NCAA Tournament Final 4 - Michigan State vs Butler
Game #1: Butler vs. Michigan State - Saturday, 6:07 p.m. ET - CBS
Based strictly on their seedings - that pesky little number always showing up next to the team names - Michigan State and Butler should probably not be playing in the Final Four. How quickly we forget that these two teams were picked by many back in October to be Final Four teams.
Butler struggled early in the season against some of the better teams the Bulldogs faced, and that development led many people to write them off as a team. The hardwood heroes of Hinkle Fieldhouse were too small; they didn't have the athleticism to match up with power conference teams; and, last but not least, they played in the Horizon league. As much love as one would like to give to a mid-major program, there is a reason the Butlers of the world are mid-major programs. Butler has proven its greatness over an extended period of time, but the Horizon League champions aren't going to be landing any McDonald's All-Americans. They aren't going to be churning out lottery picks. The way Butler is going to win games is by maximizing the talent it ushers into its program.
Quite simply, don't fool yourself into thinking that Butler doesn't have talent.
Gordon Hayward is going to play in the NBA one day. A 6-9 two guard with his skill set is going to get a shot somewhere, and he may even sneak into the back end of the first round when he finally decides to go pro. Matt Howard was recruited by a number of Big Ten schools. He didn't end up at Butler; he chose Butler. Shelvin Mack is a Lexington, Ky., native that drew interest from some high majors and slipped through the cracks. He's made himself into one of the guys that the big schools whiffed on.
While Butler does have talent, the key to the Bulldogs is that they don't rely on that talent to win. What Butler does is play arguably the toughest half-court defense in the country, forcing opponents out of their comfort zone and finishing off possessions by clearing the defensive glass. There may not be a better perimeter defender left in the tournament than Ronald Nored. (If you don't believe that claim, go back and watch the struggles of talents like Randy Culpepper, Andy Rautins, Jacob Pullen, and Denis Clemente when they played Butler.) Then look at a guy like Willie Veasley. At 6-3, he essentially plays the power forward spot for Butler most of the time, but he was the man that drew the assignment of helping Nored slow down Kansas State's backcourt in the Elite 8. Anyone who saw that game would attest that Veasley did an exemplary job.
Michigan State, for much of the season, was the exact opposite of Butler. While they didn't exactly have NBA potential littering their roster like Kentucky did, the Spartans showcased more than a couple guys in their lineup that will get a shot at making an NBA roster. During the season, however, these guys just didn't live up to their potential. The inconsistent play of Durrell Summers, Raymar Morgan, and Kalin Lucas made everyone in the country temper their expectations for Sparty. Yet, that reality made the nation forget just how good the Spartans really could be if they ever put the pieces together. Remember, this is a team that returned a lot of important players from the national runners-up in 2009.
In typical Tom Izzo fashion, then, Michigan State saved its best for the tournament. Summers -- the Midwest Region MOP -- was outstanding, averaging 20 points per game through the first two weekends of this year's Big Dance. He was knocking down jumpers, getting to the basket, and turned into the Spartans' best player in the clutch. Morgan has been playing like the tough, talented combo forward experts always knew he could become. Delvon Roe, balky knee and all, has been active on the offensive glass for MSU. Draymond Green has done everything a glue guy and team leader is expected to do. If you don't believe that statement, go back and look at who set up both of Michigan State's game winners in Sparty's heartstopping last-second triumphs over Maryland (in the second round) and Tennessee (in this past Sunday's Midwest Regional final).
There are a number of areas that can decide this game on Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan State is a very good rebounding team and will have to keep Butler off the offensive glass. The Spartans are going to have to find a way to slow down Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward. Matt Howard has been extremely foul prone all season long, and while Andrew Smith performed valiantly last Saturday against K-State, Butler probably doesn't want to have to rely on the freshman backup center for additional production against the Spartans.
With all that having been said, this game will likely be decided by Michigan State point guard Korie Lucious. As was mentioned earlier, Butler's backcourt is very, very good defensively. The Bulldog guards can pressure the ball and make it difficult for opposing ballhandlers to be able to do anything on the offensive end. Lucious has not been great in his limited time at the point this year, in place of the felled Kalin Lucas (out for the rest of the tournament with a torn Achilles). He is a bit undersized and is more of a natural scorer than a pure point guard. As coach Tom Izzo has said, Lucious has a little streetball in him. He has shown a tendency to turn the ball over when faced with pressure, and it's beyond obvious that Butler coach Brad Stevens will have his kids getting all over Lucious at the defensive end.
One thing you can be sure of in this showdown is Tom Izzo's ability to game-plan and to diagram sets that can be effective. If Lucious is able to perform against that pressure and get the Spartans into these sets, Michigan State is going to be in a very good position. If he can't, than Michigan State may not break 60 points like each of Butler's last six opponents.
Butler knows how to grind out low-scoring wins, but then again, that's exactly what Michigan State has been able to do as well. Expect a hard-fought defensive battle that will enter the final minute of regulation in a dead heat. Butler's ability to disrupt MSU's halfcourt offense should tell the tale in a contest that has overtime written all over it.