Today marks the start of the Final Four in Indianapolis, and like just about everybody else, our official 2010 NCAA Tournament bracket didn't hold up particularly well (view our bracket below).
Only two of our four Final Four picks -- Duke and West Virginia -- will take the floor in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. On a positive note, we were correct when we predicted that a team from the much maligned (actually habitually maligned) Big Ten Conference would confound the college basketball "experts" by making it to the Final Four. The problem is, we didn't pick the right Big Ten team: we had Ohio State losing to Duke in the National Championship game, but Michigan State is the only Big Ten team to be a Final Four participant.
On the bright side, Duke was our pick to win the National Championship. And they look like the team that's most likely to cut the nets down after winning the Championship game Monday night. West Virginia is a very good team, but we expect Duke to pick the Mountaineers' 1-3-1 zone apart.
Finally, although it should come as no shock to anyone, Butler is the Final Four team that surprised us the most by advancing to Indianapolis (we thought the only trip Butler would take to Indianapolis would be a to return to their Indianapolis campus after getting knocked out of the Tournament by Xavier). When filling out our bracket, we toyed with the idea of picking dark horse Xavier to advance to the Final Four from Butler's regional. But in the end, we chickened out and chose Syracuse instead because we thought the Orange had significant match up advantages over all their potential opponents (despite having a strong suspicion that the 'Cuse was overrated, and would be knocked out early in the Tournament). We knew that Butler was a very good team, but we never considered them to be a serious Final Four contender.
Oh how wrong we were.
But enough of the bracket talk, it's time to get down to "brass tacks." Here's what we expect to see in tonight's games:
Michigan State vs. Butler
We expect Butler to give Michigan State all it can handle for thirty minutes. We anticipate a very close game as the buzzer signals halftime (quite possibly a tie; definitely not much more than a four point lead for either team). And we think Butler will come out strong early in the second half. But at some point, we expect Michigan State's size, strength and speed to wear Butler down (particularly on the interior). Even though Michigan State lost All Big Ten point guard Kalin Lucas to a season ending injury early in the Tournament, we think Butler's back court will struggle with the Spartans' quick and aggressive guards. Butler's guards have committed more turnovers in the Tournament than one would expect from an elite level team, and if Butler big man Matt Howard gets in foul trouble, it will likely be very difficult for the Bulldogs to stay in the game.
In the end, we expect Michigan State to put the game away in the second half and to advance to Monday night's National Championship game.
Duke vs. West Virginia
As evident by our choice of Duke to win the National Championship, we expect Duke to beat West Virginia and exact some measure of revenge for the Mountaineers' big Sweet Sixteen upset win over what was a very highly touted Duke team in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo gets more out of his teams than any other coach in major college basketball. The Spartans don't attract top tier talent on an annual basis. They get good players, but they'll never beat North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, Syracuse, Georgetown, etc. in a battle for elite recruits. But Izzo finds good players who fit his system -- augmented with the occasional elite level recruit -- and who stay in school for three or four years. Izzo has now taken six different Michigan State teams to the Final Four since taking over as head coach in the 1995-96 season.
So has Tom Izzo proven himself to be the best coach in college basketball? That's debatable, but with one National Championship under his belt, he trails Duke's Mike Krzyzewski by two Championships. Despite the fact that prior to this year, his recent teams haven't lived up to their hype in the post season, Coach K is still generally thought of as the top coach in the game. This Final Four has to be particularly sweet for for Krzyzewski, given the fact that his teams' recent Tournament flame-outs have caused him to come under increased scrutiny. For rumors of Coach K's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Duke is two games shy of handing Krzyzewski his fourth National Championship.
A potential face off between Michigan State and Duke in the Championship game would pit two of the best coaches, if not the two best coaches, in the college game against each other. That would be fun to watch.
As for Butler's young coach Brad Stevens, he's definitely a rising star. His teams feed off his calm sideline demeanor and his analytical approach to the game. We don't think his Butler Bulldogs will knock off Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, but with a Final Four already under his belt at just 33 years of age, his future is obviously quite bright.
On a side note, in a past life, our own Trashtalk Superstar crossed paths with Coach Stevens one summer in the mid/late 90's, when both were college students and small college basketball players. Trashtalk was around 21 years of age at the time -- which would have made Stevens about 19 -- and although he didn't know Coach Stevens particularly well, he recalls hearing Stevens sing "Laid" by the British shoegazer band James during basketball warm ups. Trashtalk doesn't remember much about Stevens, but does recall thinking it was "really gay" to sing a James song -- especially one that talks about dressing up in women's clothes and playing around with gender roles -- before a basketball game.
Not that it's terribly significant, it's just one of those dumb things that sticks in one's memory.