Monday, April 5, 2010

National Title: Keys to the Game

This will be much shorter than the WVU version, because tonight's game is pretty simple.

1) Will Howard play / can Butler get any boards?

Let's get one thing out of the way: Butler has to play a perfect game to beat Duke. Yes, they beat Syracuse, and yes, they beat K-State. But they haven't faced a defense like ours, and our rebounders will be among the best they've seen as well. So if Matt Howard, their best big man and the victim of a mild concussion on Saturday, can't go, they're in a really tough spot. You can expect Duke to rake in the second chance points just like they did against WVU, a much better team on the glass. At the moment, ESPN is reporting that Howard has been cleared for a shootaround, but not for the game.

2) How will Smith-Mack and Singler-Hayward play out?

Personally, I don't doubt for even a second that Nolan Smith will effectively shut down Shelvin Mack. He reduced Carter and Mazzulla to shadows of their former selves, and I expect the same outcome. The second is more tricky. Gordon Hayward is probably the best player on the court, and after his play against Michigan State, it's doubtful he'll be easily cowed. But if Singler can just do a so-so job, it could be enough. Hayward needs to have a monster game, not just a good one, if Butler has a chance.

3) Can we carry our offensive momentum into tonight?

I won't make the mistake of underestimating Butler's defense. They've won 25 games in a row, and their D is the primary reason. But they haven't faced an offense that looks as good as ours in that entire time. Still, if Duke has a poor shooting night, or can't execute against a tough man-to-man whose modus operandi is wearing opponents down and triumphing at the end, they could easily hold us under 70 points. And if the game is close with five minutes left, that might spell trouble for the Dukies.

4) How will Butler score?

This is a great mystery to me. I cannot see them topping 60 points tonight against what I consider the best defensive team in the country. The only way it happens is if they get really, really hot like they did against UTEP in the first round. But they also benefitted from wide open shots in that game, and they won't find as many of those tonight. So if they're not getting very luck from three, and Hayward isn't scoring 45 points on his own, how do they possibly generate offense?

5) Can Duke put them away when it counts?

There will be a juncture in tonight's game when Duke has Butler reeling, and will have one or more possessions where a basket would be absolutely back-breaking. Can we capitalize on those times? Against West Virginia, we finished the job. Against Georgia Tech in the ACC final, we didn't. That's the difference between an easy win and a game that turns into a grind where a flukey loss becomes possible. Butler wants the grind. If Earth, Wind, and Scheyer do their job, it won't come to that.

I might end up kicking myself for jinxing us, but I really can't see Butler winning this game. We're so close to the end, and everyone wants it so bad, and we're so good. When you look at the efficiency numbers, this one should be Duke all the way. In fact, it reminds me of Michigan State-Carolina from last year. The Spartans were feel-good home-town stories, a group of fighters who slugged their way to the final. But against UNC, they were totally outclassed. All the moxie and local support in the world didn't mean a damn. That's how I see tonight playing out.

Forty minutes, and a national title nobody believed in will be ours. It doesn't get much better than this.








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