Final Four Preview

Keep the faith, people.

I know my official bracket looked rough there for a while, with a spotty performance in the first round and the loss of my overall winner (Kansas) in the second. But with Syracuse, Ohio State and Kansas State losing, along with West Virginia’s win over Kentucky and Duke’s tight win over Baylor, I ended up with two Final Four teams in a year when almost no one will have three or more. That means that if you followed my picks, you’re probably sitting somewhere near the top of your pool. (Anthony Stalter didn’t look at his bracket after Kansas lost and just discovered that he’s in fourth place out of 54 entries and has a shot at second place.)

Anyway, even though I’m a Duke fan, I picked the Mountaineers over the Blue Devils at the beginning of the tournament, and now I’m regretting it a little. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s take a closer look at each game and try to predict what’s going to happen on Saturday night.

MICHIGAN ST. vs. BUTLER

By now everyone knows that Butler will be playing just a few miles away from campus. The pundits are suggesting that the Bulldogs will have a big homecourt advantage, but I’m not for sure. The Final Four crowd is largely made up of corporate types that are both neutral and non-vocal, so unless the Butler contingent can somehow get a hold of these tickets, I don’t think there will be much of an advantage. However, if Butler wins on Saturday, its fans could buy up all the tickets from the losing teams. This, coupled with a villain in the title game (Duke) could create more atmosphere. Still, it’s not like we’re talking about Indiana or Purdue — I just don’t know that the Butler fan base is that broad.

Anyway, on the court this looks to be a very tight matchup. Vegas says Butler is a 1.5-point favorite, while Jeff Sagarin’s ratings peg the Bulldogs as a slight (0.8-point) favorite. The line takes into account the absence of Kalin Lucas, while those Sagarin ratings do not. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers suggest that Butler has a 58% chance of winning. To put this into perspective, Sagarin is 10-4 in the tournament in games where one team is favored by two points or less, while Pomeroy is 13-5 in games where the numbers yield a favorite in the 50%-60% range.

Maybe we all overestimated just how much the loss of Lucas would hurt. Sophomore Korie Lucious is a very capable backup, and he was getting regular minutes even with Lucas was playing. Lucious is averaging 10.3 points and 3.3 assists in the last three games, so while he hasn’t replaced Lucas’s production, he’s offset it somewhat. Really, it has been Durrell Summers that has stepped up points-wise. He has averaged 22.0 points on 64% shooting in the last three games.

Meanwhile, Butler is healthy and is riding a 24-game winning streak. They are balanced — four players in double figures — and are an elite defensive team, ranking 6th in defensive efficiency. Gordon Hayward is the team’s best player and future first round pick, but Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard have plenty of ability to take the pressure off of Hayward. Butler uses a lot of crafty misdirection to free up players for quality shots, but I wonder how much of that will be offset by Tom Izzo and his staff having the entire week to prepare.

Coaching-wise, Izzo would seem to have a big advantage on the 33-year-old Brad Stevens, who is a heck of a coach but simply doesn’t have Izzo’s experience.

That said, Butler’s last two wins (Syracuse and Kansas State) have been mightily impressive, while Michigan State has been walking a tightrope since the tournament started. Maybe it’s against my better judgment, but I’m going to go with Butler as the slight favorite in this one.

DUKE vs. WEST VIRGINIA

For all intents and purposes, Duke, West Virginia and Syracuse were the final three teams vying for two #1 seeds. Duke and Syracuse ended up as #1-seeds, and the Mountaineers have been playing with a chip on their shoulder ever since.

West Virginia isn’t the prettiest team to watch, but they’re effective. They are #12 in offensive efficiency and #10 in defensive efficiency, which means that they are very good on both ends of the court. They play at a slow place (#306), but so does Duke (#232) so this promises to be a knock-down, drag-out fight in the half court. For their part, Duke is #1 in offensive efficiency and #3 in defensive efficiency.

The Mountaineers beat Kentucky by nailing 10-of-23 shots (44%) from long range and that’s probably not going to happen against Duke. They were also fortunate that the Wildcats were terrible (4-of-32) from long range, and the Blue Devils are unlikely to match that three-point ineptitude. West Virginia’s zone also gave Kentucky trouble, but Duke took advantage of Baylor’s zone by feeding the high post and kicking the ball out to the open three-point shooter. They also did a number on the offensive glass, which is something that West Virginia has struggled with throughout the season.

The Mountaineers have a clutch player in Da’Sean Butler, but Duke’s Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer are also quite dependable (and fearless) in crunch time. WVU might get point guard Darryl Bryant back from a foot injury, and if he can play effectively, it will add a dribble-drive dimension to the Mountaineers offense that was largely lacking against Kentucky, save for Joe Mazzula.

The Blue Devils are better from 3PT (38.5% to 33.6%) and from the free throw line (75.8% to 70.3%) and I think those are the two areas where the game will be decided. Sagarin pegs Duke as a 4.5-point favorite and the line is sitting at -3. Pomeroy gives the Blue Devils a 69.6% chance of winning. For the tournament, Pomeroy is 22-5 in games where the favorite is 70% or better, and 6-3 in games where the favorite has a 65%-70% chance of winning.

The Blue Devils have plenty of size and should have an advantage on the glass. Those extra possessions should lead to open threes or fouls, two areas in which Duke excels. Even though I picked WVU before the tournament started, I’m going with Duke now. I wouldn’t recommend a wager on this game, but with a gun to my head I’d go with Duke since they have the foul shooting necessary to put games away late, so if they win, there’s a good chance they win by 5+ points.


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