TWO DUKIES PICK THE ACC
Volume XIII, Episode 53
April 5, 2010
THE BUTLER STOPS HERE EDITION
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP EDITION
Matt’s comments in blue.
duhomme's comments in red.
(5W) #11 BUTLER (33-4, 18-0 Horizon) v. (1S) #3 DUKE (34-5, 13-3)
I thought Duke’s game against West Virginia was one of its best of the season, both in terms of offense and defense, and in terms of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith all playing extremely well at the same time, but it wasn’t that surprising or even something that can’t be repeated. I should add that there were plenty of other efforts this season that were pretty impressive, like the performance on Senior Night against NCCH, or the game against Gonzaga, a team that has a lot of similarities to Butler (which also isn’t surprising). Of course, since mediots everywhere told us (a) that Duke should not have gotten a #1 seed and WVU should have; (b) that Duke had no chance against WVU; and (c) that Duke’s roster is full of three-strikes offenders, I can only imagine the profound shock on the faces of those worthies when Duke absolutely dismantled the Mountaineers. Naturally, the sad injury to Da’Sean Butler, to whom I wish nothing but the best and want to express my hope that he recovers very swiftly, took the remaining air out of the Mountaineers’ tires, but Duke was already dominating the game and would have won easily anyway. Hey, how about that Jordan Davidson three? Hw great that must have been for the kid. Singler was great inside and out, Scheyer looked to be at just about his peak performance level, and Nolan Smith, despite the three fouls in the first half (he never did get his fourth), chipped in with another great game where WVU could not stay in front of him. Meanwhile, Huggins elected to try a man-to-man look, and that was a disaster as Duke methodically disassembled it early, setting the tone for the rest of the action and getting Zoubek and Lance involved at a very early stage. The Plumlees were good - - Miles’ technical was “technically” correct but just unnecessary in a Final Four game when, as duhomme points out in much more vivid and hilarious detail infra, that sort of call has been going unmade all season - - and Andre was very steady in his seven minutes, particularly on defense, an area where he has improved by leaps and bounds. Great to see Ryan Kelly and all the guys on the floor at the end. Maybe the greatest thing about the game was Mike Krzyzewski’s masterful gameplan; he just absolutely coached Huggins back to Morgantown and made sure that Duke had an answer for everything that WVU tried. Fantastic. Here’s hoping that Coach K has another performance like that - - with responsive execution by his full roster of players to match - - tonight.
Naturally, about 100% of you reading this website would be disappointed if Huggins’ on-court performance while Butler was on the floor was allowed to pass without comment. Naturally, it was an incredibly serious and sad moment, all the more so because Butler is by all accounts a really great kid and the antithesis of some street hood. And, as duhomme ably and aptly points out below, Huggins’ care for his player was certainly a welcome contrast to the demeanor of some coaches - - which never includes Mike Krzyzewski - - who actually carry on with game business in such situations. Now. All that having been said . . . WHAT THE F**K WAS GOING ON THERE????? Remember when I noted in the preview material on Saturday that for some reason, college basketball coaches live in a sarcasm, irony, and logic-deprived Bubble World where they can basically do anything - - and no one calls them on it? Well, I was of course referring to serial recruiting violations and the like, but this took things to a whole ‘nother floor off the elevator. I’m not sure when I was most speechless - - perhaps when Huggins first shouldered aside the training staff in favor of his own, mounted Butler and cradled his head, or when an alert WVU SIO agent promptly motioned over a couple of sax players from the band to add the requisite porn music accompaniment. Captaining his duty station at the RNC’s more-or-less permanent alternate headquarters, also known as “Madam Beltway’s Girl-on-Girl Home of Restraining Devices,” Michael Steele’s desk began to rise slowly as he watched the unfolding steamy action on the hardwood and experienced a visit from . . . you guessed it . . . a *serious* Boehner that meant business. Commenting on Westwood One Radio, the ubiquitous Raftery indicated that it looked like Butler was “getting a blow” - - and for once, he was actually right on the mark in the more conventional sense. Indiana (and West Virginia) authorities readied to throw the book at Huggins for violating laws that are still on the books in both states - - and Bob wouldn’t be able to claim protection under the traditional “blood relative” exception in his home state, either. (Thanks, Al White.) The whole thing was just . . . surreal. And I prefer to think that the lack of any real media response was just because of Butler’s incredibly unfortunate injury, and not because, well, anything goes in this universe. Before I stop myself, by the way, where were the referees during all of this? Just shocked silly like the rest of us? Waiting for an invitation to join in, to add a dress-up component and an authority figure element to the rapidly unfolding heated storyline? Talk about swallowing the whistles.
Wow. Seriously, though, get well, Da’Sean. Great player.
And now, another kind of Butler. 6-8 sophomore Gordon Hayward (15.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 2.3 tpg, 1.1 spg, 2.1 pfpg, .472/.822/.299) is the Bulldogs’ star and a new favorite of Neeba prospectors. Despite the team-leading rebound total, Hayward doesn’t really bang on the interior, but he comes away with the defensive rebound on nearly one out of every four possessions that he’s on the floor, mostly due to good footwork. Hayward is often compared to Singler, and I expect them to guard each other during most of the game; Hayward is almost as adept at Singler in getting to the line, with 202 FTAs this season to Kyle’s 204. Singler, however, is much bulkier - - just ask Dan Shulman - - and should be able to outmuscle Hayward frequently in the post and on the glass. Singler’s defense on LaceDarius Dunn in the regional final was (after an initial settling down period) pretty much fantastic; here, he’ll be asked to guard a player of similar size to his own, who is not a huge threat to dribble around him. I’m reminded of the matchup between Kyle and Robbie Hummel last season in West Lafayette, which Singler won pretty decisively. Another interesting thing about Hayward is that teams seemed to figure him out behind the arc this season - - he was a 44.8% shooter from distance as a freshman. This season, he’s made three or more triples in a game on just six occasions, and he’s been very streaky; for example, he did not hit a three in the Horizon League Tournament (which, for Butler, was two games) or in the opening round of the NCAAs against UTEP, in six attempts in that one. With Duke’s wing defense on display, Hayward could struggle from outside, and if he does, the Blue Devils will be a long way toward winning this one, because he does not compensate by looking for his points inside. Duke should also try to keep him off of the line, particularly with that excellent conversion rate; he’s taken six or more visits to the donation line in six of Butler’s last seven games. This is the key here - - limit Hayward, and Butler has a very slim chance to win. Singler’s defense, perhaps tempered with some switches over to Lance, will be of paramount importance.
6-8 junior Matt Howard (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.6 tpg, 3.5 pfpg in 25.4 mpg, .485/.790/.273) is the closest thing to a post presence that Butler offers, although he deals out an astonishing amount of personal fouls and will almost certainly struggle with Zoubek - - who outweighs him by 30 pounds, quite apart from the height advantage - - and the Designated Plumlee. Howard was the HL POY a season ago, but took a bit of a back seat to Hayward this season. He has not been enormously strong on the boards this year and is shooting just over 50% on two-point shots. Howard is a good offensive rebounder, but hasn’t been nearly as effective as Zoubek in that department, and he had his bell rung twice in late-game action on Saturday against Michigan State, making him a game-time decision for this one with a mild concussion. I’m sure he’ll play, but he may not be 100%, and that’s even more of a problem for Butler. If he does play, it will be a priority for Duke to get the ball to Zoubek and the Brothers Plumlee and try to get Howard - - the only one on the Bulldogs' roster with any hope of guarding them - - into foul trouble. Defensively for Duke, Howard is not an easy check, but he can be contained with the help of the excess size. Speaking of excess size, Howard’s porn stache, which could be featured in a forthcoming Skinemax potboiler featuring hardwood love scenes with Bob Huggins, will be a fascinating adversary for the Zoubeard. Brian just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing with his footwork on the block and on the o-boards since he renaissanced himself back in January, and Howard, already foul-prone in the extreme, could very well struggle to keep up.
6-8 senior Avery Jukes (2.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 2.0 pfpg in 10.4 mpg, .376/.694/.344) provides a veteran presence (and, having originally played at Alabama before transferring in, a bit of an SEC flavor) and is the principal frontcourt reserve. Jukes is not bulky and won’t win any defensive wunderkind awards with his high rate of fouldealing, but he did knock down 11-32 three-pointers this season (the most recent on February 20) and can provide a change of pace from and relief for Howard. Jukes isn’t going to win games on his own, but he typically doesn’t overextend himself and author huge boners either.
6-7 sophomore Garrett Butcher (0.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg, .194/.333/.111) gets occasional playing time and, with the potential need for more size in this one, could see some action. He is not, as you can probably determine, a surpassing offensive threat.
6-3 senior Willie Veasley (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.8 tpg, 1.2 spg, 2.5 pfpg, .494/.655/.360) will be the de facto small forward in this game against Duke’s far larger lineup. Although Veasley looks like a guard, he’s That Guy for Butler who reportedly can guard any position on the floor - - although I must admit that whenever I see this kind of statement made about a 6-3 person, I try to envision him guarding a seven-footer, and it doesn’t work out or add up. Still, Veasley’s defense is sterling and he has the ability to body up and guard larger opponents, without question. Veasley is a lock for about 35 minutes per affair and scored in double figures against Murray State and Syracuse. He doesn’t get to the line much, and has made more than one three-pointer on just 13 occasions this season, a little more than a third of Butler’s games. Veasley is probably going to be guarding Lance Thomas in this one, and that’s going to lead to some second shot opportunities for Lance, who has a five-inch height advantage and outweighs Veasley by 20-25 pounds. If Stevens decides to play percentages and gamble a little bit, then he might have Veasley on Scheyer, and let Mack (probably Butler’s weakest man-to-man defender, certainly on the wing) guard Thomas; this would mean that Lance could score some buckets and should be relatively unmolested on the boards. When the Blue Devils are on defense, it probably makes the most sense for Lance to guard Veasley, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rotating in on Hayward and even shooting guard Shelvin Mack on many possessions.
And speaking of the man, 6-3 sophomore Shelvin Mack (14.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.1 tpg, 1.4 spg, .457/.734/.389) is a very burly off guard who, like his classmate and backcourt compatriot Ron Nored, is a serious ballhawking defender who loves to create transition opportunities. Time to be strong with the rock, Duke, not that you need me to tell you that. Mack was off the floor for a huge chunk of the second half against Michigan State Saturday with “thigh cramps” - - there was no word on whether or not Bob Huggins offered to help out if Mack signed a full release. Presumably, Mack is ready to go for this one, and he’s needed - - he has scored in double figures in all but five of Butler’s games this season. Occasionally he’ll get hot from threeland, as he did in the first round against UTEP, hitting seven of nine shots from range, but most of the time he’ll revert to the form he’s shown since - - hitting 8-23 triples in the four most recent games - - if he’s closely guarded. Interestingly, Mack doesn’t force trips to the line very often; in seven postseason matchups, he has just 20 free throw attempts, and he has only taken more than five visits to Charity Lane on four occasions this season. Mack will likely be guarded by Jon Scheyer in this one, and for all of the media opinions about Scheyer needing to be veiled on defense, he’s actually done a pretty damn fine job in containment this season. If there’s a problem, then Nolan can switch to this assignment and Scheyer can guard the less imposing Nored. For Butler, this is another potential mismatch, as Mack will be giving up some height to Scheyer or some quickness to Smith (or, as noted above, a ton of height and bulk to Lance Thomas). The most critical item is for both Duke guards to control the ball well and prevent Butler from forcing turnovers that lead to easy shots. One additional note - - even if Mack is fully hydrated again for this one, the cramps could be in the back of his mind and affect his psyche during the game, but they probably won’t be much of a factor.
The starting point guard for the Bulldogs is 6-0 sophomore Ronald Nored (6.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.0 tpg, 1.8 spg, 2.7 pfpg, .408/.623/.182). Nored’s early warning system makes him into a very solid defender, and his thefts of the rock often have opposing teams going ballistic. However, he and the backboard have a pretty good game of mutually assured destruction going on during charity tosses - - although Nored improved considerably this season over his 46.9% mark as a deterrent freshman. The rim usually doesn’t need to have its defenses hardened (okay, enough of that now - - sorry) against his field goal attempts; he has not entered double-digit territory in FGAs once this season, he has just 29 assays from the floor in the NCAA Tournament this year, and he didn’t attempt a three-pointer in 73 combined minutes against Kansas State and MSU. On defense, Nored is the ultimate ballhawker who steals a busload of balls, but also commits a ton of fouls. In watching him against Kansas State, I thought he did a reasonably good job of keeping Denis the Penis in front of him; but of course, Clemente and Pullen didn’t have frontcourt options to pass off to like Duke does, let along a wing forward like Singler to go along with the twin backcourt scoring threats. Nored did not foul out of a game this season, but he did reach four personals ten times. For the Blue Devils, this is not a complicated check in terms of limiting scoring, due to Nored’s limited arsenal of offensive weaponry - - although he can score if he absolutely has to. If Butler can’t get points in transition, they depend on getting them in the halfcourt, and so Duke has to decide between denying the ball at the point of attack, which would mean having Nolan on Nored, or perhaps trying to force Nored to be more of a creator of his own opportunities - - with a 6-5 guy in the form of Scheyer in his face (or, more likely, playing a step off) all night while Smith guards Mack. These are all pretty good options for Mike Krzyzewski.
The backcourt reserves for the Bulldogs basically consist of a pair of 6-1 juniors who have relatively different games, and typically do not play together. 6-1 junior Shawn Vanzant (2.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.8 tpg, 1.1 pfpg in 14.6 mpg, .321/.725/.304) is more of a steadying presence and a pretty good defender and rebounder, while 6-1 junior Zach Hahn (4.9 ppg. .430/.929/.409) is That Soulless Three-Point Gunning Guy. Hahn hasn’t been to the line since February 6, and hasn’t attempted a two-point shot since March 9, when he authored precisely one. Obviously, as soon as this individual enters the game, Scheyer or Smith needs to find him, look away from the helpside defense when the ball goes to the interior, and make sure that Hahn has only contested looks at the rim.
Butler’s most serious problems in this game will be offensive rebounding and depth. As much as the Bulldogs foul, a figure you will have noted from the high totals cited above, Duke is going to be heading to the line quite a bit if Butler tries that in this game, even with the traditional tweet-avoidance that greets the national championship. And that’s going to aggravate Butler’s relatively shallow bench situation even more - - or, of course, the Bulldogs can lay off and play a more laid-back defense, but I doubt they’ll do that. As smart as Brad Stevens clearly is, I would actually suspect him of tinkering with the idea of playing a zone here, but we have Baylor to thank for a recent demonstration that such a plan isn’t an easy answer against the Blue Devils, either. As for the rebounding, well, Butler’s lack of size here is the most crucial factor in the game. Butler was #241 of 347 in Div I in offensive rebounding this season, and #278 in shotblocking per possession. Butler did rebound very well defensively - - #14 in the country - - and Hayward in particular is very good on the defensive window, but Duke remains #6 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, pulling down the o-board a startling 40.4% of the time. The Blue Devils even outrebounded West Virginia (narrowly) despite the amazing shooting they displayed and the relative rarity of foul line visits from both teams, all of which meant fewer caroms seeking claiming.
Butler does rob the ball pretty frequently (#72 in the country in steal percentage), and hardly ever gives it up as a result of opponents’ deliberate efforts (#34 in opponents’ steal percentage), but they turn it over on 18.9% of their possessions (#97 in Div I), compared to 16.3% for Duke (good for #15 in the country). These seem to be relatively neutral factors, particularly since this Duke team has not made it a point of winning by forcing miscues like past Blue Devil editions. In another area, unless you’re a lot more on top of things than I am (which is more than possible), you might be as surprised as I was by the Bulldogs’ three-point percentage of 34.2%, which is almost exactly on the midpoint of the Division I performance curve (#170). Now, Mack, Veasley and Hayward are all capable distance shooters (Hayward, remember, was a deadeye as a freshman, and while it’s possible that opposing coaches caught on to him, the dude still needs to be guarded), and that’s all Hahn does - - but Butler didn’t win too many games this season because of that kind of shooting percentage from the arc. Add in what remains the top 3PFG denial defense in the country in the form of Duke’s 28.1% mark, and you can posit that the Bulldogs may have to find other ways to score. Much of the time this season, they won games going to the foul line, which, when combined with their defense, made a potent cocktail. (Look no further than how they won the game against the Spartans on Saturday for a good example of this.) Butler ranked #15 in Division I in terms of getting to the line this season, and while some of that may partly be explained by the slow pace of their offense, which emphasizes free throw opportunities more than field goals at times (again, see the MSU game), they also shoot 73.8% from the stripe (#32 in Division I); Duke stands at 76.1%, #7 in the country. Butler loves the keep the game to as few possessions as possible, ranking #6 in the country in defensive efficiency; but then, Duke comes in at #3. You can see, I hope, that most of the things that Butler does well have a counter on the part of the Blue Devils, but when it comes to rebounding and depth, Duke has decided advantages that will be difficult for Butler to match. One intangible in Butler’s favor is the crowd, which will be pro-Bulldog, naturally, although it should be noted that the Blue Devil contingent in Indianapolis is numerous and quite vocal, for which they are absolutely to be commended. If Duke grabs an early lead, then the Bulldog faithful will - - and I realize that this isn’t rocket science - - simmer down and Butler may lose momentum, but as long as Butler continues to lead or even stay in the game, the more the crowd energy will feed their already considerable belief that they can get things done, and that is an enormous element of this game that transcends all statistics. Luckily for Duke - - yet again - - they’ve been eagerly written off all season too, and the desire of Jon, Lance, and Brian for a national title to cap their amazing journey from the disappointments of their freshman (and, to a lesser extent, sophomore) seasons cannot be overstated or underestimated. Coach K, of course, has a similar drive, and this season, he seems to have found the recipe for translating that into results.
This is the first national championship between two private schools since 1986, when Villanova and Georgetown met, and they were the first such pair of institutions in the national title game for several decades before that, which of course takes us back to a different era of college basketball. We also have here a battle between two schools that have fantastic, tradition-laden arenas that link us to those halcyon days and stand in stark contrast to the cold, soulless crypts dotting at least three campuses I can think of without trying. This is a landmark national championship game that hearkens back to a welcome time before a lot of the deplorable conduct that afflicts Division I men’s college basketball now, and whichever way it goes, it’s going to be historic.
I believe that what I said, and/or typed, before the last two games continues to apply here. Duke should have beaten Baylor relatively comfortably, and did, and should by all rights have blown out West Virginia, and did. Duke is favored in this game not because of the name on the front of the jerseys, but because of the remarkable achievements of the kids sporting the names on the back. This game can go either way because it’s the national championship game, and both teams are here for a reason. Butler is not a Cinderella by any means - - but they did barely get by Murray State (itself an impressive team, I should note), and defeated Syracuse and Michigan State with critical players missing, and Kansas State off of an exhausting two-overtime battle. Now, no one should make the mistake of minimizing what Butler has accomplished this season, and fortunately, I can’t think of a person better suited than Mike Krzyzewski, who finishes up one of his most remarkable coaching achievements ever tonight regardless of the outcome, to drill that sentiment into his players with absolute conviction. Duke is going to have to do a few awfully strange things here, accompanied by yet another game of the Butler players’ lives, for us not to be pretty happy at the end of this one. It’s possible, but with this Duke team and this Duke coach, it isn’t likely. Come on, Devils.
Duke 77, Butler 71.
How about just one more game, huh? Nationally televised and ending with a trophy-awarding ceremony? Announced by someone who can’t wait to jet off to the Masters where he can make golf even more boring than it already is? Sounds good to me, too. Except the last part.
Man, this is as long as this webpage has been active since, hmmm, the 2000-01 season? Indeed, and that campaign ended quite satisfactorily. Don’t get me wrong, we were completely prepared to fill this space periodically with rants about moronic advertising and bizarre public relations moves, not to mention putting together yet more photo evidence that evil entities are taking over the world (bright sunny day, but undead children cast no shadows). However, Duke had other things in mind and we are not one to challenge their authority in this matter.
Before we get into the much-deserved gloating portion of this article, let me first make it clear that nothing that follows should be interpreted as making light of Da’Sean Butler’s injury, which may or not be serious depending on which report you see. It was certainly very painful and, given how soon the NBA draft is coming up, couldn’t have come at a worse time. I didn’t know too much about him before the game but thought he came across in the pre-game interviews and promos as a genuinely nice and likeable young man. In other words, the opposite of what you would expect to see wearing the jersey of a Bob Huggins-coached team.
Speaking of him, who was it that put on a Huggins mask and comforted Butler while the latter writhed on the floor in agony? I’ve long griped about how most coaches treat an injury to one of their players as an extra time-out, and, while the trainer is diagnosing and performing field-dressings on the non-compensated team member, gathers the rest of the team to talk strategy. Coach K is one of the few who makes finding out the welfare of his charges a priority. But never have I a seen a coach turn into a mama cat and cradle a player like Snuggles did. This is the same man who, as recently as three years ago, would have not only been diagramming the next play, but would complain about how long it was taking to clear the floor of his own disabled player. It sort of reminds me of a Bill Cosby routine where he talks about how, anytime he asked for a nickel to go to the movies, his father would launch a long lecture about how hard things were in his days, how he had to walk five miles to school every day, always in the snow, uphill both ways. However, once Cosby had children of his own and his father came to visit, grandpa’s pockets turned into ATMs without the grandchildren even requesting. Cosby’s only explanation was that since his parents were getting older, they were making sure they could get into heaven.
Of course, the conversion is not complete, as Huffy had to indicate in one of the pre-game interviews that playing in the Little East somehow equated to being perfectly able to dismantle Duke. Sure thing, Bubbly. That’s why most of the participants from your league made deep runs in the NCAAs. Or were gone after the first weekend. I forget which.
One common theme in the coverage of the win over West Virginia is that it was possibly the most complete 40 minutes the Blue Devils have put together this season. Could be, as there wasn’t a single oh-no-they’re-going-to-blow-it moment. It was also, as SanFranSoxFan pointed out in the comments section, the answer to the oft-asked question. “What would happen if all three of the Essays had great games on the same night.” That answer being, “The absolute and complete annihilation of a good basketball team.” Had it not been for an excess of Duke fouls in the second half (WVA had 16 of their 19 attempts in the final 20 minutes), this would have been an even worse rout. Other than those freebies, the Sneers had six successful shots in the entire second period of play. For those of you interested and willing to wait as I load up the Windows calculator, that’s approximately one make for every 3 minutes and 20 seconds of gametime. Wow. That should qualify as the …
WIN OF THE GAME: But it won’t be. That honor goes to the Duke backcourt playing in an NFL arena and shooting 52 percent from Trey Gunn land. Against a supposedly vaunted defense. And the team having only six turnovers against said D.
FAIL OF THE GAME: The T called on Miles Plumlee. Did he violate the letter, if not the spirit, of the Don’t Hang on the Rim or the Other Team Gets to Shoot Free-Throws and Get the Ball Rule? Probably, although you could make the argument that he was trying to avoid pummeling Singer, whom he had hilariously just dunked over. However, allllllllll seeeeeeaaaasoooonnnnnnn loooooooonnnnnnggggggggg we have seen guys follow a dunk by doing chin-ups on the rim, crunches on the rim, parallel-bar exercises on the rim, sitting on the rim to eat a sandwich, laying across the rim to pose for beef-cake photos or standing on the rim while performing an air-guitar rendition of the intro from “Enter Sandman.” Just a general observation here, that the Final Four is NOT the time to start invoking that part of the rulebook.
Alrighty, then, as noted above, Duke has decided to get the absolute most out of this season, and we are more than happy to play the role of strap-hangers on the trip. But first, let’s get the national news report, where we have recently learned that the Republican National Convention dropped two g’s on a “dinner” at a lesbian-bondage club (word is that the staffer responsible for this family-friendly event pulled this move with the same results) and also sent out a fundraising letter with a response telephone number that turned out to be a sex line. This leaves us with two questions. First, how did no one notice before now that GOP stands for Group of Perverts? And, second, why was none of this going on when I worked on Capitol Hill?
Finally, recent stories have pointed out that U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is being challenged from the left. Umm, I’m sure that if every single individual representing the left wing of the Democratic party in Arkansas showed up on my doorstep looking for dinner, I could feed them all to the point of diabetic comas.
Which brings us to Duke playing Butler tonight for the National Championship, and I request that anyone who typed that sentence in advance back in November come forward to collect your prize (it’s a membership in the left wing of the Democratic party in Idaho). Putting Butler aside for a moment, how many of us thought Duke would be here, even a month ago? Most of us probably enter each season with high hopes, but realistic expectations. Especially these days, after the way the last several seasons have ended. But to see this team one game away from the trophy and playing its best ball of the season now, not in January, is a real treat. And they are doing it without a lights-out, knock-you-on-your-backside phenomenal superstar player in the Ferry, Laettner, Hurley, Hill, Battier, Williams, etc, mold. Not to take anything away from the current players, it’s just that the members of the previous group were expected to do this. Tonight’s group never was. Making this a wonderful achievement.
There are several good signs for Duke in this evening’s opposition. For one, there is not a great deal of size (yes, this is something that was not important to note until this year). One of the non-small-size-challenged-players, Matt Howard, hands out fouls like they are menus for a Chinese restaurant, averaging 3.5 penalties per game and sipping down nine Blizzards ® this year. When he was out of the game against Michigan State due to (BIG SHOCK!) foul trouble, they were a different team. Given Singler’s new interest in taking the ball to the rack early and often, this could be a problem. For Butler, that is.
Consequently, Butler does not rebound in a manner that terrifies anyone, besting the opposition by less than three where’d-the-ball-go?-there-it-is!’s per outing. Nor do they reach up and re-direct other teams’ shots often, only 2.3 on average. The defense does produce a goodly number of steals, but teams that can get by that find themselves shooting 41.5 from the floor and 31.8 when dialing a ‘1” first.
But, speaking of shooting from calling-card land, Butler is good from there, making just more than seven per game. And they love getting fouled and taking those gratis shots, with 17.5 each time they hit the floor (it’s hard to find new ways to say “per game” in a different way after a while). Thus, a return of Duke’s second-half Whack-a-Mole routine against the Beers would be a poor choice of strategy.
This is a fine matchup for Duke. Yes, Butler is physical (and it was shocking to hear Tom Izzo say his team was not prepared for that), but the Devils have played plenty of games like that not only this year, but in this particular post-season event. Not to spring this on anyone, but, so far, K’s crew has reacted just fine. Plus, this is another team where Duke’s size upfront (and, well, in the backcourt as well) is not needed to negate the same on the other side, but is a big advantage.
One final note. Folks, if you ever want to write for a basketball website, find one where the other guy gets down into the serious nitty-gritty of the stats, thus allowing you to take the 10,000-mile-high view of things and look for various trends. If this partner also delves into predicting who-will-guard-whom on a player-by-player level, you’ve got yourself a keeper. I just wanted to thank Matt for his yeo-person’s work in this area. No matter how much research I do in preparing my material, I always learn numerous new things while reading his. Here’s to hoping whatever he keys on for tonight’s game turns out to be right as usual.
Duke 68, Butler 65.