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Point/Counterpoint: Who will win the NCAA tournament?

BY DI STAFF | APRIL 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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West Virginia

Bob Huggins and the West Virginia Mountaineers have come a long way this year. Previously predicted to finish at or near the bottom of the Big East, Huggins inspired his team to prove the naysayers wrong.

The Mountaineers’ main reason for making it to their first Final Four in 51 years was their defensive play. West Virginia has held each of its last 10 opponents to under 70 points — all wins.

Since the end of the regular season, only Kentucky has put more than 60 points on the board.

In the tournament alone, West Virginia is only giving up 57.75 points per game. The Mountaineers’ stingy and extremely physical defense has driven opponents mad (ask Calipari, whose team lost to Huggins’ Mountaineers after shooting 4-for-32 from 3-point range and committing 16 turnovers).

Even with Darryl “Truck” Bryant out from behind the dash of the Mountaineers offense, West Virginia has kept the wheels turning because of an unlikely hero who has stepped up in his absence.

Joe Mazzulla, who has been described by Sports Illustrated as “offensively challenged,” scored a career-high 17 points against a lightning-quick Kentucky team — proving his shoulder is finally healed.

But it wasn’t just Mazzulla’s offense that made him such an asset for the Mountaineers in their Elite Eight matchup, it was his ability to anchor the bottom of Huggins bothersome 1-3-1 defense.

West Virginia’s Final Four matchup will more than likely be a close one, considering both have prestigious defenses. If that is the case and I were a betting man, I would have to go with the Mountaineers and their cold-blooded finisher Da’Sean Butler, who has converted six last-second game-winning shots this season.

The combination of Mazzulla, Butler, Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks, and Wellington Smith will drive Coach K into one of his pre-Madonna, “I can’t believe I got an Escalade instead of a Range Rover” sideline rants, where he looks like a mental patient in dire need of a straightjacket.

— by Jerry Scherwin Jr.

Butler

If basketball fans across the country aren’t sure of which team to root for in the Final Four, the answer is simple.

America, pledge your allegiance to the Butler Bulldogs on Saturday.

Since their elusive Elite Eight victory against Kansas State last weekend, the Bulldogs have even been compared to the movie Hoosier, with basketball reigning supreme in the state of Indiana.

Aside from cinema connections, Butler has some other references on its side for Saturday against Michigan State.

With the Final Four held in Indianapolis this year, it is a virtual home game for the Bulldogs, considering Lucas Oil Stadium is six miles from Hinkle Field House.

Not a bad drive for the Butler faithful, which should be represented well.

Head coach Brad Stevens, just 33 years old and in his third season at the helm, recruits kids who are winners. He has an 88-14 career record as a coach, which includes an 18-0 campaign in conference this year and a 32-4 overall record.

Additionally, Butler holds the nation’s longest current winning streak in all of Division-I basketball, with 24 victories.

Sophomores Gordon Heyward and Shelvin Mack are the team’s most talented players, and they both played on the USA U-19 national team last summer, adding to the Bulldog’s illustrious résumé.

Heyward arguably brings in the most prestigious accolades of anyone on the hardwood, being named Horizon League Newcomer of the Year last year and Horizon League Player of the Year this season.

Above all, though, Butler just plays good basketball.

Lock-down defense and the team’s ability to create shots off ball screens are common occurrences fans will see Saturday night.

Looking up and down the Michigan State bench, one might wonder how Butler even has a chance. But the Bulldogs have seemed to prove the pundits incorrect this season.

Going 32-4 isn’t a fluke. Just ask UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, and Kansas State — teams Butler defeated to reach its first Final Four ever in school history.

— by Matt Cozzi

Michigan State

Many of the Michigan State faithful refer to their basketball program as “The Tradition.” At this point, it’s hard to dispute.

With Tom Izzo at the helm, the Spartans are heading back to the Final Four for the sixth time in 12 years.

Wow. If experience isn’t on Michigan State’s side, then it isn’t on anyone’s.

And this year may be one of their more impressive runs, getting by the competition without arguably their best player in first-team All-Big Ten guard Kalin Lucas, whom they lost to a torn Achilles tendon during the tournament.

For the Spartans’ backup, Korie Lucious, though, the tourney has been more like a coming-out party. The sophomore from Milwaukee hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Michigan State a two-point win over co-ACC champion Maryland.

Iowa and the rest of the Big Ten are familiar with the suffocating defense Izzo has inculcated, but Michigan State’s offense will earn the Spartans the title.

The Spartan offensive sets are numerous and difficult to recognize and handle, and they come with countless twists and alternate options. Add in Sparty’s acumen on the offensive glass, and their offense becomes even more troublesome for opponents.

The Spartans have been in the midst of some close games thus far in the tournament, and their toughest tasks lay ahead of them, namely having to take on a surprising Butler team playing in its own backyard.

Michigan State hasn’t conquered a team in the tournament higher than a 4 seed, and 5th-seeded Butler won’t change that. But, so far, the Spartans seem to be taking adversity in stride.

— by Matt Schommer

Duke

Although this tournament has been wild, with upsets abound, don’t expect the Final Four to play out the same way.

What are the overriding keys to victory? Defense, fundamentals, and experience wins championships.

Defensively, Duke has been inconsistent but picking it up lately, allowing more than 70 points only twice in its last eight games. To a Big Ten school, this may seem high, but keep in mind this is a run-and-gun ACC team, and the Blue Devils won both of the games in which they allowed 70-plus.

With fundamentals, there may not be a sounder team. Under Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils will take charges, box out, and do the dirty work.

Remember Kyle Singler jumping into the scorer’s table in the ACC Tournament to save a ball from going out of bounds when he easily could have let it go? That’s a hustle play, and that’s the Coach K way.

Which brings me to my final point. Duke has Coach K.

He’s been to 11 Final Fours and has three national championships. The only other résumé left in the tourney that even close is Tom Izzo’s — six Final Fours and one national championship.

But it doesn’t matter because his squad will lose to Butler anyway (trust me on that one).

As far as coaching and player matchups, Krzyzewski will probably have a tougher time dispatching of Bob Huggins and West Virginia than ending Butler’s great run in the national finals.

Sure West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler could get Duke’s guards in trouble. But I guarantee they’ll have fundamental help-side defense ready to step out, while Krzyzewski is on the sidelines thinking two moves ahead of whoever is on the other bench.

— by Ian Martin


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