NCAA Final Preview: Can They Do It?
Bulldogs act familiar script against Duke.
The key to Butler’s run is obvious.
They’ve beaten four top-25 opponents, won two games in which they shot 36 percent or lower, and haven’t had anywhere near Matt Howard’s best performance, but the great equalizer — team defense — has prevailed against teams that weren’t more athletic, stronger, et cetera. They’re not outmatched. By anyone.
Ron Nored has quickly established himself as the Tournament’s most rigid defender. Shawn Vanzant has the quickness to beat his man to a spot every time. Willie Veasley, some sort of A.J. Moye 2.0, will take best shots from 6’8″ and 6’9″ fellas and maintain his legs to the point where game-saving tip-ins don’t reside in a fantasy. Many of Gordon Hayward’s best plays the past three weeks have been on the defensive end, and they weren’t flukes.
59, 52, 59, 56, 50. Those were some hella efforts.
Can they be replicated against a team of Duke’s caliber? Of course, since Syracuse and Kansas State are certainly of Duke’s league. But for once — finally — this whole “Butler’s size disadvantage” thing could be a problem, because Brian Zoubek dwarfs any and all on Butler’s front line, and the Plumlees are going to have a chance to do irrevocable damage on the inside if they see the minutes. No team Butler has faced this Tournament has the genuine depth of interior talent that Duke boasts.
Butler’s advantage? Duke’s biggest threats reside on the perimeter — Butler thrives defending the perimeter. Scheyer, Smith and Singler had an unusual cakewalk Saturday night. It wouldn’t be the slightest of shocks to see that feast dwindle toward famine.
The game’s keys, too, are obvious:
Does Butler throw up cinder blocks or drain jumpers? Can they rebound? Will Gordon Hayward be the best player on the floor? Will Matt Howard’s ‘stache be the sixth man?
Does Duke torch the nets in a reprise of Saturday? Do they rebound? Will someone finally shake Ron Nored? Will Coach K really sport a devilish blue Rollie Fingers?
All of those things in mind, here’s the unassailable fact: Butler’s played three of the nation’s ten best teams leading up to this thing, and not once did the other guys dictate tempo. It’s their overriding will, the most noticeable aspect of their discipline. They’re freakishly calm.
If it’s a one possession game inside the final five minutes, Butler wins. And there’s hardly a guarantee that it’ll be so close. Michigan State jumped out early Saturday, and out of character, Butler rushed shots for a short stretch. The only reason they weren’t bit is that Sparty’s snail’s pace precluded the game from opening up. Duke won’t have that problem. They have the shooters, the paint presence and the capacity to score points in bunches that Butler has to trust their formula if things go awry for certain periods — and things will most certainly will go awry at some point.
Even if they fall behind by 8, 10, 12; even if they do so with just several minutes on the clock; even if someone’s in foul trouble or someone’s cold, they can’t panic.
It goes back to that tale of the trash can, when Brad Stevens convinced his players that jumpers would invariably fall in the second half of a game by demonstrating everyone in the locker room could bury the crumpled paper in the receptacle. Butler has to hit shots, whether the shots fall at their greatest rate early in the first or late in the second.
As it is, how do the Bulldogs establish themselves as frontrunners tonight? From the looks of past games, their offense has been too sporadic and Duke’s scoring too good for Butler to grab an early lead. What’s odd is that they typically grind out games — but have played only two such affairs this Tournament: the second round against Murray State and Saturday against Michigan State. Their victories over Syracuse and Kansas State, 63-59 and 63-56, were earned by building early advantages and having just enough toward the end to neck across the finish line first.
Syracuse and Kansas State averaged in the neighborhood of 80 points a night, as does Duke. The former two teams feature more offensive balance; Scheyer, Smith and Singler all average north of 17, and only Wes Johnson, Denis Clemente and Jake Pullen were in that realm.
All of that is to say Butler has precedent for shutting down scorers. And if they have to focus on fewer of them — if they concentrate their defense on three primary targets as opposed to several options that could cause problems — why couldn’t they win this thing? It’s almost an odd advantage.
Butler can’t play worse than they did Saturday and Duke can’t play better. It follows that both teams will gravitate toward each other, then — much as Syracuse had their “letdown” after thrashing Gonzaga and Butler raised its game after squeaking by Murray State, it’s a fairly conceivable scenario that something similar happens tonight. How that shakes out, who knows?
I’m beyond predictions. But this is the most intriguing national final since ‘Nova/Georgetown. And ‘Nova did, indeed, win. And on talent, Butler is, indeed, beyond ‘Nova.