Waiting to play Duke is a West Virginia team that took out Kentucky with a spidery 1-3-1 zone defense and a bizarre offensive performance in which the Mountaineers made no two-point baskets in the first half—but eight threes. Their presence in the Final Four justifies West Virginia native Bob Huggins's 2007 decision to leave Kansas State after only one year of coaching there to take the Mountaineers' job. "I knew he wanted to come back, and I knew he felt bad leaving Kansas State," says West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong. "We're a small state of hardworking people. We take pride in our coal mines, our state university and our athletic teams. Bobby understands all that." And he has West Virginia playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1959, when Jerry West was a junior.
Huggins, who survived a heart attack in the fall of 2002 (and three years later an ugly separation from Cincinnati, which he took to the Final Four in 1992), inherited forwards Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith when he arrived in Morgantown. "From the first day he was telling us, 'You guys better start working because I'm going to bring in my guys and they're going to be tough,'" says Smith. "That was every day."
It was just a head game, but an effective one. "Those guys were great," says Huggins. "I was just getting after them. And it worked." The Mountaineers are not huge and not explosive in the traditional offensive sense, but they are a typical Huggins team—physical, tireless and workmanlike, with five regulars between 6'7" and 6'9".
Da'Sean Butler has hit six game-winning shots while playing all five positions, and West Virginia was flexible and deep enough to win the regional without freshman point guard Darryl (Truck) Bryant, who broke a bone in his right foot during practice on March 23. Redshirt junior guard Joe Mazzulla, who has spent more than a year recovering from surgery to correct a fractured growth plate in his right shoulder, replaced Bryant and scored a career-high 17 points against Kentucky. The Mountaineers led a team of future NBA players by as many as 16 points late in the second half, and Bryant could return for the Final Four—he went to Durham, N.C., last weekend to be fitted for a special orthotic that is designed to take pressure off his injured foot.
Michigan State is the most familiar of the four teams in Indianapolis. Under coach Tom Izzo, the school has reached the Final Four six times in 12 years. The Spartans' return might have been expected at the beginning of the season—after losing last year's national title game to North Carolina, they had three starters back and were ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll—but they lost nine regular-season games, including four of their last six, and were beaten in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State was seeded only No. 5 in the Midwest region, yet what might have been an early exit from the tournament has instead been four wins by a combined 13 points, despite the loss of junior point guard and leading scorer Kalin Lucas, who tore his left Achilles tendon in the second-round win over Maryland. Before their regional semifinal game against Kansas-killer Northern Iowa in St. Louis, Lucas's teammates hung his number 1 jersey from a TV set in their locker room for inspiration. During the two wins in St. Louis, Lucas sat on the bench, aluminum crutches in hand, having delayed surgery to be with the team.
In his absence the Spartans were forced to rely on two players who have been in Izzo's doghouse this year. First there was talented but enigmatic 5'11" sophomore guard Korie Lucious, who went 5 for 16 with seven turnovers in back-to-back February losses when Lucas was out with a sprained right ankle. Lucious then missed a class and was left home when the team traveled to Penn State on Feb. 13. "I don't really feel like I was ready [in February] to take on the responsibility of being a starting point guard," says Lucious. "[My teammates] have been staying on me ... so this time around I was ready." In the first game of the regional Lucious responded with 10 points, six rebounds, four steals, four assists and a sensational late jumper off an Earl Monroe--like spin move in the 59--52 win over Northern Iowa.
Equally important to the Spartans is 6'4" junior guard Durrell Summers, who was benched for his indifference on defense in the Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota. ("I kidded Durrell and told him I sat him ... to rest him for the [NCAA] tournament," says Izzo. "I think Durrell thought I was telling the truth, but I wasn't.") Summers, who met with the coaching staff before the tournament to clear the air, scored 40 points combined in the two regional games. "I've questioned a lot of things about this team," says Izzo, "But I've never questioned their toughness."
Butler will be described as the plucky outsider among the Final Four teams. That is accurate in one sense: Butler's enrollment of 4,200 is the smallest (one tenth that of Michigan State), and the Bulldogs practice daily at 6:30 a.m. so that players won't miss any class time. Yet the Bulldogs have been to the Sweet 16 three times in the last eight years and this season beat Ohio State and Xavier back-to-back in December. They were ranked No. 11 in the preseason and No. 11 at the end and enter the Final Four with 24 consecutive wins.
Bridging Butler's athletic and academic worlds is 6'9" swingman Gordon Hayward, the Horizon League player of the year who is an NBA prospect and a computer engineering major. Hayward's parents are both 5'10", and when he was growing up, his father, Gordon Sr., encouraged his son to develop perimeter skills. "I told him from the very beginning, 'At some point you're going to have to play guard, so you might as well play guard,'" said Gordon Sr. "I also told him, 'You're not going to be 6'8",' so what do I know?"