Only three games remain in the most exciting NCAA Tournament in recent memory. There's still time to enjoy them before college basketball moves to a reviled 96-team championship bracket, which could be reality as soon as next season.
The first of Saturday night's two national semifinals feature two No. 5 seeds facing off for the right to end that particular seed line's run of bad luck in the championship game Monday night. Remember a team with the number 5 beside its name has never claimed the trophy. The second pits a reviled No. 1 seed facing a team that many (myself included) thought deserved a spot of their own on the top line.
Both games are on CBS and NCAA® March Madness on Demand®, so if you find yourself without a TV, but with a computer and Internet access, you won't have to miss a thing.
National Semifinal No. 1: West No. 5 Butler vs. Midwest No. 5 Michigan State, 6:07 p.m. ET
Having been in attendance at the 2000 Final Four at the now-demolished building once known as the Hoosier Dome, I can attest that Michigan State will be well supported in the Circle City. But thanks to the presence of the host Bulldogs, the Spartans won't be the local favorite this time around.
But that's enough about geography and fanbases. It's time to talk about the ugly truth.
This will be the third Final Four in Indianapolis since the calendar flipped over to the year 2000. The previous two have each featured a National Semifinal that was completely unwatchable. In 2000, it was a Michigan State-Wisconsin game that put the "nap" in "Naptown." That 53-41 Spartan triumph actually managed to put one my friends to sleep. Six years later, it was the second semifinal between UCLA and LSU, a 59-45 snoozefest that had us rushing for the exits at halftime.
Which brings us to this matchup in 2010, the plucky underdog who is perfectly capable of slowing the game down against a Big Ten team that's frankly used to that style. This is not the formula for exciting basketball or riveting television, but considering both teams can go away from this mold, there's hope. In his game preview, KJ over at our Michigan State blog, The Only Colors, writes that this is a fairly even contest, so intangibles could come into play.
On the Michigan State side:
I don't tend to talk about (or put much weight on) intangibles, but I do think the Final Four is a whole new ballgame. On the Spartan side, you've got a core of players that have been here before and shouldn't be intimated by the setting. (Raymar) Morgan has now played in 15 career NCAA Tournament games, (Chris) Allen and (Durrell) Summers have played in 13, and the team's sophomores ([Draymond] Green/[Korie] Lucious/Delvon Roe) have played in 10.
And for Butler:
On the other side, the Butler players being so close to home could be a double-edged sword, with the pressure of playing in the program's first-ever Final Four in front of so many hometown fans (and media members) creating a little anxiety for the relatively young Bulldog squad (three sophomores in the starting lineup).
(Plus, as noted by LVS last night, [Gordon] Hayward has to go do math on Friday. Hopefully, the topic is the Möbius strip, and Hayward's mental wiring goes haywire trying to wrap his mind around the concept.)
In my mind, this one boils down to one of two things happening. If the Spartans continue playing out of their minds without Kalin Lucas, thanks to that Tom Izzo coaching, they're hard to stop. As KJ points out, a slower pace may help MSU's key contributors stay in longer, increasing their prospects. But on the other hand, if the Bulldogs haven't been distracted by the media spotlight and they keep getting easy baskets and converting from the foul line, they'll advance. After all, they had to beat two teams better than a Lucas-less Spartan club to get here.
In the end, I think Butler may start slow, but the Spartans won't be able to build a big enough lead, and the Bulldogs will get it together just in time.
My pick: Butler by a bucket
National Semifinal No. 2: East No. 2 West Virginia vs. South No. 1 Duke, 8:47 p.m. ET (approx.)
This one doesn't have quite as many off-the-court storylines as game one, but there are still a few things worth mentioning.
- Will Darryl Bryant suit up for the Mountaineers? If he does, how effective can he possibly be with a broken bone in his foot?
- Who will the crowd back in this one? In other words, did any neutrals in the crowd read Andrew Sharp's tome against Duke?
- Will the Blue Devils have revenge on their minds after 2008's second round loss to the Mountaineers in Washington, D.C.?
In their look at West Virginia, Duke Basketball Report thinks that while this matchup may be pretty even, the Mountaineers can't expect things to go as smoothly as they did against Kentucky last Saturday.
A long time before this game, we said it was clear to us that Kentucky would have some issues at some point in the tournament, that they have not yet faced game pressure and that it wasn't clear what they would do when they did.
West Virginia exploited those issues brilliantly, and their 1-3-1 zone, which featured Devin Ebanks, Butler, Jones and Flowers at different times, presented what amounted to a wall, no pun intended, against Kentucky's penetration. The Wildcats came in as a weak three-point shooting team and nothing changed in this game. They simply couldn't adjust.
And while it's difficult to extrapolate from one game to the next, it seems to us reasonable to think that a more experienced team would have played West Virginia a little better.
Our Mountaineer blog, The Smoking Musket, counters by saying that all the factors are there for WVU to knock the Blue Devils out once again: an ignored man defense, the ability to make shots inside, a good chance at shutting down Duke's scorers, and general team character.
It's Duke. We all saw what happened when WVU hit Duke in the mouth in Washington, DC two years ago. They fell down. Over and over again. Tough, scrappy players like Joe Mazzulla can have a field day against Duke. They're designed to stop more finesse teams from the ACC, not bruising, resourceful teams like West Virginia. We can match them athletically and defensively. And while they may have more size on the inside, it's not the type of size that generally bothers the Mountaineers. Personally, I see the game playing out very similarly to the UK game, in which we frustrate the Blue Devils to the point of no return.
In terms of a pick, I'm going to start by looking at a line in that Duke Basketball Report post.
And while this is perhaps not exactly correct, Baylor in many respects was a great warm-up for West Virginia.
That means this one should be as competitive as last Sunday's South region final, but with one difference. A more veteran West Virginia team probably won't get as flustered at the end as the Bears did at the end of the game. That composure could be the difference tonight.
My pick: West Virginia by four
For another perspective, read Matt O'Brien's analysis of the four teams, which focuses on their offensive rebounding margins.