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For the first time in the history of the Final Four, two No. 5 seeds will face each other in the national semifinals for the right to play for the national championship. Michigan State was a Final Four favorite in the preseason, but the Spartans struggled down the stretch before rebounding to win four straight games in the Midwest region. They have also won the last three games without the services of star point guard Kalin Lucas; it’s tough to argue against Tom Izzo at this point. Butler had a rough start to the regular season, but the Bulldogs have won 23 games in a row, including back-to-back wins over Syracuse and Kansas State to reach Indianapolis. Butler will be playing in its hometown, making them the crowd – and sentimental – favorite.
If Michigan State is going to continue its winning ways and reach the national title game for the second season in a row, the Spartans will have to first overcome what will be a major homecourt advantage for Butler. Outside of that, Michigan State will need to find ways to score against the tough Butler halfcourt defense. The Bulldogs really guard the perimeter well, so the Spartans will need to beat defenders off the dribble and get into the lane. Without Lucas to penetrate, Korie Lucious will have to initiate the offense effectively. Durrell Summers has become a go-to scorer on the wing, but Butler has tough on-ball defenders in Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack. Furthermore, the Spartans’ offense is predicated on crashing the offensive glass and getting second chances. Unfortunately for Michigan State, Butler is a fantastic defensive rebounding team. Draymond Green and Raymar Morgan will need to get offensive boards and put-backs. Moreover, getting Matt Howard in foul trouble will be a key. Defensively, Michigan State needs to defend the three-point shot. Butler gets nearly 30 percent of its offense off of three-pointers, and the Spartans have struggled to guard the perimeter at times this season. Moreover, Summers and Morgan have to keep Gordon Hayward and Mack out of the lane. When those two are scoring, and Howard is effective inside, Butler is a tough bunch. Limiting Butler’s free-throw attempts is also a key.
On the other side, Butler will need to demonstrate offensive balance against Michigan State in order to keep the Spartans at bay. If the Bulldogs’ three-pointers aren’t falling, they are much easier to defend. Because Michigan State has shown that it is vulnerable to three-pointers, Butler should spread the floor with its variety of shooters and create match-up problems. With 6-4 power forward Willie Veasley and sixth man Zach Hahn are on the floor, Butler has four players who can stroke the three. Howard might be the key for the Bulldogs on offense. He needs to stay out of foul trouble and make an impact in the low post. He can create contact and get to the free-throw line. Butler is one of the best teams in the country and getting to the charity stripe, so Mack and Hayward’s penetration will be a major factor. On the defensive side, the main thing for Butler will be to keep Michigan State off of the offensive glass. Green, Morgan, Delvon Roe and co. are relentless when attacking the boards, and Michigan State is much more efficient offensively when they are getting easy baskets around the rim. Veasley could be a major key. He is only 6-4, but he can guard any position. His ability to keep the bigger and stronger Roe and Morgan from getting rebounds is imperative. Additionally, Butler needs to force turnovers. Michigan State has struggled to take care of the ball throughout the season, and that was with Lucas at the helm. Without him running the point, the Bulldogs need to exploit that deficiency.
The difference in the game will be Michigan State’s size and ability to rebound the ball around the rim, as well as the Spartans’ defensive talent. Morgan will be a tough match-up for Hayward, while Summers has the length to give Mack trouble. Unless Butler can keep Michigan State off the glass and force the Spartan guards into nightmarish performances, it’s awfully tough to pick against Izzo and Michigan State.
Prediction: Michigan State 67, Butler 64