Talkin’ Basketball: Duke v. Butler

TIM: John, here we are, 143 days after I wrote my introductory “It’s College Basketball Season!” post, and the only two times I spent entire bullet points on back on November 13 are the only two teams still playing on April 5. Did I diverge from my prognosticated path? Sure. But come on, where’s my dap?

JOHN S: Sorry, Tim, no dap. Here’s why: 1) It’s not like you said in that post that either team would make it to the Final Four; you just pointed out that both teams would have intriguing storylines all season, with Butler flirting with an undefeated or one-loss season, and Duke thriving thanks mostly to two white players. 2) You were wrong on both counts! Butler’s early season losses kept them out of the AP Top Ten all season, and even though the Bulldogs haven’t lost since before Christmas, they were under the radar heading into the Tournament. Meanwhile, the “dynamic duo” that you hyped for Duke ended up being two-thirds of the Big Three, with Nolan Smith’s contributions equally those of Scheyer and Singler.

So, sorry, but no dap for you. Not even you saw this coming. This David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, Cinderella vs. the Wicked Step-Sisters matchup. Are you even going to be able to, in good conscience, root for Duke? I mean, even our guy Joe Posnanski is making Hoosiers references now

TIM: Were you as disappointed with that tweet as I was from JoePoz? Seemed startlingly tardy and unironic.

And not a single unit of dap? I write about uncertainty and Butler and Duke, and those are the three themes of the Tournament, and nothing? And come on, John, read between the lines: I was clearly saying “Butler and Duke will meet in the National Championship.” I just didn’t want to jinx it.

It is an interesting dynamic because, on Saturday, I rooted for Butler about as hard as I’ve rooted for a team in the Final Four–before pulling even more, obviously, for Duke. If I were not a Duke alum, there’s no question I’d be rooting–and hard–for the Bulldogs.

But of course, I am a Duke alum. And while Butler would be a great story and all that, they’ll be just as good next year and can win it then. Unless they’re playing Duke again.

Here’s my first question for you, though (aside from the dap one): Let’s say Butler wins this game. Is it in any way viewed as Duke choking in losing to a worse opponent? Or is the entire narrative about how amazing Butler was throughout the Tournament?

JOHN S: Fine, you can have one iota of dap. But no more!

I think it’s pretty obvious that we wouldn’t be rooting for Duke if we weren’t Duke alums since, you know, aside from Duke alums, students, and other fans, EVERYONE IN THE WORLD is rooting hard for Butler tonight.

Of course, how a Bulldog upset would be viewed depends largely on how the game goes. Duke set the bar pretty high on Saturday, playing by far its best game of the year, so it’s conceivable that even just a return to Earth could be seen as “choking.” But I think that, if Butler wins, the story will be about Butler and not Duke. Even a real choke by Duke would say more about Butler’s ability to force good teams to play poorly in clutch situations than it would say about the Blue Devils. The Bulldogs are just such a compelling story at this point that unless Duke plays just a really awful game, I think the story will be about them.

Which leads to my question for you. Is there anyway Duke can duplicate the kind of game they played against Butler’s tenacious defense?

TIM: No. If Duke were playing any team, I wouldn’t expect it to have the same kind of lights-out offensive performance, in terms of shooting the ball, making the extra pass to find the right man, getting big rebounds. That was as impressive an offensive performance as I’ve seen in college basketball this season–reminiscent of Syracuse’s home rout of Villanova earlier this season. It was also the Blue Devils’ second-most efficient game in terms of points per possession this season (behind only a romp over Penn) and third-best since 2004 (a win over NC Central is in there, too). In short, it was a mesmerizing game and probably the best Duke has played since we got on campus in 2005 (maybe the rampage over No. 2 Texas in December of ’05 is close).

All season long, we’ve heard how this isn’t the Duke of old (i.e. 2006-2009). On Saturday night, though, the Blue Devils’ ability to collapse the defense and kick looked just like the Duke of 1998-2004. How they were consistently able to implode West Virginia’s D without a threat on the post and with only one guy who can get to the rim on his own is beyond me.

But I don’t care how good you are offensively: You’re not putting up over 1.4 points per possession against Butler. I cannot say enough about the defensive prowess of Ronald Nored; to me, he’s been one of the five most impressive players in this entire Tournament. He is pretty much the basketball version of Darrelle Revis. Stick him on the other team’s best perimeter scorer, and watch that guy disappear. Here’s what he’s done the last three games:

Andy Rautins                     4-for-9, 15 points, 5 turnovers

Jacob Pullen                       4-for-13, 14 points, 4 turnovers

Durrell Summers              6-for-12, 14 points, 2 turnovers

And Summers’ numbers only look good because he got some shots off of loose balls.*

*With a hat tip to Basketball Prospectus’ John Gasaway, late in the first half, Tom Izzo called a timeout to set up a final play, likely initiated by Korie Lucious. To mess that up, Brad Stevens put Nored on Lucious. Next thing that happens? Steal –> Shelvin Mack three –> Tie game.

So as good as Nolan Smith has been–and he has been fantastic of late–don’t expect much from him tonight. I’d set the over/under for Smith at 12 points, and I’d probably take the under against Nored. He’s that good.

JOHN S: Yeah, I don’t really see Duke shooting 52% from the field AND beyond the arc again either. I don’t have the mancrush on Ronald Nored that you have (Pullen was coming off an exhausting game; Rautins had virtually the same line against Vermont), but Butler’s team defense has been continually stifling. The consistency with which opponents seem to take bad shots against the Bulldogs makes you realize that it’s not always guys like Rautins and Pullen making bad decisions–it seems like guys just frustrated of trying to work through that D.

With that said, it’s not like West Virginia is a particularly bad defensive team–they had ridden defense to the Final Four just as much as Butler had–or even that they played that poorly against Duke. The Blue Devils just seemed to do all the right things, down to making the extra pass and even getting offensive contributions from Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek that punished the Mountaineers for focusing too much on the Big Three.

I thought it was interesting, and perhaps somewhat ominous, that Coach K admitted after the game that  if Duke hadn’t had five days to prepare for West Virginia, they probably wouldn’t have played as well. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for this two day turnaround. I’m tempted to say that, even if Nored holds Smith around 12 as you say, Duke has Scheyer and Singler to pick up the slack. It’s not as if Syracuse and Kansas State were one-man teams, but it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs shutting down all three of those guys after the night they had on Saturday.

The real key will be how consistently Zoubek, Thomas and the Plumlees can rebound over Butler’s weak, and possibly thin, interior. If Duke is able to stretch out offensive possessions with offensive rebounds like they did against Baylor, then I won’t be too worried about Butler’s perimeter defense.

TIM: Don’t get me wrong: Butler plays fantastic team defense. The Bulldogs often rotate a step ahead of the offense; they anticipate more than they react. I just think Nored is the leader of that D, and that’s the reason you won’t see him on the bench for more than a minute tonight.

In one of our various posts extolling Tom Izzo, I mentioned how the mark of a great coach in this Tournament was how well he prepared his team for the weekend’s second game–with just one day in between. I think we’ve got a pair of great coaches here that will have their teams thoroughly prepared. Even though Krzyzewski said the extra time benefited the Blue Devils in prepping for West Virginia, it’s not like he’s a coach that has struggled with short preparation times. Duke’s Tourney problems have centered on the Sweet 16, and Krzyzewski is 11-1 in the second game of a weekend since 2000 (the lone loss, of course, was to Huggins and West Virginia in 2008).

I also expect the game to come down to rebounding, but I’m not as confident in Duke’s ability to overwhelm the Bulldogs on the glass as most people. Despite its size limitations and lack of offensive rebounding prowess, Butler is one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams. It’s better cleaning the defensive boards than Baylor or West Virginia; indeed, the Bulldogs are the second-best defensive rebounding team Duke has faced all season, behind only Tulsa.* I’d be more willing to overlook this if Butler hadn’t performed so well on the glass against other strong offensive rebounding teams in this Tournament. Its last four opponents were all in the top 30 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and only Murray State came close to its normal percentage (largely because Butler played Gordon Hayward at center in that game to match the Racers’ speed, but I digress). Kansas State and Michigan State combined for 17 offensive rebounds on 59 missed shots in the last two games, and that’s with Matt Howard in foul trouble for a lot of that time.

*To be fair, I’m using defensive rebounding percentage to determine this, and the fact that Butler was consistently playing Horizon League competition boosts their number in the same way Tulsa’s is aided by being in Conference-USA and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (third on the list) is helped by being in the SWAC.

All of that said in Butler’s defense, Duke seems to be on another level of late on the offensive boards. I went into the last two games expecting the Devils to be around even on the glass, and they’ve had big advantages (doesn’t look like it against the Mountaineers until you look at percentages). The Bulldogs haven’t faced a team with the same kind of relentless inside presence as Duke.

I’m interested to see if Brad Stevens can figure out a little wrinkle defensively to limit Duke’s second-chance points if not the rebounding advantage. What’s been especially deadly these last two games for the Blue Devils have been the kickouts for open step-in three-pointers (always the easiest to make). It’s a vicious cycle for a defense to stop these because sending all five guys to the rim for the rebound is what leaves those shooters open. So can Stevens cook up a way where, maybe Brian Zoubek still gets the same number of rebounds, but the Bulldogs force him to be the one to score?

JOHN S: God, your love of this “rebounding percentage” shit is getting ridiculous. Would you stop worshiping at the shrine of Ken Pomeroy for once? Any metric that says that two of the three best rebounding teams Duke has played all season are Tulsa and Arkansas-Pine Bluff is probably at least a little bit flawed. I just don’t see Butler, particularly without Matt Howard but even if he does play, matching up well with the size and depth of Duke’s frontcourt. Butler did limit Michigan State, a good rebounding team, but that Spartans team was one without as many perimeter threats as Duke has, allowing the Bulldogs to crowd the inside.

You make a good point about Butler coming up with a way to make Zoubek shoot it himself. It’s been almost comical how he (and Thomas and the Plumlees) basically NEVER looks to shoot when he pulls down an offensive board and almost always kicks it back out to Scheyer, Singler, or Smith. You would think that would limit the effectiveness of the post presence, but it hasn’t so far. I suppose the way to deal with this would be to keep your best post defender down low on Zoubek (or whoever is in the game), and just keep the rest of your defense on the perimeter even after the shot goes up. You’d be sacrificing defensive rebounding ability, but presumably you would either force Duke’s big men to score on their own, or create some turnovers on passes back out to closely guarded guards.

But I’m just not sure Butler has the personnel for this kind of game. With Howard pretty much constantly in foul trouble, they don’t have anyone with the size to matchup with Duke’s big men down low; the Bulldogs are more of that rebounds with everyone crashing the boards. Hayward, their best rebounder, spends more time guarding perimeter players than guarding down low. With that said, I’m sure Brad Stevens will come up with a more nuanced game plan, even if he only has one day (and you point out Coach K’s good record with little turnaround, but you ignore the fact that he is below .500 (3-4) in National Championsips).

This does raise an interesting question, though. Zoubek has been excellent pulling down rebounds and kicking back out, but if Butler forces him to score on his own, do you think he can step up? He has seemingly developed post moves over the last month or so….

TIM: Hey, cool those jets on KenPom’s tempo-free statistics; I explained the minor flaws in defensive rebounding percentage. I just think everyone looks at Butler’s front line of Hayward and Howard and Duke’s of Singler, Thomas, Zoubek, and the Plumlees and assumes the latter will dominate the glass. I don’t think we can safely make that assumption.

I do have more faith in Zoubek than in Thomas in finishing in the post. One thing that helps is that Butler doesn’t have shotblockers in the post. Howard doesn’t block shots, and he seems to suffer from Zoubek’s old problem of being called for a foul if he exhales deeper than usual on the block. (Didn’t you feel bad for Howard on Saturday? Three of those four calls against him seemed like cheapies, and then he gets a mild concussion.)

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the problems Butler’s defense can give Duke, but I think we have to make the point that Duke, unlike Syracuse, Kansas State, and even Michigan State, will be comfortable playing at the pace the Bulldogs establish in this game. The Blue Devils won’t be frustrated if they don’t get out in transition or if this game is played in the 50s; they like that style. Duke can win a game without reaching 60 points.

On the other end of the court, Butler shot 15-for-49 against Michigan State, which hadn’t exactly been playing gangbusters defense. So which Bulldogs’ team shows up tonight, John? The one that made only six shots in the second half on Saturday or the one that shot so well in wins over UTEP and Kansas State?

JOHN S: Probably closer to the one we saw on Saturday. After all, Duke is a better defensive team than Michigan State and certainly better than UTEP and Kansas State. Remember, before Saturday, the most impressive thing about Duke this Tournament was its defense, and how it was grinding out wins by holding opponents under their usual offensive output, so if this game is a grind-it-out, slow, halfcourt game like every other game Butler has played in this Tournament, then that doesn’t really take away the things Duke does best.

Obviously, holding Butler’s offense in check depends mostly on how the Blue Devils handle Gordon Hayward. Shelvin Mack is important, of course, but I expect Duke and Nolan Smith can handle him on the perimeter. I’m not as confident in the ability of Kyle Singler to shut down Hayward. Hayward is bigger and longer than Singler, and he’s too quick for any of Duke’s bigger defenders.

Even if Hayward gets his, though, I don’t expect the Bulldogs to light up the offensive end (they probably won’t shoot 30% again, either, though): If Butler is going to win this game, it’s going to be because they kept Duke’s offense from getting the shots its been getting in big moments all Tournament–and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Bulldogs can keep very good offensive teams from getting shots in this Tournament.

So, Tim, the moment of truth: Do you see Brad Stevens and Co. shutting the Blue Devils down and grinding out a title, will the Blue Devils return to glory for the first time since 2001?

TIM: I’m intrigued to see how Duke matches up man-to-man. I imagine Singler will be on Hayward, but then who does Thomas guard? Veasley? Nored? And how do you work the matchups with the Plumlees in? If Howard is limited or doesn’t play, does Butler dare go even smaller with four guards and try to stretch Duke out? (Admittedly unlikely.) Personally, I like Thomas on Veasley the most.

Like most people out there, I think most of the signs here point to Duke. As much as I argued for Butler’s defensive rebounding prowess, I expect the Blue Devils to have an advantage on the offensive glass (if not as big as most expect). There are two things that scare me as a Duke fan: 1. This whole situation seems to set up so perfectly for a Butler upset. If Quinnipiac held a national poll with the question, “An extremely likable underdog will win the National Championship this year; who do you want them to beat in the final?” Duke would win in a landslide. 2. One of my rationales for earlier predictions has been, Which team hasn’t played its best game yet? I used it to pick Butler after K-State’s win over Xavier and for the Blue Devils before their game with Baylor. It’s tempting to base everything off of what happened Saturday: Duke looked amazing, Butler had a 10 minute scoring drought. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Butler came out hot and Duke cooled off a little from Saturday.

Laying all that out there, this Blue Devils’ team isn’t your typical favorite: They’re not going to be frustrated by a slow-down game, they’re not going to be taken out of their game if it’s close, they’re not going to overlook Butler (as if any team would overlook an opponent in the title game). This is a team that has seen the lows of the NCAA Tournament and it’s one that is prepared to reach the high tonight.

I don’t think it’s easy; you can’t blow Butler out. If I had to pick a title game analogue, I’d go with Maryland and Indiana from 2002: A defensive struggle that is tight all the way (few remember IU had the lead with 9 to go in that game). But down the stretch, the Blue Devils will get the baskets they need, be it a Nolan Smith drive or a huge three off of an offensive rebound. They’ll hit their free throws, they’ll cut down the nets, and they’ll burn whatever benches they have left in Durham.

Duke 64-56.

JOHN S: I can’t believe you picked Quinnipiac as your go-to pollster.

But yeah, I agree on most of the rest. I do think Duke’s rebounding advantage will be decisive, and even though I think Butler will shut down at least one of the Big Three, I pretty much agree with Dick Vitale when he says, “There is simply no way Butler holds Duke below 60 points” as they have done to every opponent in March. I don’t necessarily think Duke will be the first team to pass 70 against Butler in over three months, but I don’t think they will need to.

One thing that scares me is Butler’s ability to frustrate other offenses at the end of games. If Duke lets Butler take a lead, even a small one, with under four minutes left, then they could be in trouble.

But I don’t think it’ll come to that. Since this game will be such a defensive struggle, I expect it to be close throughout, but I think Duke will be ahead for most of the second half and, unlike any team that has played the Bulldogs so far, they won’t cough the game up down the stretch. And Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas will graduate on top.

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