Final Four teams make it to Indy with ‘D’
INDIANAPOLIS – Fans who love great shooting, free-flowing basketball and overworked scoreboard operators might want to bypass the Final Four this year. Those who like watching teams grind and don’t mind seeing a few bodies flying around – well, Indianapolis is the place for you.
The common theme at this year’s Final Four is hard-nosed, stingy defense.
Butler got here by shutting down three of the nation’s biggest playmakers. Michigan State made it without its leading scorer. West Virginia busted out a 1-3-1 zone trap to shut down its opponents. Duke advanced even though one of its best players shot 0 for 10.
“Probably not,” Spartans guard Raymar Morgan said.
But competitive? If it’s anything like the rest of the tournament, it should be.
Expect baskets to come at a premium and bruises to be in abundance when Michigan State plays Butler and West Virginia faces Duke in the national semifinals Saturday. All four teams have made it on the strength of strong defense and rebounding – and despite the absence of a big-time scoring superstar.
“Our team totally wants to rebound and play defense,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday, when the teams practiced for the first time at cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium. “It’s much different than some Duke teams of the past. But they’ve accepted what they are, which is good, and they’ve tried to become better at who they are.”
Indeed, the thought of Grant Hill or Christian Laettner having an 0-for-10 night and the Blue Devils still winning doesn’t really fit into the typical Duke paradigm.
But against Baylor last weekend, Kyle Singler did that. Singler finished with five points – 12 below his average – but spent most of his energy trying to slow down LaceDarius Dunn. In the second round against Cal, Duke’s Jon Scheyer – the Final Four’s most prolific scorer at 18.2 points a game – went 1 for 11.
The Blue Devils (33-5), the only No. 1 seed at this year’s Final Four, won both, thanks largely to a defense anchored by 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek and five more players at 6-8 or taller, including Singler. Duke outrebounded teams 560-443 on the offensive glass this season.
“For this Duke team, it’s about figuring out ways to win,” Singler said. “Sometimes, you just have to change your mindset.”
Fortunately for Duke – maybe unfortunately for those who will watch Saturday’s game – West Virginia can’t shoot it much, either.
The game pairs the Big East’s No. 12 shooting team against No. 8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But West Virginia won its games by an average of nearly 10 points – second in the Big East – and Duke won by 16.2, which was first in the ACC.
The Mountaineers (31-6) came to the stadium Thursday wearing T-shirts that said, “Do What We Do.” Asked what the true message of the shirts was, forward Da’Sean Butler said “we’re not going to beat you shooting a lot of 3s, or shooting in general.”
“It’s not going to be about fast breaking and beating you in transition,” he said. “If we’re doing what we do, it’s playing ‘D,’ rebounding, playing a rugged style that no one wants to watch. We usually win when we do those things.”
As the postseason approached, the Mountaineers urged coach Bob Huggins to bring back the 1-3-1 zone trap that his predecessor, John Beilein, used with success.
Hard to argue with the results. West Virginia hasn’t lost since Feb. 22. In the East Regional final, Kentucky missed its first 20 3-pointers in a 73-66 loss to the Mountaineers.
“We know how we need to play to win,” said Huggins, who has a slightly different take on the T-shirts. “We’ve got to play to our strengths rather than show everyone all the things we can’t do.”
On the other side of the bracket, Morgan of Michigan State said he fully expects a game played in the 50s or 60s. (The over-under in Vegas is 126.)
Michigan State is, as many will recall, a team known to practice in football pads to gear up for the grind of the Big Ten.
Kalin Lucas, the Spartans’ leading scorer this season at 15.2 points a game, will be on the sideline with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Outside of Lucas, and 11-point scorers Morgan and Durrell Summers, Michigan State has nobody else averaging in double figures.
Not hard to figure out how the Spartans (28-8) win. Their opponents shoot 40.8 percent, and they outrebound teams by nearly nine a game.
“It’s going to be a little bit refreshing to have to watch and say, ‘How did that team do that? Not, how did Magic Johnson or Carmelo Anthony do that?” coach Tom Izzo said. “It really speaks to what team sports are about.”
Michigan State’s opponent, Butler, is writing the same kind of story.
When the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (32-4) entered the West Regional, the common thought was that they would need a superlative shooting effort to have any chance to knock off No. 1 Syracuse or No. 2 Kansas State.
In destroying the stereotype people had – a plucky underdog whose biggest star is its gym – and showcasing what they really are – a legit, top-10 team with plenty of talent – the Bulldogs won a different way.
They shot only 25 percent from 3-point range against Syracuse but bottled up Orange guard Andy Rautins, who came in looking like a tournament MVP but finished with 15 points and never took over the game.
Against Kansas State, the Bulldogs stopped the most explosive guard tandem in the country in Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, holding them to a single basket in the first half and a combined 11 for 30 for the game.
Butler guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley got most of the credit for that. Neither was very well known outside of Indy before the tournament.
“I think you could ask Rautins or Pullen, they would know,” Butler’s Matt Howard said.
All in all, it may not be pretty. But if the Final Four is anything like the rest of the NCAA tournament, it will feature tight games, crazy finishes and, of course, a good dose of hard-nosed defense.
“You’ve got four teams that very much believe in their teammates, that very much believe in the systems and styles of play,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “And they very much believe in defending. That’s obvious.”
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