I'm setting up this post for anybody who wants to discuss the Final Four games Saturday night. This post will remain at the top of the page at least until the end of games tomorrow, so it will be easy to find. Please join me in the comments to this post for discussions during the games.
As for projecting the games: the question in the Final Four will be whether the Tournament returns to logical behavior, or if we get more of the craziness of the first week. During that first week not only did we have all of the buzzer beaters and wild finishes, but more importantly (from a statistical perspective) we also had some bizarre statistical flukes. The shooting performances by Georgia Tech and Gonzaga in the first round, for example, were completely inexplicable. Same for the Cornell shooting performance, among others, in the second round.
The craziness of the first week affected by projection performance, and I only went 26-20-2 against the spread. In the second week, with no obvious statistical flukes, I went a much stronger 8-3-1 against the spread. We'll see whether that continues into the Final Four. Here are my picks:
Duke (-2) over West Virginia: This game is going to come down to the bigs. West Virginia still has to deal without Truck Bryant, who almost certainly will not play on Saturday, but they have taken care of the ball fairly well without him, and Duke doesn't force a lot of turnovers anyway. Duke will take care of the ball better than West Virginia will, but I don't think turnovers will be a big factor. The bigger issue is inside, where a lot of experts were shocked to see Duke collect 22 offensive rebounds. I was simply shocked that they were shocked: Duke was first in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage and Baylor was 8th in the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage. Similarly, with Baylor 22nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and Duke 141st in defensive rebounding percentage, it was no surprise to see Baylor get their own share of offensive rebounds (16). And this poses a problem for Duke, with West Virginia being the second best offensive rebounding team in the nation. And while West Virginia is also a mediocre defensive rebounding team (6th in the Big East), they're better than Baylor. So while Duke will probably win the rebounding battle, it will be closer than it was against Baylor.
That said, Duke has two advantages. The first will be post offense, where they were really hampered by Ekpe Udoh against Baylor. West Virginia doesn't have the same type of defenders. I'd expect the Plumlees and Kyle Singler to be more effective. Also, West Virginia is awful about keeping opponents off the line, finishing 14th in the Big East in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Duke is an excellent free throw shooting team, and they tend to make fouling opponents really pay for their mistakes. In addition, because the media always builds up the idea of Duke getting every call, Duke's opponents often get that into their head. If Duke starts marching to the free throw line it could easily get in the heads of the West Virginia players.
That said, West Virginia is not Baylor. They are a very experienced team that will not melt away down the stretch like Baylor did. And they have Da'Sean Butler, who I believe was the most clutch player in the final moments of games in the entire nation this season. You know that Duke does not want the ball in Butler's hands with the chance to win the game in the final moments. West Virginia also has an athletic perimeter defense that should make things difficult for Duke's outside shooters. But West Virginia also depends on grinding games out. They are stronger defensively than on the offensive end, and they only play 64.5 possessions per game. They are on a ten game winning streak, yet have only scored more than 74 points twice in any of those games. They've won because nobody scores against them: they've gone 12 straight games without allowing 70 points, and they've done that against opponents like Kentucky, Villanova and Georgetown (twice). But Duke always scores their points. Of their 25 games that were either against ACC teams or in the NCAA Tournament, they've only been held below 70 points on eight occasions. They even put up 70 points (on only 67 possessions) against Florida State, the best defensive team in the nation. They score because they are great at finding open shots, at taking care of the ball, not taking bad shots and taking care of business at the free throw line. I'd be shocked if West Virginia holds them below 65, and I expect them to end up in the 70-75 point range, which means that West Virginia is going to have to hit shots, against the team with the seventh best effective field goal percentage in the nation. When you combine West Virginia's atrocious three point shooting (33.6% on the year) with the fact that Duke is #1 in the country in three point percentage defense, West Virginia is going to need a statistical fluke of an outside shooting performance to win this game. I give the edge to Duke.
Michigan State (+1.5) over Butler: There's a big misconception about this Butler team. Because they are a mid-major with a lot of white guys, and because everybody and their sister is bringing up Hoosiers references this week, everybody assumes that Butler has good shooters. In fact, shooting is one of the weakest parts of their game. They are 151st in the nation at only 34.5% behind the arc. What they're best at is defense, where Pomeroy rates them 6th overall in the nation. They play tight perimeter defense and generally take care of the defensive boards (they managed to fight to a draw on the boards against Kansas State, a team that is as good at offensive rebounding as Michigan State). They also don't turn the ball over and hit their free throws. Those are all things you want to be good at during the Tournament. The biggest weakness for Michigan State, of course, is ball handling. They weren't a great ball handling team even before they lost Kalin Lucas, who was by far their best ball handler. Butler isn't very aggressive about going after turnovers defensively, but just the fact that they take care of the ball much better than Michigan State does means that they should win the turnover battle.
Michigan State will clearly have the advantage inside. While Butler won't allow Michigan State to walk all over them on the offensive boards, I don't see how they'll have any chance on the other end. I'd be shocked if Sparty doesn't win the rebounding battle. Also, I think Michigan State's offense may have actually gotten better without Kalin Lucas because they now run the offense in key spots through Draymond Green, similar to how they ran it through Goran Suton last year. Green will be a nightmare for Butler defensively because he's too big for anybody other than Matt Howard or Andrew Smith, who are too slow to handle him. Howard will likely foul out if he's forced to guard Green, meaning that either Avery Jukes or Gordon Hayward is going to have to take him, leaving Howard to guard somebody like Delvon Roe, and could still foul out anyway. Not only could Butler be fighting foul trouble, but they'll also be fighting exhaustion, as the Michigan State bigs wear them down, particularly if Matt Howard gets in early foul trouble and has to sit most of the game (even against Kansas State, where he had no foul trouble at all, he still only played 20 minutes because of how he was being abused by the Kansas State big men, who were just too athletic for him).
The key for Butler will be getting an early lead. They got an early lead on Kansas State and it caused them to abandon their paint players. Butler could not guard Curtis Kelly, who was completely unstoppable in that game, but he didn't get half as many touches as he should have got because Jacob Pullen and Dennis Clemente kept trying to shoot the team back into the game. Pullen and Clemente alone combined for a majority of the team's shots. That was a mistake made by a sloppy Kansas State team that doesn't have a head coach used to dealing with the pressure that 18-22 year olds face at this point in the NCAA Tournament. While Tom Izzo likely won't make the same mistakes that Frank Martin made, things could get out of his hand if Butler has an early lead. Korie Lucious has been at his worst this season when he's tried too hard and felt the need to win games by himself. He makes stupid mistakes and takes bad shots and turns the ball over. He's played with dramatically improved confidence and calm since the Kalin Lucas injury, but the Final Four is a whole new world and you never know how a kid like that will react to the pressure of finding his team down by 6-10 points in the National Semifinals in a gigantic football stadium. If Butler can get ahead and force Lucious into his old habits then they could force Michigan State away from their game, and force them into launching threes to get back into things. Michigan State's perimeter shooting is the weakest part of their offensive game, so it's not at all to their advantage to be launching threes.
But that's a big question mark, depending on a team to get to an early lead and to shake an opponent's players. Lucious has played with confidence in this Tournament like he didn't show when Lucas was injured back in the regular season, and Michigan State is not the type of team that often falls into big early deficits. Tom Izzo and his players have all been here before, and they'll be more prepared to deal with the early game jitters, and I'd expect them to be the ones to get the early lead rather than Butler. And if they get that early lead then Butler is going to be forced to defend the bigger and more athletic Michigan State post players. Butler does not want to be forced to make a big comeback of their own because of how poor their own outside shooting usually is, and because the huge gulf between Michigan State's defensive rebounding (third in the Big Ten) and Butler's offensive rebounding (8th in the Horizon League) means that Butler will likely get one shot and one shot only per possession. If Butler falls behind then their only hope of a comeback will be some very hot outside shooting. Michigan State isn't any better at outside shooting than Butler, but the fact that their big men can crash the boards and create second opportunities means that Michigan State is much more capable of a comeback than Butler is. The only way you can bet on Butler will be if you think they're going to take the early lead and get Michigan State out of their gameplan. I don't see it happening. Butler's gone from underrated to overrated in less than a week. I give the edge to Michigan State.