Sports

Picking Splinters: Spotlight on the Final Four

Well, folks, my long apartmental nightmare is over. For the first time in five years, I will defeat my fiancée in my NCAA tournament bracket pool. In fact, I’ve commissioned a parade to commemorate the occasion, so if you’re looking for the Southern University marching band next Monday, you know where they are.

But while my victory is already assured over my fiancée, the national championship is very much up for grabs. And while it would appear that the winner of the Duke-West Virginia semifinal is in prime position for a title, if this tournament has taught us anything is that there’s no such thing as a favorite. Let’s take a look at the four teams and see who looks the most likely to come out on top.

Duke

Sin City has the Blue Devils as the top team in the Final Four. It’s easy to understand why. As always, the Dookies are well-coached, disciplined, experienced and will use the ancient art of floor slapping to defend with an intensity usually reserved for Aztec warriors. Add in that their top three offensive weapons – Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler are firing on all cylinders – and the Blue Devils look to be of championship quality.

What has made this Duke team even better than its tournament-underachieving predecessors is its ability to snag offensive rebounds and prolong its possessions. Brian Zoubek, formerly cut from the “at least he’s good for five fouls” cloth, has been reborn as a significant contributor in the second half of this season.

Here’s the only problem: West Virginia’s entire team rebounds with Zoubek’s newfound fervor, meaning the Devils’ newest difference-maker may be rendered irrelevant.

West Virginia

The Mountaineers present a very problematic matchup for the Blue Devils. One of Duke’s biggest offensive advantages is the height of their perimeter players – Singler is 6-foot-8 and Scheyer is 6-5. Kevin Jones (6-8) and Devin Ebanks (6-9) will dog both players all night long and make them work extra hard for their shots. But West Virginia will also have to score.

Let’s clear one thing up right now about West Virginia’s offense: If the Mountaineers offense performs like it did against Kentucky – missing every single two-point field goal attempt in the first half – it will lose this basketball game. And it won’t be close. This is not a good shooting team, and had Kentucky not turned the ball over 16 times, missed 13 free throws and veered from its game plan of packing the lane, we’d be talking about the Wildcats, not the Mountaineers. That doesn’t take anything away from West Virginia (even if some WVU fans believed me a Kentucky homer for pointing out that teams missing 100-percent of their shots inside the arc seldom win in my ESPN analysis). But it does mean the Mountaineers have to improve against Duke.

Butler

The phrase “the Butler did it,” doesn’t cut it anymore. This Butler is on a killing spree and its murder weapon of choice is defense.

Willie Veasley and Ronald Nored are two of the best defensive players in the tournament and have shut down high-powered guards Jacob Pullen (Kansas State) and Andy Rautins (Syracuse) already.

With the ball, Gordon Hayward is a legit threat that can score against anyone, putting up 24 points against Georgetown and Ohio State, and 22 against Xavier.

The way to beat Butler is to up the tempo, something the Spartans likely won’t be able to do with Kalin Lucas out of the lineup. If the Bulldogs can keep Michigan State from completely dominating the glass – meaning foul-prone center Matt Howard needs to remain in the game – I like the Bulldogs odds. Oh, and playing in Indianapolis, they will definitely have the home court advantage.

Michigan State

Sorry to skimp on Sparty, but aside from dominating the paint and keeping Butler off the foul line, there’s not much to mention about Tom Izzo’s crew other than the fact that, they’re Tom Izzo’s crew. This guy has pulled this team to the Final Four without their starting point guard. Can he keep it going?

My big red flag: Backup PG Korie Luscious turns the ball over on 27 percent of possessions. That’s not going to work against Veasley and Nored.

Given what they’ve achieved so far, with Izzo on the sidelines and a solid, if not spectacular, group of players, there’s no reason to be surprised if Sparty wins, but it’s going to be a tough, tough battle. The semi should be the Spartans’ last stand.

There have been no sure things in this tournament and the Final Four will likely conform. But right now, I like West Virginia over Butler in the finals.