Meet the Intangibles: secrets behind each Final Four team
Butler has poise, D to advance; MSU's Draymond Green has high basketball IQ
Led by Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia has balance and toughness to match talent
Coach K finally has a team that isn't afraid to bang, and three big-time scorers
INDIANAPOLIS -- You've heard of The Untouchables, The Incredibles and The Unforgettables.
Now meet The Intangibles.
That's my soon-to-spread-like-wildfire nickname for the quartet of teams that will descend upon Indianapolis this weekend. None of these teams will blow you away with eye-popping talent or overpowering athleticism. Indeed, it's hard to remember a Final Four that did not include a single player that will be an NBA lottery pick. I'm not talking about this year's draft. I'm talking about ever.
And yet, it's hard to imagine a group of teams more worthy to be here in this upset-filled NCAA tournament. Butler, Michigan State, Duke and West Virginia made it to Indy because they are tough, smart, efficient, unselfish and resilient. If I had told you three weeks ago that the Final Four would not include Kansas, Kentucky or Syracuse you wouldn't have believed me, but here we are. It's not every year that all the teams at the Final Four can take the court rightly believing they can win a national championship, but this is one of those years.
So who is going to win this thing? Well, if you can't tell by now, we so-called experts are guessing just like you. (Or didn't you notice I went 0-for-4 picking the regional finals on CBS last weekend?) When The Intangibles take the court, the games will naturally be decided by the little things -- who makes shots, who stays out of foul trouble, who makes the best decisions down the stretch, who gets more 50/50 balls. Those things aren't easily discernible to the untrained eye, but fortunately for you, I'm in full squint mode. Join me for a closer look.
BUTLER'S INTANGIBLE: POISE
I am interested to see how the Bulldogs react to playing at home, because it could go one of two ways. Does it inspire them to overachieve, as it did for Michigan State last season in Detroit during its semifinal matchup against UConn? Or will they come out tight and hyper, as Michigan State did last year in the championship game against North Carolina? By the time the Spartans settled down midway through the first half, the Tar Heels were up nearly 20 points, and the game was all over but the shouting.
If you want to take the measure of the Bulldogs' poise, look no further than the 5:45 mark of their Sweet 16 win over Syracuse and the 4:51 mark of their regional final triumph over Kansas State. That's when the favorites took the lead. Butler could have wilted or, worse, lost patience and gotten away from the things that had been working for the Bulldogs, but each time they stuck with the game plan, believed in each other and pulled out the win. They will need to react the same way if they fall behind this weekend.
Strategically, Butler's half-court defense has been one of the real revelations of this tournament. The Bulldogs don't deploy much full-court pressure, but their aggressiveness in attacking the passing lanes caused Syracuse and K-State to commit a combined 31 turnovers. This is a potential opening for their matchup with the Spartans, who were ranked eighth in the Big Ten this season in turnover margin.
By the same token, the Bulldogs have to make sure they take care of the ball themselves (they committed 20 turnovers in the win over Kansas State). That means making smart, strong passes and showing patience in the face of the best man-to-man defensive team they have played all season. If they can play their game without playing to the crowd, they'll have a real shot at winning.
MICHIGAN STATE'S INTANGIBLE: BASKETBALL IQ
I've said, written and tweeted it many times, so let me do so again here: If Basketball IQ were a measurable statistic, Draymond Green would lead the country. You've heard of a point forward? Green is a point center. During this tournament, he made two of the smartest clutch plays you'll ever see from a guy who stands 6-foot-6 and plays in the post.
In the second round against Maryland, after Greivis Vasquez put the Terps up with seven seconds remaining (Maryland had lost the lead on Green's 15-foot jumper seconds before), Green brought the ball up the court and made the game-winning assist to point guard Korie Lucious. Then, in the regional final against Tennessee, Green made a similarly beautiful feed to Raymar Morgan in the post, where Vols guard J.P. Prince had to foul him, allowing Morgan to hit the game-winning free throw.
It has been especially important for the Spartans to play smart during the tournament, because they look more like a MASH unit than a basketball team. Not only is their best player, junior point guard Kalin Lucas, out with a ruptured Achilles' tendon (remember, he got hurt late in the first half against Maryland, so they played the last 2 1/2 games without him), but backup guard Chris Allen is also playing with plantar fasciitis in his foot and starting power forward Delvon Roe is limited by a torn meniscus in his knee. Yet, the Spartans have persevered thanks to savvy play at both ends of the floor. They have limited their turnovers and taken smart shots on offense; and on defense they have "gapped" opponents by taking away their driving lanes and forcing them to shoot over the Michigan State defenders. That will be a smart idea against a Butler team that has just one player who makes better than 39 percent from three-point range.
By the way, the Spartans have also excelled in another critical intangible: luck. You don't win four NCAA tournament games by a total of 13 points without being a little bit lucky. A few more sprinkles of that Spartan magic and they'll by the ones taking the trophy home Monday night.
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