We have our Final Four, each team playing its own role: Butler, the fairy-tale townie; Michigan State, the battered overachiever; West Virginia, the East Coast bully; and Duke, the headlining villain. This is the most unlikely of quartets to reach Indy, even though each team was in the top 11 of the preseason Associated Press poll. There were widely held reasons for them all not to make it to Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bulldogs were too meekly mid-major to beat Syracuse or Kansas State in the West. The Spartans stumbled through the Big Ten backstretch, and were without their floor general in the Midwest Region of Death. The Mountaineers weren’t rich enough in NBA talent to dance with John Wall & Co. in the East. The Blue Devils were, well, the Blue Devils of the past five NCAA tournaments — regular-season lions, postseason lambs.
All of those reasons, of course, were wrong. Kansas is gone, Kentucky is gone, Syracuse is gone, anyone-but-Duke is gone, and we’re left to break down the survivors:
West Region Champ: No. 5 Butler
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Beat No. 12 UTEP (77-59), No. 13 Murray State (54-52), No. 1 Syracuse (63-59), No. 2 Kansas State (63-56). Play No. 5 Michigan State at 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
REQUIRED READING: Luke Winn on Bulldogs and brick walls, from Salt Lake City
SAVVY D: This isn’t a disruptive defensive team, like Kansas State, whom the Bulldogs beat in the Elite Eight. You can run your sets against Butler’s man-to-man without getting pushed 30 feet away from the basket. But good luck getting an uncontested shot against Butler, and good luck getting an offensive rebound after you miss challenged jumper after challenged jumper. The Bulldogs’ exceptional shifting, recovering, occasionally trapping man-to-man hasn’t allowed any of its four tourney opponents to score even one point per possession; UTEP was held to 0.887, Murray State to 0.895, Syracuse to 0.932, K-State to 0.871. And only the Racers managed an offensive rebounding percentage above 30 percent against Butler, which is the 13th-best team in the country at limiting offensive boards. Five Bulldogs crash the boards on D, making most possessions one-shot-and-done.
SUBTLE STARS: Matt Howard’s mustache has its own Facebook page, but Butler’s style, the junior forward says, “is not flashy.” Aside from coach Brad Stevens’ flying back-bump with reserve Emerson Kampen after the K-State game, there aren’t many aerial feats on this team’s highlight reel. To truly appreciate the Bulldogs, pay attention to all the little things they do over the course of a game (or two, as I did in Salt Lake). Watch how relentlessly Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley chase opposing guards on defense. Or how much effort Howard, their lone true post player, puts in to seal off bigger, stronger forwards in the paint. Or how many different roles Gordon Hayward is forced to play — everything from perimeter gunner, to slasher, to pressure-alleviating point guard, to defender-of-all-five-positions. It’s impossible to capture any of that stuff in a highlight package.
HAYWARD COMES ALIVE: The Horizon League’s player of the year was 1-of-13 from long-range in the four games prior to the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 matchup with Syracuse, possibly due to the after-effects of a late-February back injury. But Hayward exploded in Salt Lake, averaging 19.5 points and shooting 4-of-7 on threes against the Orange and Wildcats to win the West’s Most Outstanding Player award. When he and Shelvin Mack are hot in the same game, Butler is dangerous.
Midwest Region Champ: No. 5 Michigan State
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Beat No. 12 New Mexico State (70-67), No. 4 Maryland (85-83), No. 9 Northern Iowa (59-52), No. 6 Tennessee (70-69). Play No. 5 Butler at 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
REQUIRED READING: Andy Glockner on Lucas-less perseverance, from St. Louis
MR. MARCH: Never mind that Tom Izzo has only won one national title. He’s the greatest active NCAA tournament coach, improbably leading a five-seed to the Final Four after it lost its starting point guard — its unquestioned, ball-dominating star, Kalin Lucas — to an Achilles tendon injury in the second round. Lucas celebrated the Elite Eight win over Tennessee on crutches, and was hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders to take down one of the nets in St. Louis.
Of the six Final Four trips Izzo’s teams have made in the last 12 years, this one is the most improbable. Two-guard Chris Allen and forward Delvon Roe are ailing; Lucas is out for Indy; his replacement, Korie Lucious, was clutch in the second round and Sweet 16, but had his weaknesses as a point guard exposed against the Vols. Will any of that matter? Only when Izzo’s teams run into a steamroller, like North Carolina’s NBA-loaded ’09 squad, do they not have a fighting chance. And there is no steamroller in this Final Four.
POINT FORWARD 2.0: When I did a story on Terrence Williams and the point-forward concept last season, I assumed that the most famous player at that position in 2009-10 would be Tennessee’s Tyler Smith. But he was in Turkey during the Elite Eight, having been kicked off the team earlier this season after being caught with drugs. Shockingly, it was Izzo who unveiled a whole new brand of point forward on Sunday, using 6-foot-6, 235-pound (on a very light day) Draymond Green to handle the ball on key late possessions. With legendary 6-9 point guard Magic Johnson looking on from the Spartans’ cheering section, Green calmly found Raymar Morgan on the block in the final seconds of the game, setting up Morgan’s game-winning free-throw with 1.8 seconds left. Green’s nickname is The Dancing Bear, not Magic, but he’s still a cool ballhandler in the clutch.
SUMMER(S) TIME: In last year’s NCAA tournament, Durrell Summers was famous for one thing: the absurd dunk he threw down on UConn’s Stanley Robinson in the Final Four. This time, Summers is carrying the Spartans on offense, averaging 22.0 points on 14-of-22 shooting from long-range in the past three rounds. Announcers keep crediting a heart-to-heart chat Summers had with Izzo for the wing guard’s turnaround, but it’s simpler than that: He just got crazy-hot from the perimeter at the right time.
South Region Champ: No. 1 Duke
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Beat No. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (73-44), No. 8 Cal (68-53), No. 4 Purdue (70-57), No. 3 Baylor (78-71). Play No. 2 West Virginia in late game on Saturday.
REQUIRED READING: Andy Staples on villains doing dirty work, from Houston
A REAL FRONTCOURT: The Blue Devils’ big men are no joke. They had 22 offensive rebounds — and eight from Lance Thomas alone — compared to Baylor’s 16 on Sunday. Bears center Ekpe Udoh may have impressed NBA scouts with his all-around game, but his front line lost the rebounding war to Thomas, Brian Zoubek and the Plumlee brothers, and that may have decided the game. SI.com’s Andy Staples wrote from Houston:
After the loss, Baylor coach Scott Drew zeroed in on the stat that mattered most. He pointed to the second-chance points, where Duke — which grabbed 22 offensive rebounds — outscored Baylor 23-16. That’s a seven-point margin. Pop quiz: How much did Baylor lose by Sunday? “The seven points is the difference right there,” Drew said.
As killer as the Blue Devils’ glasswork was against Baylor, it was even better against Purdue in the Sweet 16. They won the offensive rebounding battle over the Boilers by a margin of 15-4, with an overall advantage of 45-22.
NOLAN TAKES OVER: Early in the season, when we talked about Duke guards, we talked mostly about Jon Scheyer, who was playing like a first-team All-America, and would go on to finish as the runner-up for ACC Player of the Year. Scheyer was his usual solid self on Sunday, scoring 20 points, dishing out four assists and committing just one turnover. But his partner in the Blue Devils’ backcourt, Nolan Smith, was brilliant. He scored a career-high 29 points to lock up a Final Four bid 30 years after his late father, Derek, won a national title with Louisville in Indianapolis. There may be no better guard in the country than Smith at finding seams in opposing defenses, and pulling up to score on pretty mid-range shots. The 10-foot, leaning jumper has become his signature move.
TARGET PRACTICE: It’s extremely difficult to play catch-up against the Blue Devils by fouling in the final minutes. They rank eighth in the country in free-throw percentage, at 76.1 percent. As for the rest of the Final Four, Butler ranks 31st (73.9 percent), West Virginia ranks 129th (70.3 percent), and Michigan State ranks 178th (68.8 percent). Duke hasn’t slumped in the NCAA tournament, either, shooting 74.9 percent from the stripe, with Scheyer making 18 of 19 free throws and Smith making 12 of 15.
East Region Champ: No. 2 West Virginia
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Beat No. 15 Morgan State (77-50), No. 10 Missouri (68-59), No. 11 Washington (69-56), No. 1 Kentucky (73-66). Play No. 1 Duke in the late game on Saturday.
REQUIRED READING: Stewart Mandel on Mazzulla’s miracle game, from Syracuse
THE FRUSTRATION/EXHAUSTION PLAN: The Mountaineers’ winning formula, basically, is to drive opponents nuts with a physical, 1-3-1 defense (see: Kentucky, which shot 4-of-32 on threes, and committed 16 turnovers in the Elite Eight). On the other end, an incredible amount of energy is required to keep WVU’s army of forwards off of the offensive glass. As star Da’Sean Butler said of coach Bob Huggins’ strategy, “It kind of wears people out.” And it often clears the way for Butler to carve up tired defenses in crunch time: He’s hit six game-winners in 2009-10 alone.
TRUCK STOP: The Mountaineers, like Michigan State, lost a point guard to injury and had an unlikely hero step up in his place. Sophomore Truck Bryant broke a bone in his foot* in their Sweet 16 win over Washington, opening the door for offensively challenged Joe Mazzulla — who could barely shoot for much of this season due to a shoulder injury — to score a career-high 17 points against Kentucky. Huggins likes to employ the 6-foot-2 Mazzulla at the bottom of the 1-3-1, where he can pester opposing big men. The Wildcats’ DeMarcus Cousins, in particular, didn’t take kindly to Mazzulla’s harassment. “At one point in the game, he looked at me and said ‘Are you serious?’ ” Mazzulla told SI.com’s Stewart Mandel. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m serious. You’re going to have to punch me in the face for me to get off you.’ “
(* Bryant is in the process of obtaining a special shoe that could take enough pressure off of his foot injury to allow him to play in the Final Four. But he’s still far from a lock to see minutes against Duke.)
OFFENSIVE GLASSWORK: The Elite Eight win over Kentucky was a rare instance in which the Mountaineers were beaten on the offensive boards (by a margin of 49.0 percent to 27.8 percent). But WVU is the best offensive-rebounding team in a Final Four that has three of the nation’s top 10 in that category — the Mountaineers rank No. 2, Duke is No. 7, and Michigan State is No. 8. Forwards Kevin Jones, Wellington Smith and Devin Ebanks each grab around 10 percent of WVU’s missed shots. That trio’s second-chance points will be the key to the Mountaineers winning a national title.
An Early Final Four Forecast
Semifinal No. 1: Butler 61, Michigan State 59. The Bulldogs haven’t let anyone break the 60-point mark all tournament, and why should the Spartans be any different than Syracuse or Kansas State? The Veasley Effect will be the difference, holding Summers in check from beyond the arc.
Semifinal No. 2: West Virginia 72, Duke 71. We’re due for some Da’Sean Butler tournament magic. These Blue Devils are much better than the 2008 squad that was manhandled by the Mountaineers in the second round, so look for this game to go down to the wire. That’s when Butler will answer a last-minute leaner from Smith with a banked-in buzzer-beater, moving WVU on to Monday night.