Back in 2001 when the St. Louis Rams were doing their Greatest Show On Turf thing, head coach Mike Martz had a term for a near flawless performance: Max Q. It referred to their hypothetical optimal level of play, regardless of the competition. Ladies and gentlemen, we witnessed Duke's Max Q against West Virginia on Saturday.
Coach K's squad scored over 1.4 points per possession against what had been a stout West Virginia defense, hitting an assortment of three-pointers from all over the court, with their front-line collecting their few misses to kick out for even more open jumpers. It was an eye-opening win for a Duke team who really hadn't beaten any top teams during the regular season, flopping in most of their marquee nonconfenerence matchups.
With Duke seemingly peaking at the most opportune time, is there any hope for the legions of Duke-haters out there of Butler pulling off the biggest upset in the history of history? We've gone back and looked at how both teams have played thus far in the tourney, compiling their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies (that is, how many points they have scored and allowed per 100 possessions, taking into account their opponents), as well as the percentage of rebounds they've grabbed in their NCAA tournament games, to get a better idea of Butler's chances.
Offensive efficiences are listed first, followed by defensive efficiencies.
DUKE (135.3, 85.0)
The bad news for Dick Vitale's favorite team is that they can't possibly play another game like their last one. The other bad news is that in Butler, the Blue Devils will be facing their toughest defensive opponent yet.
Over the last two games, Butler has aggressively trapped guards off the high-screen-roll, and Duke can expect to see much the same treatment. While the massive Brian Zoubek is especially adept at freeing teammates for shots on screens (as Purdue's Chris Kramer discovered in their Sweet 16 game), neither he nor any of Duke's other bigs are much of a threat to do much offensively. Butler should once again be able to trap with impunity off the high-screen-roll, meaning that Duke will have to rotate the ball quickly to their weak-side shooters and beat the help defense. As a counter, don't be surprised if Coach K throws a wrinkle at Butler and has Kyle Singler come over to screen, before slipping towards the basket to try to keep the Butler defenders honest.
But even if Duke's Big Three of Singler, Scheyer and Smith struggle against Butler's trademark man-to-man, there is the little matter of Duke's bigs, who have been the key for Duke's transformation from overrated contender to legit elite team. Up to this point in the tournament, the Blue Devils have put up an absolutely absurd adjusted rebound rate of 47.6, meaning that against an average opponent Duke would rebound nearly half of their own misses. If Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and the Plumlees can continue to physically dominate on the glass, don't be surprised if Jim Nantz spends the majority of the second half gushing over how Coach K winning titles is a tradition unlike any other in college hoops.
BUTLER (110.9, 79.6)
For Butler, the title game will hinge on two very simple questions: first, can they keep Duke's phalanx of big men off the offensive glass; and second, can they muster enough scoring themselves?
Given their performance in the tournament to this point, there's reason to believe the smaller Bulldogs will be able to neutralize, or at least limit, what figures to be the Blue Devils' sizable advantage on the boards. Indeed, while Butler has been outrebounded in all but one of their tournament games, that's due more to deliberate strategy than anything else. Butler obsessively sends players back in transition defense, trying to control the pace and thwart any easy looks at the basket, so they typically don't pick up more than a handful of offensive rebounds; through their five tournament games they've posted an adjusted offensive rebound rate of only 25.3.
But Brad Stevens' squad applies this all-consuming focus on preventing opponents from getting easy looks to the defensive backboards as well. Despite their low offensive rebound rate, they've only been outrebounded by small margins due to their own stingy work on the defensive glass. Outside of their second-round game against Murray State (who quietly were the 11th-best offensive rebounding team in the nation), Butler has more or less prevented opponents from getting second shots, allowing them an adjusted offensive rebounding rate of 24.4. And that includes games against offensive rebounding powerhouses Kansas State and Michigan State, who were 6th and 10th nationally in the category. With the news that center Matt Howard has been medically cleared to play in the title game, it's reasonable that Butler could hold Duke to a raw offensive rebound rate of 30-35, which should be enough to keep them competitive.
Howard's availability should also be a substantial boost to Butler's offense, as he gives them the post presence they will so desperately need against Duke. Look for Butler to go to Howard early and often, as they try to Zoubek et. al. into early foul trouble, both to limit the damage Duke does on the boards, as well as to counter the aggressive perimeter defense the Blue Devils employ. Indeed, Duke boasted the top three-point percentage defense in all of Division I this season, so Butler, who have shot over 40% of their field goals come from distance in the tournament, will have to find a way to get to the line and score from in close if they're going to make their real-life Hoosiers story come true. Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward figure to be prominently involved if Butler is to pull off the improbable.
THE PICK: BUTLER
While all of the stats favor the Blue Devils, and Coach K's squad certainly seems to have a fair amount of blowout potential in this matchup, something tells me Butler will be able to ugly up the game enough to keep it close till late. Look for Butler to hold yet another opponent below 60 points, capping off their Cinderella run with a 61-59 win.