Saturday, April 3, 2010

Is Duke That Good? Or Is West Virginia That Bad?

EDIT: The Verdict Is In: West Virginia is that bad.


What if you put together a video of the 192 FG attempts in yesterday's Final Four games? In alphabetical order, you'd see 49 FGA by the Butler Bulldogs, then 55 by the Duke Blue Devils, then 42 by the Michigan State Spartans, and finally 46 by the Mountaineers of West Virginia. And I mean just the shot. Cut each clip as soon as the ball leaves the shooter's hands. Don't show whether the ball went into the hoop, or not.

What would you see?

Well, I think you would see a lot of hotly contested shots by Butler, Michigan State and West Virginia, some of which had no chance of going into the basket. By comparison, the Duke segment would look like a shoot-around. You would see wide open shot after wide open shot after wide open shot. You wouldn't have to see the ball go in the basket to know that Duke would make a higher percentage of their shots--which they did, 53 percent to Michigan State's 43 percent, West Virginia's 41 percent and Butler's 31 percent--or that the Blue Devils won, which they also did.

And, so, the question would be: Is Duke that good, or is West Virginia that bad? Well, Duke always threw the extra pass and they always seemed to have a guy break open. Maybe their offensive execution is just that good. But on the other hand, West Virginia played a switching man-to-man that switched every time a screen was set. There was no pretense whatsoever of trying to fight through a screen, they just switched. The premise of such a defense must be that any match-up is an acceptable one. Any defender, whether big or small, fast or slow, can be allowed to guard anybody on the opposing offense. Well, clearly, there were match-ups in which the Mountaineers could not guard the Blue Devils. The question is, were there any in which they could? Usually the mismatches occur against a smaller defender on the inside, but in this case Duke's big guy, Zoubek, is not much of an offensive threat. No, here the mismatches came on the outside, where West Virginia defenders couldn't have found Duke's Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith with a GPS.

So is Duke that good, or West Virginia that bad? Yes.

Butler, on the other hand, is much better on defense, but may not even be as good with the ball. And now comes word that the Bulldogs post Matt Howard suffered a bit of a concussion against Michigan State, and his availability will be a game-time decision on Monday night. And not only that, but point guard Shelvin Mack missed most of the 2nd half on Saturday with leg cramps and his availability is not settled either.

Still, let's say they both play and they're both at 100 percent. What does that look like?

Center--In the post, Duke's Brian Zoubek isn't much of an offensive threat at 6 ppg during the regular season, but he is an intimidator on defense and his 3.5 offensive boards per game are just back-breakers, or at least they have been against K-State and West Virginia the past 2 games. Butler has to keep him off the offensive glass, and who's going to do that? Matt Howard? Howard is a more skilled offensive player than Zoubek, scoring 12 points per game, but he's giving up 5 inches and 30 pounds--and, it says, here, probably 3.5 offensive rebounds--to Zoubek, even if he (Howard) is at full strength. Advantage: Duke.

Power Forward--Butler's Gordon Hayward has been called the MVP of the NCAA tournament so far by more than one observer. But on the year, Hayward scored 16 points with 8 rebounds on 47 percent shooting. Duke's Kyle Singler scored 18 with 6 boards on 41 percent shooting against better competition. Yesterday Hayward shot 6-of-14 and got to the FT line for 19 points. Singler hit 8-of-16 including 3 3s for 21 points. I'll give the edge to Hayward, but it's not as big an edge as some people seem to think. Advantage: Butler.

Small Forward--Here are a couple of role players: Duke's Lance Thomas averages 5 points and 5 boards while Butler's Willie Veasley averages 10 points and 4 boards. The big difference is that Thomas is 6-8 and Veasley 6-3, so who is Veasley gonna guard? Advantage: Duke.

Point Guard--Assuming he's healthy Shelvin Mack gives Butler a great on-ball defender who scores 14 ppg with 3 assists on 45 percent shooting. If he's not healthy, then it's just Duke's year and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Think about it, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and West Virginia's Darryl Bryant were both unavailable for duty in the Final Four. And now a 3rd point guard goes down? Well, they are the Devils, and their point guard is the healthy Nolan Smith, who scores 18 points with 3 assists on 44 percent shooting. Toss-Up, if Mack is healthy.

Off Guard--Here's where it just gets silly. Duke still has the 6-5 senior Jon Scheyer to be accounted for. He scores 18 ppg with 5 assists and 4 boards. Meanwhile, at Butler we're down to Ronald Nored, a 6-foot, 174-pound sophomore who scores 6 ppg. Big Advantage: Duke.

Bench--Avery Jukes and Shawn Vanzant bring 5.5 ppg off the Butler bench. But here's a surprise. The Duke bench is pretty barren, too. Only Mike Plumlee played as many as 10 minutes yesterday and he contributed 2 points and 2 boards. A Wash.

Coach--You're kidding, right? Big Advantage to Butler and 33-year old Brad Stevens. The guy is golden.

The Bottom Line--If Duke gets the kind of open looks it got the other night, or if Matt Howard can't play, or if Shelvin Mack has more of those leg cramps, or... or... or... then Duke wins easily. If all of those things happen, Katy Bar the Door (Duke 78 Butler 54). If, on the other hand, lightning strikes the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Monday night, then anything could happen (Butler 54 Duke 53). If all of those factors come half-true, it will be Duke 66 Butler 54.

Not that I'm ready to say Duke is the best team in the country this year. Just one of the best, and surely the luckiest. Just ask Darryl Bryant, Kalin Lucas, Shelvin Mack and pretty much anybody from the vicinity of Waco, Texas.

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