bulldogs in Anaheim at the 76 Classic. What I remember most about this squad that week in November was how much coach Brad Stevens was so even-tempered. I'm not sure I've seen another coach so cerebral, so intense in his preparation yet so seemingly relaxed and unmoved by his current situation. The Bulldogs had a preseason top 15 ranking at the time and yet weren't feeling any added expectation. He wanted the Bulldogs to relish the attention, welcoming the newfound flattery that came with a respectful standing in the poll. But he never let it consume them. He put together a daunting nonconference schedule and the Bulldogs never got worn down by the stress of the schedule. He challenged them early with road games at Northwestern, Evansville, in Anaheim for three, at Ball State, in New York against Georgetown and at UAB -- the team's last loss on Dec. 22. Yet, Stevens never complained about how tough a slate this would be for his team.

• Hometown team: Last June I was in Colorado Springs for the USA Basketball trials and visited with Purdue players Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson about playing at "home" in the Final Four in Indianapolis. Hayward and Shelvin Mack were there too and when I talked to them I never asked about them hosting the Final Four in Indy as if it were a realistic goal. Oops. Even if the Bulldogs had been asked, they are cut from the Stevens cloth and would not have discussed anything too far ahead. The Final Four is on a bizarre streak of late. Michigan State saved the Final Four by hosting it in Detroit last season. Indy is always a great host because of its love of hoops and the NCAA's headquarters a few blocks away from the arena. Having Butler as the host school while also playing in the event is unprecedented.

• Matt Howard's foul problems: Early in the season Howard couldn't stay out of foul trouble. He fouled out of four straight games and then fouled out of three more, ending at UAB on Dec. 22. Howard has still had some foul issues but he has started to stay on the court longer and that has benefited the Bulldogs. His decision-making on when or when not to challenge shots has improved. His ability to stay on the court has been a must for Butler's survival.

• The streak: Butler hasn't lost since at UAB. That means the Bulldogs haven't lost in 2010 and the streak is at 24 games and counting. That streak includes a four-game road trip in the Horizon League, a home BracketBusters win over Siena and NCAA wins over Syracuse and Kansas State.

• The defense: Butler's man-to-man defense has been one of the best all season. The Bulldogs allowed an average of 59.6 points a game. Butler has some issues scoring as well but the ability to finish plays in games throughout the season has led them to the winner's circle almost every time.

• The role players: Veasley, Nored, Zach Hahn, Shawn Vanzant, Avery Jukes are all players who have helped this team win games. The balance Stevens has professed has been consistent throughout the season. He never lets these players feel second class.

Rising star:
Hayward. If you don't know him, you better familiarize yourself. Hayward is a lock for the first-round of the NBA draft whenever he declares and is steadily moving up the draft charts. I wouldn't be surprised if he pushed deep into the lottery. He's a stud. His basketball IQ is off the charts. His desire is at a high. His improvement in his overall basketball skills continues to be impressive. Hayward has steadily increased his defensive abilities as well. Butler wouldn't be here if it didn't have at least one pro on its roster. The Bulldogs do with Hayward and possibly Mack, whose strength at the guard spot reminds many of a Chauncey Billups-type guard.

Are there distractions for the Bulldogs? Sure. But there are plenty of advantages to playing at home this week, such as being able to practice at Hinkle Fieldhouse, sleep in the dorms and deal with a regular life instead of sitting around idle in hotel rooms. Butler can have a regular routine that the other teams won't this weekend. That might not mean a win on Saturday, or if Butler beats Michigan State, one on Monday. But it's hard to debate how much of an advantage Butler will have by never leaving home. Can you imagine if the Bulldogs were to win Saturday and Monday? There would be no need to wait until Tuesday afternoon to arrive back in the city to display the trophy. Stevens and Co. could leave Lucas Oil Stadium and march down to campus with the trophy up high.

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