After an improbable run through the NCAA tournament, the Butler Bulldogs return home to Indianapolis to take on the Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the Final Four. Do they have a chance to beat the mighty Big Ten opponent? Let’s break it down.
BUTLER: Offensively, the Butler backcourt is powered by do-it-all shooting guard Shelvin Mack. Mack’s averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game in the tournament. Defensively, point guard Ronald Nored dictates the tone. He’s not much of a scoring threat — averaging 6.0 points a game on the year — but he recorded nine steals in the Bulldogs last two upset victories, and is an efficient distributor of the ball on offense.
Off the bench, Zach Hahn (New Castle, Indiana) has limitless range from behind the arc, and he’ll be counted on to bury a couple of deep ones on Saturday in order to free things up down low for the inside players. Shawn Vanzant is another veteran Brad Stevens can rely on in high pressure situations. Like Nored, he’s not a major scorer, but he plays good defense, and knows who to get the ball to in the offense
Michigan State: Most figured Michigan State was finished when Kalin Lucas, MSU’s leading scorer and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, ruptured his Achilles tendon in the Spartans second round victory over Maryland, but his backcourt mates have stepped up majorly in his absence, leading Tom Izzo to his sixth final four in the last 12 years.
Durrell Summers has been the key component, upping his scoring average from 10 points during the regular season, to 20 in the tournament. Likewise, his shooting percentage jumped from 45% to a scorching 55% over the past two weeks. Korie Lucious hadn’t reached double-digit points since December, but he’s scored 13, 10, and 8 points with Lucas down. Chris Allen leads Michigan State in three-point shooting percentage, and is a solid defensive player, but he’s not a guy keeping Stevens and his coaching staff up late into the night.
EDGE: Butler — While Matt Howard (Connersville, Indiana) and Gordon Hayward (Brownsburg, Indiana) attract the most attention from opposing coaches and media members, it’s the Bulldogs complementary backcourt that’s been the real catalyst for their success this March. The Spartans have a rugged a aggressive group as well, but without Lucas, and against Butler’s shutdown perimeter defenders, they’ll struggle to keep up the hot shooting that’s gotten them to this point.
BUTLER: Matt Howard’s importance to the Butler offense can’t be overstated. He’s the only player with a true low-post game, and opportunities he creates by continually setting screens and crashing the boards is obvious to even the most novice of basketball viewers. Unfortunately, because of his propensity for fouling, Howard’s been held under 20 minutes in two of the Bulldogs four tournament games. When he’s forced to the bench, blossoming pro prospect Gordon Heyward takes on an even more important role defensively, matching his slender 6-foot-9 frame up against the opposing team’s biggest and most powerful player (in this case that’d be Raymar Morgan).
In last week’s Elite Eight game, 6’11″ freshman Andrew Smith (Covenant Christian High School) came in and played 12 surprising minutes in Howard’s absence, recording three points and two rebounds. Most importantly, he freed Hayward up on both sides of the court. Don’t be surprised if Stevens turns back to the youngster if Howard again runs into foul trouble.
Willie Veasley is the Bulldogs utility knife. He starts the game at small forward, and although he’s only 6’3″, he has no fear of mixing it up inside against much bigger opponents. He can also step out onto the perimeter, as he did against Kansas State, and play shut-down defense against the quickest of guards. He’s rarely left the court in the tourney, averaging 35 minutes a game, and his senior leadership, the one thing Butler is short on, will be an important factor if the game is as close as everyone expects it to be.
MICHIGAN STATE: Raymar Morgan is an athletic and physical beast down low, but at 6-foot-8, he’s the Spartans tallest low post player. He presents some matchup problems for the similarly undersized Bulldogs, but if they can prevent him from getting easy buckets, Morgan doesn’t have the offensive skill to be a game changer.
Everyone’s fallen in love with the gregarious and bubbly sixth man, Draymond Green, more for his post-game interview than his actual play on the court. He’s looked great at times, like when he had 12 rebounds in the opening game, but he’s barely shooting 40 percent from the field, and registered just one rebound in the Elite Eight game against Tennessee. Delvin Roe and Derrick Nix don’t offer much in the way of scoring ability, but they’re two more big bodies Izzo can throw out against Howard.
EDGE: Even — Obviously, with Hayward and Howard the frontcourt is a major strength for Butler, but in terms of depth, they can find themselves in serious trouble at times. Michigan State doesn’t have the skill of the Bulldogs down low, but they’re a very rugged group that excels at rebounding the basketball, making it a virtual wash when comparing the low post play of the two teams.
Talk about an intriguing coaching matchup. On one sideline you have Brad Stevens, the hottest young coach in America, a man who recently set an NCAA record for most wins over a coach’s first three seasons. On the other, you have Tom Izzo, a future Hall of Famer, and one of the most successful coaches in NCAA tournament history. So which team has the edge? As much as I love what Stevens has been able to do over the course of his short career, when it comes to big time college basketball games, nobody prepares his team quite like Izzo. He’s seen and done it all, and looking at how his team’s responded after losing Lucas, it’s evident his players feed off his confidence and experience.
EDGE: Michigan State — Stevens may eventually prove to be just as unflappable under pressure, but he hasn’t done it yet. And because of that, Izzo and the Spartans enter the contest with a much needed edge on the sidelines.
The Spartans have Izzo’s Final Four experience, and are Big Ten battle tested, but nothing can rival the benefit of Butler playing in their backyard. The entire state of Indiana is behind the Bulldogs, and when 70,000 fans cram into Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday evening, you can bet 60,000 of them will be screaming their support for Butler. Plus, they have that whole “Hoosiers” team of destiny thing going on, which can’t be discounted.
EDGE: Butler – Major, major, MAJOR edge to the Bulldogs.
To be fair, even if I thought they were outmatched, I’d probably still pick Butler. They’re not outmatched though. They have the best player on the court in Hayward, the nation’s longest winning streak at 24 games, and they’re playing five minutes from Hinkle Fieldhouse. Clear your calendar for Monday night Indianapolis sports fans, you’re going to be watching your Bulldogs play for the NCAA Championship.