Monday, April 5, 2010

National Championship Preview: Duke vs. Butler

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The game everyone has been looking forward to since the season tipped back in November. Neither Duke nor Butler was expected to be in this position back in the preseason, and not many people pegged them to be playing for the title, even as recently as last week. Sure, this isn’t Kansas and Kentucky, or Syracuse and West Virginia, or even Ohio State and Kansas State. One may not think that the Blue Devils and Bulldogs are the two best teams in the country, but they have been the best the past couple of weeks – and ultimately, that’s what matters. Hopefully, this will be the perfect climax to a Big Dance that has been one of the most unpredictable and exciting in recent memory. Enjoy the conclusion to the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here

Duke is in its first Final Four since 2004 and in the title game for the first time since 2001. The Blue Devils received a No. 1 seed after tying for the ACC Championship and then winning the conference tournament. They opened with an easy win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff and then fended off tough first halves against California and Purdue before pulling away late in both games to win by 15 points and 13 points, respectively. A tough Elite Eight game against Baylor was the tightest game the Blue Devils had all tournament, winning by seven, before destroying West Virginia by 21 in the Final Four.

Butler got off to a slow start in the non-conference season against a tough schedule, but the Bulldogs are now going for a national championship in their first Final Four appearance in the school’s history. Furthermore, Butler is trying to be the first No. 5 seed to ever win a title. The Bulldogs ran away in the second half against UTEP in the first round and escaped Murray State by two in the second round. In the Sweet Sixteen, Butler upset top-seeded Syracuse with a late run, and then knocked off No. 2 seed Kansas State in the Elite Eight. For their 24th straight win, the Bulldogs beat Michigan State in the Final Four by two in a controversial ending.

Five Key Questions

1. Will Matt Howard play for Butler? Sure, Howard has been in foul trouble in nearly every game of the NCAA Tournament and is only averaging 6.0 points per game in the Big Dance, but his presence would boost Butler’s chances greatly. He suffered a head injury in the semifinals against Michigan State, and will be a game-time decision in the title game. Howard is the team’s best inside scorer and a great rebounder at both ends. He will need to play – and be effective – scoring the ball in the paint and controlling the defensive glass.

2. Will Butler be able to shoot the ball consistently against Duke? Despite winning, Butler shot just 30.6 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three-point range against Michigan State. If the Bulldogs have a repeat performance against Duke, there is no way they will beat the Blue Devils. Duke is the best team in the country at defending the three-point line and teams shoot barely 40 percent against them from the field. Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack will have to knock down shots, and Willie Veasley will also to be a factor on offense. Sixth man Zach Hahn is a gunner; he has to make shots.

3. Can Duke continue to dominate the offensive glass? Duke grabbed 23 offensive rebounds against Baylor in the Elite Eight, and then picked up another 11 against West Virginia in the semifinals on Saturday. The Blue Devils rank sixth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 40.4 percent of the available boards. On the other side, Butler ranks 14th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing offensive boards just 27.6 percent of the time. Brian Zoubek has been a monster on the glass recently; if Howard doesn’t play, this could be a tough battle for Butler. Even if he does play, Howard, Veasley and Hayward need to come up big on the glass.

4. Will Duke be able to limit its fouls and not allow Butler to get to the free-throw line? Butler does not shoot the ball that effectively from three-point range, and don’t receive much production from inside the arc. However, the Bulldogs get better than 25 percent of their offensive from the free-throw line, and get to the free-throw line often. Against Michigan State, the Spartans sent Butler to the free-throw line 24 times, committing 21 fouls. Without those points, Butler would not be in the national title game. Duke committed 16 fouls against West Virginia, and is averaging 16.5 fouls per game in the last four contests. The Blue Devils have to limit their fouls and make Butler beat them from the field.

5. Who will win the backcourt battle? On paper, Duke’s backcourt duo of Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith is a better group than Butler’s Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored. However, opposing backcourts have had a nightmare of a time scoring the ball against Butler in the NCAA Tournament. Nored was the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, while Mack is a strong guard whose physical style keeps opponents out of the lane. Scheyer and Smith have been rolling so far in the postseason, but they have not faced a backcourt with Butler’s defensive ability yet. If Scheyer and Smith are able to knock down shots often, though, Duke could pull away early.

Match-up Analysis

Jon Scheyer vs. Ronald Nored: This could be a key battle. Scheyer is starting to find his stroke again after struggling in the early part of the NCAA Tournament, but Nored is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Scheyer’s emergence as an All-American point guard is the primary reason for Duke’s success this season. Advantage: Duke

Nolan Smith vs. Shelvin Mack: An excellent match-up between arguably the most explosive scorer on the Blue Devils and an underrated scoring combo guard. Both players are former point guards who have had fantastic seasons this year after moving to the shooting guard position. Mack’s physicality against Smith will be something to keep an eye on. Advantage: Duke

Kyle Singler vs. Gordon Hayward: Easily the best match-up in the game. Singler is one of the most difficult players in the country to guard, due to his ability to knock down shots and score inside. Hayward has played himself into a high draft pick with his performance in the NCAA Tournament; he can carry the Bulldogs offensively at times. Advantage: Even

Lance Thomas vs. Willie Veasley: Despite Veasley’s 6-4 height, he is a lockdown defensive player and is one of the most versatile power forwards in the country. He can shoot the three and rebound against bigger players. Thomas is a hard-worker who rebounds the ball very well at both ends of the floor. Advantage: Butler

Brian Zoubek vs. Matt Howard: If Howard plays, this match-up could be the one that decides the game. Zoubek has been a dominant offensive rebounder lately, and Howard is Butler’s best inside player (when he’s not in foul trouble). However, if he does not play due to a head injury, it could be tough for Avery Jukes to keep Zoubek off the glass. Advantage: TBD

Duke Bench vs. Butler Bench: Butler’s bench could be more important, especially if Howard doesn’t play. If that is the case, Jukes is going to need to play a much bigger role, as will seldom-used 6-11 freshman Andrew Smith. Zach Hahn is a sharpshooter, and Shawn Vanzant is a quick defender. Duke brings the Plumlee twins, Mason and Miles, off the pine on the inside. Both are athletic and productive in the frontcourt. Guard Andre Dawkins is an excellent three-point shooter with a smooth stroke and deep range. Advantage: Duke

Mike Krzyzewski vs. Brad Stevens: What a contrast in, well, just about everything. Coach K has been here before, eight times to be exact, while Stevens has only been a head coach for three seasons. Krzyzewski is 63, Stevens is 33. Coach K is certainly more demonstrative on the sidelines, while Stevens seems to rarely raise his voice or change his demeanor. Advantage: Duke

Who's Going to Win and Why

Wow, talk about a David vs. Goliath battle. Duke is one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, perennially near the top of the rankings with a slew of four and five-star recruits up and down the roster. On the other side, Butler is a mid-major school that had never been to the Final Four and has made a historical run to the national championship game with unheralded and underrated prospects. To demonstrate just how big a gap there is between the two programs, think about this: according to Darren Rovell of CNBC, Duke spent $394,068 per player last year. Butler? $347,108 for the entire team. You couldn’t ask for more storylines than this.

During the actual game, there are several things to watch for. When Butler has the ball, it will be interesting to see if the Bulldogs are able to consistently get open shots and knock them down. They aren’t all that accurate shooting the ball from long distance despite their propensity to shoot three-pointers. If Howard is out, Butler will become more one-dimensional – not a good thing when facing a team that guards the three-point shot better than anyone in America. Another thing to watch will be Butler’s ability to use its forwards as match-up problems. Singler might not have the quickness to stay with Hayward, while Thomas will have to guard Veasley all the way out on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for the rest of Butler’s guards.

On the other side, Duke’s offensive rebounding ability will be key. Butler is vastly undersized when compared to the Blue Devils, and there is no doubt they will have a difficult time keeping Zoubek, Thomas and the Plumlee brothers off the offensive glass – whether Howard plays or not. Duke thrives on second-chance opportunities, and beat Baylor by essentially dominating the offensive glass. There could be a lot of offensive rebounding opportunities given the way Nored and Mack hound opposing backcourts. Scheyer and Smith have been offensive keys all season, but they will have a tough time getting open looks against Butler. If those two are shut down, Duke might not have the inside weapons to get enough offensive balance.

In the end, I think that Duke will be too much at both ends for Butler. First of all, even if Howard does play, it remains to be seen how effective he will be against the depth and size of Duke’s frontline. The Blue Devils crash the glass and Butler has very little in terms of true post players outside of Howard. Jukes and Smith need to have big games off the bench if Butler is to have a chance. Furthermore, with Howard scoring inside, Butler’s offense will rely too heavily on the three-point shot, and Duke guards the perimeter too well to get beaten from behind the arc. Unless Howard emerges at the start of the game as healthy and effective as always, it will be tough for Butler, both offensively and defensively, to hang with Duke. Moreover, if he does play, his propensity for foul trouble will spell doom for Butler. Despite the amazing run by Butler in the NCAA Tournament – and the fact that nearly every remotely neutral fan will be rooting for Bulldogs to win a title in their home city – it all spells a Duke national championship. Of course, this tournament has been completely unpredictable, so would anyone really be shocked by a Butler victory?

Prediction: Duke 66, Butler 57

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