by Ryne Nelson

What’s going on Final Four Fans? It’s been more than a minute since The Notrious DNP got his fingers back in writing shape. Typically, one of the game’s largest stages isn’t the best place to pick up the digital pen after a long hiatus. But it’s all good — I spent the afternoon doing finger exercises for this very purpose.

It’s going to be a long ride — hopefully a damn good one too — so saddle up with everyone in the comments section and help this live blog out. Yes, I understand in a world of Live Tweets and Cover It Lives, we’re going old school once again. And, frankly, we’re proud of it. We follow as much as we can on Twitter, and we try new technology with the best of ‘em. But as of right now. Nothing can top the forum you all have helped build at SLAMonline. We’ll keep on keeping on ’til someone forces us to do otherwise. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Heck, the Final Four is a throwback this season as well. Butler hasn’t been here since most of your parents were kids, and traditional powerhouse Duke hasn’t been Final Four relevant in much longer than Devil fans care to mention. West Virginia seems like the lone up-and-comer under hoops yoda Bob Huggins, and Michigan State is powering up just like it was when Magic played in green.

Whatever the outcome tonight, remember the past (or what you heard of it). Watch the non-NBA Lottery laden set of studs play defense and team ball. Check the under-Dogs from the great college basketball state attempt to do great things in front of a 67,000-strong home crowd. Watch emotion at its pinnacle and pressure at its peak. We could go on with the poetry, but let’s not push the serving size too much. There’s a game to discuss…

No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Butler

– “THE ROAD ENDS HERE.”

– Butler fans heard the unfortunately boring phrase over and over. Not only because they’ve endured their way to the Final Four; but the entire city has been gearing up for this weekend since well before March’s Madness arrived. It’s on the highway billboards, in the malls, on the buildings. It’s practically behind their eyeballs by now. They’ve heard it more than they ever want to hear. It’s all good, though. Butler has made it Big Time. People couldn’t be happier.

– The Final Four’s lowest seed has done it again. After a regular Big Ten season that can be described in no way than ‘disappointing,’ Tom Izzo’s group of vets are back at the familiar stage. Are the the Spartan Dogs really under-dogs? Don’t under-estimate the power of experience. And don’t underestimate what Izzo’s capable of getting from his players.

– When you’re at this stage, the stats don’t mean a thing. That said, Michigan State has the distinct height advantage and are very active on the defensive glass. Butler gets the to line more often, and shoots among the best as a nation from the stripe. Sounds like Butler already as a point of weakness it should explore…

– As Colin pointed out, Butler head coach, 33-year-old Brad Stevens, is a coaching prodigy. Stevens, in his third season, already has more NCAA Tourney appearances than the average college coach — who’s coached roughly 12 seasons.

FIRST HALF

– LEGGGO! MSU’s Korie Lucious and BUT’s Gordon Hayward start the game off right with pairs of treys from deep.

– Butler makes it clear early on that they have the big-stage jitters. If they don’t pick up the aggression and score within’ the arc, it’s going to be a long match for the Bulldogs.

– Now it’s Draymond Green and Hayward match each other point-for-point. Lots of young talent on display early on for both teams.

– As good as Butler’s win streak seems, they’ve done in it against Horizon League competition. Don’t feel bad if you forgot the last NBA player to come from the Horizon: Vitaly Potapenko from Wright State. Xavier made the move to the Atlantic-10 Conference years ago; it might be in Butler’s (bright) future as well…

– Gordon Hayward easily is the most important player on the court — the Bulldogs need him to be Godly in order to have a chance, the Spartans need to find a stop to cruise to the Title match. That boy is good.

– Hayward shot 29.5 percent from three during the regular season and is currently 7-11 in his last three games. Talk about clutch?

– Shelvin Mack’s 21-foot three-pointer in transition really ignites the crowd. The home team does have some people here after all!

– Right when you think MSU had a comfortable lead, it’s suddenly gone, tied 28-28 at half. Yup, this is college hoops, where scoring comes in infrequent streaks.

– The Spartans’ rough finish showed some cracks in their armor. Summers struggles a lot to create his own shot. Lucious has some of the shakiest handles when pressed.

SECOND HALF

– Five minutes in, and neither team has been able to coax the momentum in its favor. Butler continues to remind us that its players are inferior, but they continue to battle. It’s unclear whether MSU’s isn’t executing or Stevens has Butler well-prepared on the defensively.
— Unexpected second half stats: Hayward picks up his first foul and Matt Howard scores his first points. The mustache is official.

– Summers with a nasty OOP! cram from the baseline. Don’t look at the score, and you’d swear the Spartans are winning. Don’t let Lucious see the floor, and that doesn’t happen.

– Butler picks up its defense and expands the lead on the offensive end. This game is going to come down to trips to the foul line. That’s primarily where Butler’s establishing itself (along with its strong defense) in the second half.

– This is the inevitable time in the game where every close call will be blamed on the refs. Yes, they’ve called the game tightly thus far, but they haven’t been unfair. Quit the complaining.

– Delvon Roe is showing some impressive footwork in the paint. He’s not always able to connect, but no one can contain him. Michigan State pushes the issue and gives its bigs sufficient possessions, and they’ve got this game.

– Both teams are failing lay up drills.

– For everyone who thinks a game like this isn’t entertaining, see above. This is old fashioned, NCAA Tournament action at its finest! Learn to appreciate.

– That said, far too many bunnies have been missed on both ends, though.

– The tension’s high in Indy, especially with the majority of the crowd holding its collective breath. I don’t know if people can suck in much more… Michigan State’s going to score at some point. Butler needs to at least hit 52 points (Arbitrary? Yes) to win.

– Butler might be out-rebounding, out-passing, out-hustling and getting more trips to the stripe, but they’re not converting on field goals. That’s way the door’s still wide open for Michigan State. It’d almost be sad for the home team to lose, but it certainly hasn’t earned a win. Just sayin’…

– Is Vegas incredible with its spreads or what? Michigan State really loves nail biters. Glad I didn’t put money on either side…

– Draymond Green needs to stop begging for a foul and take it strong.

– Butler wins. But it’ll probably be its last, considering how tough this win looked.

POSTGAME

– Coach Stevens lauds his team, and, of course, Hayward. The team believes in itself, at least that’s what Hayward says about the ice cold spell in second half.

– Hayward says Butler’s good defense is the factor that kept them alive in the second half. That’s cool, but if they go cold even for three minutes on Monday, they’ll be doomed.

No. 2 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Duke

– Duke and West Virginia are warming up in front of 70,00 people. One will most likely be Monday’s champion. We have roughly 45 minutes ’til tip. You know what to do… comment!

– As expected, we’re watching two high-powered offensive teams. Exciting plays shouldn’t be at a premium like last game. Sixty or 70 points can be expected for both teams as well.

– Both teams also love to crash the offensive glass and, unsurprisingly, have height than the rest of the NCAA. Duke’s advantage comes in the form of experience, generally making smart plays, and superior long-range shooters. Duke’s legit, and it’s no surprise why they’re favored to not only win tonight, but to win it all.

FIRST HALF

– Kyle Singler is the hero early on. His 9 points come in a variety of ways, including a a 24-foot three-pointer that put Duke up 7.

– Singler’s defensive assignment, Da’Sean Butler, on the other hand, has been cold as December in Circle City…

– It’s not that West Virginia is playing poorly, Duke’s just getting that hot.

– The Jon Scheyer/Singler tandem is getting into the paint at will. WVU coach Bob Huggins must be shaking his head at this.

– Great three-point shooting teams are difficult to counteract in college hoops, especially considering West Virginia is glaringly mediocre from range.

– I hate to say it because I’m going to be around for the rest of the game, but this game is over. Duke’s playing flawless basketball.

– If West Virgina wants to get back into this game, they need to do three things: 1) Take better care of the ball, 2) Improve offensive ball moment, and 3) Attack the offensive glass. All of this is doable. Then again, somehow cooling down a red-hot Duke team isn’t…

– Straight work for the Blue Devils on both ends of the court. Is it this easy for them to beat a top-5 team in the nation?

– Duke’s done all this damage without taking a free throw in the first half. Amazing.

SECOND HALF

– Has any team shot 50 percent and kept its opponent to the line for an entire half, and still be down by 8 at half? Can West Virgina capitalize?

– As good as Nolan Smith is playing, Joe Mazzulla is playing hard on the other end. Both guards are a problem tonight.

– Duke’s first free throws of the game come with 12:32 left.

– It officially can’t get worse for WVU. De’Sean Butler’s down for the count holding his knee. I’d feel worse for him if I didn’t just see this.

– On second thought, Da’Sean easily could have a torn ACL, which would obviously hurt his Draft status this summer. It got pretty powerful when Huggins came right over to Butler. That was sad. This is very uncool.

– West Virgina must be demoralized to the bone. Props to them for finishing this out with class.

– It goes without saying that Duke is unstoppable with its Big 3 being this hot. That said, they’ll probably be unstoppable on Monday if only one of the Big 3 plays this well.

– West Virgina played well. Duke just played (much) better, particularly from beyond the arc. The Mountaineers lost badly to Purdue earlier in the season, but not this bad.

– Duke wins in a blowout. The Live Blog will return Monday night, but don’t lose sleep anticipating a close game.