Michigan State (5) vs. Butler (5)
Michigan State hasn't had to be much better than the last three teams it beat on the way to the Final Four, just good enough. Butler is a master of tempo control, probably the best at it of any team in Indy, but Michigan State seems capable of winning games no matter how low or high the score is. And in those circumstances -- until proven otherwise -- it's safer to take the team and players (Draymond Green, Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers, even Korie Lucious) who have done it in this tournament and who reached the final game last year, over a group that's come this far for the first time ever. Even one whose campus is ... let's say it all together now ... just seven miles from the Final Four site! Did you know about that, by the way, that Butler is located in Indianapolis? No, really, it is. They also have peach baskets in their home gym, which is located in the middle of a cornfield.
The Butler story is certainly a fascinating one, the small school from Indiana that nobody gave a chance to making it this far. The Bulldogs are the college basketball version of the movie "Hoosiers," which was ironically -- fittingly? -- shot in their gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse. Unfortunately this is where the story ends. The Spartans and Tom Izzo have way too much Final Four experience with the primary core from last year's run to the national title game back this season.
-- Terrance Harris
Let's just say it, Tom Izzo is a tournament god. Lose his best player? No problem. Need a 3-pointer drained at the buzzer? No sweat? How tight have these games been? Michigan State has advanced to the Final Four by, wait for it, a total of 13 points in their four victories.
You think Butler is going to match that?
-- Clay Travis
Butler over Michigan State. Tom Izzo deserves a great deal of credit for getting the Spartans this far – their four NCAA wins by 13 points is the smallest combined margin of victory since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985. However, the Bulldogs have been more impressive, knocking off No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 seed Kansas State. The hometown Bulldogs win their 25th consecutive game.
-- Brett McMurphy
-- Jim Henry
Tom Izzo began the season by driving an Indy Car into the Breslin Center (If you missed the visual of a large man in a small car, think what it might look like to shoe-horn a potato into a Coke bottle, just greener) and he's surely not letting off the gas now. Butler is a nice story, but with a week to prepare, how can you bet on the Final Four newbie over Izzo? Both teams are excellent defensively, but the Spartans offense is more efficient in the NCAA tournament, and failure to score, more often than failure to defend, sends a team on spring break. Michigan State's offensive efficiency is over 110 for the tournament. Butler hasn't cracked 100 since it's opening round win. Take the team that puts the ball in the bucket regularly.
-- Ray Holloman
Duke (1) vs. West Virginia (2)
Just maybe West Virginia point guard Darryl Bryant's broke right foot will heal enough for him to play during Saturday's national semifinal game, but it won't matter because the Blue Devils -- the last No.1 seed standing -- will make the defensive stops and score enough points to win a close ball game. Duke's Big Three of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are one of the toughest trios in the country. Getting clutch performances from forward Lance Thomas and center Brian Zoubek will only serve in a bonus over Bob Huggins' Mountaineers, whom many felt should have been the No. 1 seed in the South Region instead of the Blue Devils.
You know how sometimes, after a long while, everything seems to come together for a coach who has been knocking on the national championship door for a couple of decades? Think Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Gary Williams at Maryland, Roy Williams with his first title at North Carolina, Lute Olsen at Arizona. Well, if your team doesn't make a two-point basket and finds the way to be leading the tournament favorite, Kentucky, at halftime, it's your year.
West Virginia over Duke. The Mountaineers may not be the most effective offensive team to reach the Final Four in recent years, but they're certainly one of the best defensively. There was a lot of debate on Selection Sunday whether Duke or West Virginia deserved a No. 1 seed. Duke has been solid so far, but West Virginia is the better all-around club.
West Virginia over Duke. As Brian Zoubek waits to pick up his fifth foul ... Duke's size continues to have more impact as the season wears on. A team that was so utterly tilted toward the perimeter through late January gradually began locking teams down inside, led by the bulky Zoubek, the lenghty Lance Thomas and the effective-in-doses Plumlees. Yet West Virginia is long, strong and quick (in various combinations thereof) at every position, even point guard, with Joe Mazzulla regaining his footing and, possibly, Darryl Bryant returning early. The Mountaineers are a bouncier, tougher, deeper version of Baylor, and Duke needed a lot of breaks to get past Baylor. It won't get past West Virginia.
Yes, West Virginia beat top-seeded Kentucky. Very, very impressive. And one can't help but love Huggie Bear -- head coach Bob Huggins has led his alma mater to the promised land, where he will finally get his due credit as crafty coach. Still, how can you pick against Duke, the tourney's maligned No. 1 seed that has failed to wilt in the tourney -- much to the distress of its critics -- and now returns to the Final Four for the first time since 2004? I can't.
If Izzo is a March god, then what does that make Mike Krzyzewski? A March titan? The guy whose poster March gods keep on their bedroom wall? Krzyzewski returns for his 11th Final Four (to Izzo's six) and shot at a fourth national title. All along, we've expected Duke would put up a shooting percentage that would look like it was accidentally measured in Celsius and wilt. They complied. All except the wilting part. Duke shot 24.1 percent in the first half against Purdue and just over 36 percent for the game against Baylor. But a funny thing happened on the way to another March misfire. Duke rebounded. And rebounded. And rebounded. West Virginia's equally clunky offense will turn this game into a battle of the boards, and at the moment, no team is cleaning the glass better than Duke.
National Championship Pick
Michigan State. The Spartans will cut down the nets for a third time in school history Monday night. They will miss Kalin Lucas, who is out with a torn Achilles tendon, but look for Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious to atone for last year's loss to North Carolina in the national title game with monster performances.
West Virginia gets it done over Michigan State in an epic defensive struggle that may see the first team getting to 60 crowned champion. Sixty? Make that 55, unless it goes to overtime.
West Virginia. Has it really been six years since the mighty Big East last had a national champion? The Mountaineers have been on a big-time roll since winning the Big East tournament and capture the Big East's third national championship in eight seasons.
Butler's 24-game winning streak notwithstanding, West Virginia in hindsight has been the best team in the country since the last couple of weeks of the regular season. The Mountaineers are mentally and physically tougher, defend better, rebound better, come up bigger in the clutch and have a more reliable and tested go-to player (Da'Sean Butler) than any of the remaining teams. It's a shame that Michigan State will end up losing the final game of the season twice in a row, but like last year, their last opponent will just be better than they are.
The Big Three -- Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith -- will serve big memories for the Blue Devils. Michigan State will get down and dirty on defense. Don't be fooled. Duke will, too. The Blue Devils are playing with a ton of confidence, center Brian Zoubek will mix it up inside and Duke will get just enough from its bench to head back to Durham,N.C. with a ring. Just like the old days.
Duke. Why not? They've survived an awful shooting night from Jon Scheyer in the Sweet 16 and and even worse one from Kyle Singler in the Elite Eight. Just imagine if the Blue Devils play a good 40 minutes in this tournament. Meanwhile, bench producers Andre Dawkins and the Plumlees have given Duke its deepest lineup this season. Don't discount the revenge factor either. Duke's seniors were bounced from the NCAA tournament by West Virginia in 2007 and have spent the better part of the years since reconnecting with Duke's legacy and atoning for those sorts of flops. Krzyzewski, meanwhile, is not the type to forget a slight. For years, the coach rallied his team around a 43-point defeat Duke suffered to Virginia in 1983 -- at least until Duke returned the favor with two 46 point whippings in the 1999 regular season and a 37-point margin in the ACC tournament.
Most Important Player in the Final Four:
Duke's second-leading scorer Kyle Singler had an off shooting night in the Blue Devils Elite Eight win over Baylor. Look for Singler to have a huge Final Four.
He's filling in for the injured Kalin Lucas at point guard on the biggest stage in all of college sports. Can he handle the pressure? Will he fold? If he plays really well, Michigan State can win the title. If he plays poorly, they have no shot.
Joe Mazzulla (pictured). The West Virginia point guard was the East Region's most outstanding player after a career-high 17 point night. His biggest impact may have come defensively in the Mountaineers' 1-3-1 zone against 6-11, 270-pound Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins, who had five turnovers. With the availability of Truck Bryant (broken foot) unknown, Mazzulla will need a solid Final Four if WVU has a chance to win its first national title
Kalin Lucas, Michigan State. Were he there, instead of on the bench and on crutches, the Spartans would be the favorites going into Indianapolis. That they made it here is a testament not only to Tom Izzo but to the players who have adjusted on the fly and milked their strengths almost flawlessly in the 2 1/2 games since losing him. Remember, they were a split-second away from being bounced in the second round after letting a double-digit lead over Maryland get away in the final minutes. They've done all that can be asked of them. If Michigan State wins without it, it would be one of the great overcoming-adversity tales of recent years. But if (or when) the Spartans lose, they will never be able to erase that question from their minds: how would we have done with him?
Duke's Nolan Smith. Smith often gets overlooked and overshadowed by his mates, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, but the little fella has come to play in the NCAA Tourney. He had a team-high 29 points in Duke's regional final victory over Baylor Sunday. Smith has averaged 18.5 points in four tournament games with 12 assists and just four turnovers. Smith has also played all but two minutes in the past three games, and he sets Duke's defensive tone on the perimeter.
Devin Ebanks, West Virginia. Let's just go ahead and admit the right side of the bracket is likely the de facto national championship game, and Ebanks will be the most important player in it. Both the Mountaineers and Blue Devils are prone to putting up the sorts of shooting percentages that look like they're ripped from the back of some backup catchers baseball card. Duke is 209th in the nation in two-point shooting percentage, West Virginia is 195th in 3-pointer percentage. This game will be one on the boards, and West Virginia will need Ebanks, its best two-way rebounder, to keep Duke off the glass and keep its slower bigs, particularly Brian Zoubek, in foul trouble.
Favorite Storyline in the Final Four
Butler, with an enrollment of 4,500 and a school best known for its gym being used to film the movie Hoosiers, is not only playing in its first Final Four but it also is the first team to play in the national semifinals in its own hometown since the UCLA Bruins in 1972.
What happens if Butler meets West Virginia and star Da'Sean Butler in the championship? How confusing will it be trying to keep straight Butler (the team) and Butler (the player)? Will the headline from Monday night's final read: The Butler Did It To Butler or Butler Too Much For Butler? (Editor's Note: Yes.)
Not that the NCAA tournament stunk without Duke playing deep into it; on the contrary, its premature exits the previous five Marches brought immense joy to the legions of Duke haters. And that's why the Blue Devils' return, for the first time since 2004, is the best storyline. It's the same reason the World Series is infinitely more worth watching when the Yankees are in it, and the NBA Finals when the Lakers or Celtics are in it. Nothing beats a love-it-or-hate-it team around to either love or hate. Even the haters felt the sense of loss growing Sunday night -- after all the giddiness over the underdogs rising to the fore the first weekend, the prospect of all underdogs in the Final Four just wasn't that appealing. A Duke had to be there for everybody to take sides with. Duke is here. Let the loving and hating begin.
Butler in the Final Four? At home in Indianapolis? Hoosiers II? The Bulldogs haven't lost since Dec. 22 to mighty UAB. Enough said.
Brian Zoubek's emergence for Duke. If you'd told any Duke fan that the difference between winning a national title or not would be Zoubek at any point prior to this February, they might've looked at you like you suggested Krzyzewski wear a Carolina blue tie. After three-and-a-half seasons of false starts, injuries, and more traveling violations than the NBA calls in a season, this once highly recruited big man has finally developed into a force on the glass. Believe this: No one will be happier to win a national title than Zoubek.