SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean, editor of Blogging The Bracket, looks ahead to Monday night's National Championship game between South top seed Duke and West No. 5 Butler.
If this is how the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's 64/65-team era is to end, the matchup is at least fitting. I've gone on record many times saying that the first weekend, particularly the first round, is my favorite part of this event. I'm certainly not alone on that.
Ignoring the two teams' preseason rankings and seed numbers and just looking at the names on the front of the jersey and their respective places in the game's history, tonight's final, pitting the power conference favorite, Duke, against plucky underdog, Butler, hearkens back to that first weekend. The powerhouses against the mid-majors.
There wasn't much of a home court advantage for the Bulldogs on Saturday night, thanks to the crowd being split four ways. But with the departure of many Michigan State and West Virginia fans (and the negative feelings many neutrals may exhibit toward the Blue Devils), Butler should be the clear favorite among the fans on Monday night.
It still won't be the advantage they'd have six miles away at Hinkle, however.
On the court, this looks to be a difficult matchup for Butler, especially if Shelvin Mack has cramp issues again and Matt Howard isn't totally recovered from the mild concussion he suffered during the second half of Saturday's semifinal win over Michigan State (ed. note: CBS Sports reports Howard has been medically cleared to play and participated in the team's shootaround Monday afternoon. Barring any setbacks he should be a go for Butler in the title game).
Howard certainly didn't look like himself during the final moments of that one, which included the now famous 10-minute span where the Bulldogs didn't hit a field goal. You don't need to know too much about these teams to figure that such a dry spell against Duke would be absolute doom. I don't see the combo of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer struggling to take advantage of a lengthy opposition dry spell like Michigan State did. But the Butler guards, most prominently Mack, Ronald Nored, Shawn Vanzant and Willie Veasley, are known for locking things down against opposing guard units, even very good ones (see Kansas State and Syracuse).
Once again, Butler will have to rely on its defense and ability to get to the foul line to claim the biggest victory in their program's history. However, considering the success Duke had against West Virginia's defense on Saturday, the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them, especially inside where Brian Zoubek, Mason and Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly provide Duke with a nearly endless supply of fouls (especially when Matt Howard's potential to get into foul trouble is added to the equation). The Blue Devils will use that advantage on the boards, which could create a problem for a Bulldog team known for getting back on defense instead of grabbing offensive rebounds.
Plus, the Blue Devils probably won't be as inept on their own free throw attempts as Michigan State and Kansas State were in their games.
Our Duke Basketball Report writes that Butler reminds them a lot of the Virginia team that gave Duke fits in the ACC Tournament, and that once again, whichever team makes the most of its strengths will come out on top.
This game, like most, is going to come down to which team can most successfully exploit their strengths. Butler plays a very intelligent game offensively and defensively, while Duke has combined three-point shooting, defense, and superb rebounding to get this far. And their defense doesn't get as much credit as it should, but it's been good too.
If Duke allows Butler to set the pace like Virginia did in Greensboro, has trouble penetrating, and can't hit three-point shots, they will be in trouble. And if Butler allows Duke to push them around on the boards, and to hit three-point shots, they'll be in trouble, too.
My pick is the Blue Devils by eight.
The final tips at 9:21 p.m. ET 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.