Talkin’ Final Four: Butler vs. Michigan State

John S: Alright, Tim, it’s Final Four time. I don’t know how we manage during the two weeks before the Super Bowl, because just having two more basketball free days really chills my excitement for the Final Four. An up-for-grabs game between two very likable teams that not many people saw getting this far, though, is a great way to start the weekend. But, this game is going to be UGLY. Neither of these teams plays a very fast game, particularly now that Kalin Lucas is gone, and each of them likes to keep the game low-scoring. Matt Howard, Butler’s leading rebounder who is going to be counted on to hang with Michigan State’s great rebounders, seems to start the game with three fouls. Butler managed to beat Syracuse and Kansas State by getting them to take bad shots, but the Bulldogs themselves haven’t shot particularly well either. So this game may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of the Tournament. My question to you: Will it be ugly exciting, or ugly boring?

Tim: Well, if you run down the games these two teams have played in the Tournament so far, it’s hard not to envision this being ugly exciting. Michigan State won its four games by a total of 13 points–which I think is the fewest ever for a Final Four team. After its first-round win over UTEP, Butler’s last three games have come down to the final minute. I have no doubt in my mind that this game is going to be close.

In terms of pace, every Final Four game (including Monday’s championship) is going to be played in the 50s and 60s. Michigan State shot the lights out for a stretch against Tennessee and still only scored only 70 points. Butler hasn’t allowed a team to reach 60 all Tournament, which is really impressive considering some of the teams it’s played.

The big issue in this game for Michigan State will be how Korie Lucious operates the Spartans’ offense. Lucious was the hero against Maryland, of course, but he wasn’t very good in Sunday’s win over Tennessee, shooting 2-of-9 and turning it over five times. Butler is as good on the perimeter defensively as anybody in the country, and the Bulldogs are here primarily because Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley took both Syracuse and Kansas State out of what they wanted to do on offense. If either of those guys is on Lucious, the former backup could be in for another long day. It wouldn’t surprise me actually to see reserve forward Draymond Green bring the ball up from time to time to relieve the pressure on Lucious.

John S: Yeah, Lucious has filled in capably for Lucas, but it’s clearly not a role he’s used to as the primary ball-handler for the Spartans. He did have trouble against the Volunteers, but, in general, turnovers haven’t been too much of a problem for the Spartans in the Tournament thus far. And if this game is going to be played in the 50s and 60s as you say, I’m not sure if turnovers will be what dooms the Spartans.

The Bulldogs’ perimeter defense may cause fits for Durrell Summers, though, who has really picked up the offensive slack in Lucas’ absence, leading the team in scoring in every game since the Spartan star’s injury. A lot of that has come from his ability to shoot well from beyond the arc, something Butler has not let much better shooting opponents do well in the Tournament.

I think the Spartans are hoping that any problems Butler’s defense gives them on the perimeter are made up for by their rebounding advantage. Butler was +9 on the glass against Kansas State and Michigan State didn’t rebound all that well against Tennessee, but the Spartans are far better in this arena. They out rebounded Maryland by 14 and UNI by 11, and the Bulldogs simply do not have the size to match up with Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe, particularly if Matt Howard only plays half the game because of foul trouble. In that case, Gordon Hayward is their only reliable rebounder, keeping up with four Spartans who average over 4.5 rpg. In a game that probably isn’t going to be decided by great shooters or fast breaks, how does Butler limit this disadvantage?

Tim: All Butler really has to do is limit that disadvantage, and Michigan State isn’t a much better offensive rebounding team than Kansas State was. In fact, the Wildcats actually rebound more of their own misses than the Spartans, and Butler handled K-State on the glass just fine. The Bulldogs received quality minutes off the bench from freshman Andrew Smith as well as senior Avery Jukes in Howard’s stead when he was in foul trouble. And as you mentioned, Gordon Hayward is a reliable rebounder even if he doesn’t look the type: Few rebounds have been bigger in this Tournament than the offensive one he grabbed over Curtis Kelly for a putback late in the Regional Final with K-State.

That segues into a general discussion of Hayward, who is being doted upon as the best NBA prospect in the Final Four and a lottery pick whenever he decides to come out. Now, John, you know I was on the Hayward bandwagon very early; when I saw him light up Davidson in the Bracket Busters last season, I said he reminded me of Adam Morrison during his freshman year. And even I wouldn’t take Gordon Hayward with a lottery pick after this season. Right now, he’s good at a lot of different things but great at none of them, and I’d really like to see him evolve into a dominant offensive player against the inferior competition of the Horizon League before he comes out after next season (and besides, how good can Butler be next year with everyone outside of Veasley and Jukes back?). What do you think?

John S: Well, given my lack of interest in the NBA, that last question of yours intrigues me the most: This Butler team has won 24 games in a row and they are not set to lose anybody important if Hayward sticks around (you mention Avery Jukes, but he only averaged 10 minutes a game this season). Of all the Final Four teams this year, they are by far the most likely to make it back next year (which of course raises the question of whether the media will be able to spin a returning Final Four team as a “Cinderella” next season). West Virginia will lose Da’Sean Butler; Duke will lose Jon Scheyer; Michigan State will lose Raymar Morgan. If Hayward stays, though, Butler could end up as the pre-season #1 next year, depending on what happens this weekend.

As for Hayward’s draft status, well, I just frankly don’t understand the NBA draft. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consistency with regards to drafting for potential, polish, or immediate help. I don’t think Gordon Hayward will make a very good pro, but I didn’t think Adam Morrison would either, and he was drafted third. So Hayward will probably be drafted pretty high, and he if wants to get to the NBA early and make millions of dollars, then I have no problem with that. But if he stays he could be part of a team everyone remembers, since the idea of Butler as an underdog mini-dynasty is so compelling. Then again, Hayward should go to the NBA if only to prove this guy right.

Tim: The idea of Butler as an underdog mini-dynasty might even be underselling the program. Regardless of what happens this weekend, let’s say Hayward comes back and Butler starts next year–the year head coach Brad Stevens targeted for a potential Final Four–in the top five of the country. We can apply the same kind of hopes/expectations I did the beginning of this season about entering the Tournament with only one loss or even undefeated. The Bulldogs can make another Final Four, lose Hayward and Matt Howard, and still bring back Nored, Shelvin Mack (how did we get this far and not mention Mack?), and presumably some recruits that have been wooed by this very likable team and an astute, young coach who enjoys chest bumps with his team for the 2011-2012 season. In other words, is this the start of a “mini-dynasty” as you say, or can Butler overtake Gonzaga as the dominant mid-major program in the country and become a legitimate perennial power? It’s pretty close already between the shades of Bulldog: Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Sweet 16 the following two seasons; it’s only been back to the Sweet 16 twice since 2001 whereas Butler has been there three times and now has a Final Four berth. I think the next two recruiting classes will determine the future of this program long-term.

All that said about 2011 and 2012 and years to come, who do you like tonight?

John S: First of all, you are way too in love with Brad Stevens’ chest bump. It’s really not that cool.

But I do like Stevens, and I like Hayward, and I like Mack. Does all of that outweigh my love of Tom Izzo? Surprisingly, yes. It’s very impressive what Izzo has done with this team, but the Spartans have had some nailbiter wins in which they got some nice bounces and lucky calls. They haven’t had a lot of margin for error in this Tournament, and the best team they’ve played thus far was Maryland.

Meanwhile, Butler’s wins have been ugly, but that’s because they’ve managed to keep great teams like Syracuse and Kansas State from playing the kind of game they’re comfortable in. The Orange and Wildcats are better than the Spartans, and they weren’t missing their offensive focal point, so there’s no reason to believe that Butler won’t be able to give Michigan State more problems than it’s faced so far. Meanwhile, I don’t expect Mack or Hayward to blow anyone away, but they’ll do enough offensively to put the Bulldogs in the championship.

Tim: Yeah, you’re right. There’s no way it’s as cool as that Mike Krzyzewski fist pump on the Nolan Smith three or Bob Huggins’…ugh…Bob Huggins?

And I, too, get the feeling that Tom Izzo has absolutely no clue how his team keeps winning; he seems genuinely flummoxed after every win. Butler, on the other hand, has carried itself with a quiet confidence all Tournament, and its four wins are much more impressive than State’s. I do expect it to be a close game, with the Spartans’ ability on the boards equalizing Butler’s three-point shooting.

But down the stretch, I’ve been astounded by the Bulldogs’ ability to take you out of what you want to do and force turnovers or bad shots in the final minutes of games. Just look at their last three. Up two against Murray State, they didn’t allow the Racers to get a shot off on the final possession. Once they grabbed the lead on Syracuse, they forced (or were helped by panicky) deep threes from Andy Rautins and the Orange. And against K-State, the Bulldogs recorded two huge steals in the final minute to clinch it.

That’s why I’m putting my trust in Butler. Down the stretch, Michigan State will need a bucket, and I wonder if the Spartans will even be able to get a decent shot off.

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