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Butler beating Michigan State will not be an upset.
This needs to be understood before the game is played Saturday night. This is not a slight to the Big Ten or Michigan State, but testimony to just how good Butler really is.
If the Bulldogs get by Tom Izzo’s Spartans it would also not be a fluke for them to win the national title.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for this national fan favorite, which is conjuring up scenes from the basketball movie classic “Hoosiers,” will be how they handle the pressure of playing at home while standing in such a bright spotlight.
What gives Butler the edge to make it to the national finals?
Start with Gordon Hayward. He is the closest thing the Bulldogs have to a star player, and leads the team in rebounding while also chipping in right at 15 points per game.
Hayward is a versatile player who will shoot a handful of threes in a game to keep a defense honest, but is physical enough to mix it up inside pursuing rebounds.
Butler also has a shooter in Shelvin Mack who can deliver a three from well beyond the arc, and this is a key to success in tournament play. Mack has been on fire in the NCAA tournament knocking down half of his threes during the four game run, while posting almost 17 points per game. This is an improvement of 10 percent from the regular season, where he knocked down 40 percent of his long range bombs.
While these two are the scoring leaders for Butler they are supported by a strong supporting cast. Watch Ronald Nored play defense. He is as tough a nose-to-nose defensive player as you will find. He also has shown tenacity to knock down key baskets when the Bulldogs need someone to step up.
Matt Howard is a solid free throw shooter who likes to bang around inside with the other team's big men. The key for Howard will be to stay on the court. He averages less than thirty minutes a game because of his tendency to commit fouls (3.6 per game). He has fouled out of nine games this year.
Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe lead the Spartans in games ended by fouls and they have only been sent to the showers early four times each.
For consistency, Butler’s Willie Veasley is a team player that will step into any role Coach Brad Stevens assigns him.
For a scoring boost off the bench Butler will turn to Zach Hahn, but he is not a real game changer.
The key player for Butler off the bench will be Avery Juke. His role is to step in and pick up the slack for Howard. He is not as good at scoring or rebounding as Howard, there is a reason he does not start, but he delivers solid defensive play inside.
Given all of these apparent advantages then, the game between Michigan State and Butler should not even be close as Butler runs all over the floor with the Spartans.
Well, hold your horses for just a minute. These Spartans are not going away without a fight.
First, there is the man himself. Tom Izzo is a great (and not in the overused sense of the word) basketball coach. In his 15 years at the helm in Lansing he has taken his team to the Final Four five times and cut the nets down once. While Brad Stevens gives all appearances that he is going to make a lasting name coaching college basketball he is matching wits with a seasoned winner.
Why does this really matter? Stevens is doing everything for the first time this week. Izzo has been there and done that.
Then there is the “it” factor.
Raymar Morgan steps to the line with the season in the balance against Tennessee and only 1.8 seconds left to play. He calmly knocks down a free throw to give the Spartans their trip to the Final Four.
Korie Lucious broke the collective heart of Maryland fans everywhere with his buzzer beater to send the Terrapins home. Making big shots, in big games, takes a special kind of resolve that says you have the mystical “it” that so many players desire.
Michigan State also has the better bench.
When Izzo waves Draymond Green into the game there is an infusion of energy on the floor that Butler is not able to equal with their reserves. The spunky reserve averages over nine points a game and gets them by doing whatever is necessary to get the Spartans moving. He is no average sub with his 25 plus minutes per game. By the way, he leads the team in rebounds.
Inside the Spartans should have an advantage if the officials let the game become a bit physical.
What are the keys for each team in this game? Here they are:
- Must be able to make the three to stretch Michigan State’s defense.
- Howard needs to stay out of foul trouble, without losing his edge.
- Nored will have to create turnovers for Butler to create easy points.
- Korie Lucious has to avoid giving the ball up under pressure.
- Michigan State needs to deny Butler second chance points off the rebound.
- Maintain the calm they have shown in earlier games at clutch time.
The call for this game? We are going with Izzo's experienced leadership and against the 24-game winning streak Butler currently has. Spartans in an upset.