SportsProf

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Let's Win One for All the Small Schools Who Never Got the Chance. . ."

That's what many of us are thinking, those of us who root for the likes of Cornell, Northern Iowa, St. Mary's, St. Joseph's (remember the run to the regional final with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West), Richmond, Siena, Coppin State, College of Charleston, Davidson, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, Princeton, Penn, Jacksonville, Dayton and a whole host of schools out there with proud hoops traditions that aren't in BCS or "Power 6" or "Big 6" conferences. Those fans are breaking out all their good luck charms, lighting candles, saying prayers, making offerings to pagan gods and doing whatever else they can to help Butler defeat Duke. This is a classic case of a mid-major program against one of college basketball's bellwethers, a case of the 32 year-old former marketing executive at Eli Lilly just ten years ago to a guy who's won 3 national titles and might be a bigger institution at his school than his school is a big-time institution, and that's saying something. The choices are pretty stark -- go with the underdog, or go with the institution. CBS, of course, couldn't have scripted it any better (and they're thanking their lucky stars that a program with national appeal -- Duke -- made it to the final game).

As for yesterday's games, Butler out-attrited Michigan State in a game that no one seemed clutch enough to win. Michigan State fouled too often to close the small gap between it and Butler, while Butler was so futile trying to make a field goal during the last half of the second half that it looked like it was refusing a victory that was put on a platter for it. That's not to say, however, that both teams didn't play valiantly. Butler played great defense, rebounded well and shot well enough from the foul line to win. Its best player, Gordon Hayward, always seemed to be around the ball at the big moments, the sign of a star. Michigan's big man, Draymond Green, also excelled. The frequency with which his name was called -- mostly for good things -- demonstrated what a key he was to the Spartans' success. In the end, despite the fouling and the futility of making field goals, both teams battled nobly and helped turned the game into a very good one. Yes, the shooting was not good, but the effort was there. I look forward to seeing Butler on Monday night.

Duke played the best basketball of anyone yesterday. They showed the best sense of urgency, and they continued to attack the glass relentlessly. While Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler combined to score something like 57 points, I thought that Duke's catalyst was 7'1" center Brian Zoubek. Zoubek's line was 6 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists, but he played with great intensity, banged the boards hard (doing a great job on the offensive end) and set picks of a kind that haven't been set for a while (as in, "once they were set, they stayed set," reminiscent of an earlier time when the likes of Bob Lanier and Wilt Chamberlain, among others, buried unsuspecting opposing players). Michigan State had no answer for the chaos that Zoubek helped create at both ends. All that said, Duke's offense was balanced, the shooting was great, and West Virginia, an athletic and energetic team, just had no answer for the Blue Devils.

So, based upon yesterday's performance, you'd venture to guess that Duke should be a 9-point favorite, that Butler has an injury problem, and that Butler's coach, Brad Stevens, is not match for Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. And you might be right. But it also could be the case that Duke just played its best game, that Butler will continue to grind opponents down with its good defense and that the Bulldogs will have enough left in Indianapolis to defeat the Blue Devils in what would have to be the all-time upset in the NCAA finals. Then again, Duke is playing outstanding basketball and has sufficient confidence to build upon and turn into another national title for Coach K.

Two terrific teams are in the final game on Monday night. It should be great basketball.

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