As conference champions currently riding a 24-game winning streak, the fifth-seeded Butler Bulldogs prefer to eschew the notion that they are a Cinderella story.
Not only were they ranked 11th in the 2009-10 preseason, but their 32-4 record provides one of the best winning percentages in the nation.
Some people attribute Butler’s success to team chemistry, others laud the leadership of the coaching staff.
At 33 years of age, Brad Stevens has accomplished more in his three years coaching the Bulldogs than many coaches will ever achieve in their entire careers.
Gordon Hayward, the Horizon League player of the year, will be the star that will likely draw the loudest cheers in Indianapolis given that Butler is located a little more than five miles from Lucas Oil Stadium. Unfortunately, the sophomore will have to finish his math homework before he can start his spring break and concentrate on basketball.
Ah, the life of a student-athlete.
Even though Michigan State, also seeded fifth, advanced all the way to the championship game in 2009, the “other” five-seeded team still remaining might as well show up in a tiara, ballgown and glass slippers, as nobody expected the Spartans to make the Final Four given all the injuries they’ve recently suffered.
Have Izzo, will travel.
As the Spartans’ head coach leads his program to its sixth Final Four appearance in 12 years, he faces his biggest challenge yet without his star point guard, Kalin Lucas.
When Lucas ruptured his Achilles tendon against Maryland on March 23, MSU wasn’t expected to win the game against the Terrapins without their point guard and offensive captain.
Much less Northern Iowa and Tennessee afterwards!
With Lucas out for the rest of the season, Michigan State is essentially playing with house money. Although, one can and should praise Izzo for his intrepid leadership during the Spartans’ roller coaster post-season, Raymar Morgan (13 points, 10 boards, 2 blocks) and Durrell Summers (21 points on 8 of 10 shooting) should also be commended for stepping up with big games against the Tennessee Volunteers on March 28.
Michigan State is the Big Ten powerhouse with a Hall-of-Fame-caliber head coach playing a team from a mid-major conference called the Horizon League. Even though the Spartans are missing some key players, why on earth are they underdogs against Butler?
This slideshow should help to clarify the parity between these two programs, one facet at a time.
Morgan had a big game against Tennessee.
He scored 13 points and 10 rebounds. As one of MSU’s big men, he will be counted on to establish a low post presence, box out defenders, and keep Butler’s shot attempts coming from the perimeter as opposed to inside the paint.
Although Veasley is Butler’s most underrated player who plays great defense, he’ll have his hands full guarding Morgan, who is five inches taller than him.
Veasley has been showered with praise from his teammates, who have adorned him with descriptions such as “not selfish”, “tough-minded”, and “unsung hero."
The 6’3” forward has relied on his athleticism to stay low to the ground against bigger adversaries and uses his quickness to blow past them. A mismatch on paper may look more even when these two face off against each other.
In the Big Ten Tournament, Summers came up small against a fired-up Minnesota squad who simply contained him from all angles.
He was unceremoniously benched in the second half before the Spartans fell to the Golden Gophers, and were eliminated from the conference tourney.
Since that fateful game, the Junior has averaged 20 points per game during the Big Dance and has returned to being an integral part of Michigan State’s offensive scheme.
In short, Summers is a versatile weapon on offense who can score from long range, or dunk in traffic.
Although his passing game leaves something to be desired, his ability to put the ball in the hoop is his biggest attribute and should be heeded by his counterpart…
Mack may not have the scoring potential like Summers, but is a better all-around basketball player.
He is averaging 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game during their four games in the tournament thus far.
These two players match up well physically, but the differences in their game will be on full display when they face off on Saturday.
Roe is a left-handed physical specimen who has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout the season.
Known as a true gamer, Roe is playing the duration of the tournament with a torn meniscus in his right knee and needless to say, is less than 100 percent healthy.
If the sophomore hopes to help his teammates advance to the championship game as well as secure a spot in next season’s starting lineup, he’ll have to contain…
Howard matches up pound-for-pound with Roe and is in much better health.
If Brad Stevens coaches to his capabilities, he will look to Howard early and often to exploit his weakened adversary, who will have problems cutting to the basket on a bad knee, hoping to take some pressure off of Gordon Hayward.
Nix is a behemoth center who uses size and brute strength to box out would-be rebounders and prevent scorers from reaching the paint.
Although Nix is only a freshman who has garnered scant minutes leading up to the postseason, he will be required to step up in light of all the injuries the Spartans have recently endured.
Nix has more growing to do and can continue to accumulate critical postseason experience if he can simply keep Hayward under 20 points.
Hayward is the Horizon League Player of the Year that has shined for the Bulldogs all season.
Although Butler plays more of a team-oriented, controlled offense that is unlikely to yield a 25-point-per-game scoring average from anyone, Hayward has been Butler’s most dependable offensive weapon.
He brings a Larry-Bird-type winning mentality that permeates throughout the team.
Coming off a 22 point, 9 rebound performance against Kansas State, Hayward will have to be guarded by MSU’s biggest and baddest defender in order to be held in check.
Korie Lucious is one of the most improbable heroes of the tournament after he took over for an injured Kalin Lucas at point guard.
Lucious’ buzzer-beating three-pointer not only sealed fourth-seeded Maryland’s fate in the second round, but also helped to illustrate Michigan State as a team destined to return to the Final Four.
Late-game heroics aside, Lucious’ overall play won’t make anyone forget how valuable Lucas was to the Spartans attack. However, the sophomore has held his own at the point, and will continue to facilitate the MSU offense for his teammates.
In order to keep doing so, he’ll need to contain his sophomore counterpart…
Nored has seen his minutes steadily climb as the season progressed, but must be relieved he won’t be charged with the task of defending Lucas.
Regardless of who he faces, Nored will need to play like he did against Murray State, when he scored 15 points to go with six dimes.
Although Nored is reportedly reluctant in the spotlight, he will need to step up his game when he and Lucious square off in Indianapolis.
Given that Lucas Oil Stadium will be predominantly cheering for the Bulldogs, one shouldn’t underestimate Nored’s capabilities in such a big game.
F Avery Jukes may need to help Veasley defend Raymar Morgan. His size as well as his senior leadership will serve as a valuable asset to the Bulldogs on Saturday.
G Zach Hahn is a good perimeter shooter, great free throw shooter, and can be an effective cog for Butler if he is used properly.
F Draymond Green is the most important reserve player on either bench. Green is referred to as the “glue and guts” that keeps MSU intact. Averaging 11.5 points along with over 6 rebounds per game, the Spartans’ sixth man provides starter stats in spite of not being on the floor at tipoff.
G Chris Allen is playing with renewed vigor after he was suspended by Coach Izzo during the Big Ten Tournament for a “basketball-related issue”. Although Allen isn’t a statistical monster, his veteran leadership at the guard position will be of the utmost importance as he fills in for and plays in the back-court alongside Korie Lucious.
Garrick Sherman C – Although Sherman’s minutes have been limited thus far in his first season as a Spartan, the freshman’s behemoth size could provide a valuable post presence which could help to plug up Butler’s points-in-the-paint strategy.
Brad Stevens brings 88 wins (and counting?) in just three seasons as Butler’s head coach to his first Final Four appearance.
While he is sure to have garnered extensive interest from embattled athletic directors of higher-profile universities, Stevens has done an amazing job of not only putting Butler on the basketball map, but introducing the Bulldogs into the conversation as one of the best programs in the nation.
Outside of local Indiana talent, Butler hadn’t been a sought-after destination for nationwide prep stars matriculating from high school to college. In three years, Stevens has changed the identity of Butler University from a feel-good underdog to an imposing Mid-western program that has dwarfed the presence and influence of the storied Indiana Hoosiers.
Izzo has become an even hotter coaching commodity than legendary Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Although Coach K has more national titles and coaches Team USA in international competitions including the Olympics, Izzo is being hailed as the best coach in this tournament given that he was able to institute a game plan that enabled MSU to beat Maryland, Kansas State and Tennessee minus their best player and leader in Kalin Lucas.
This season will mark Izzo’s sixth Final Four appearance, and it can be argued that the current crop (minus Lucas) is his least impressive squad of the six teams to advance this far.
Based on his suspension of Chris Allen during the Big Ten Tournament, Izzo is not afraid to impose his authority on his players, even after the postseason begins. This discipline is respected by the locker room, and has also been embraced by Spartan Nation.
If Michigan State advances to the championship game, let alone beats the West Virginia/Duke winner, all the hype that Izzo has received will be well-deserved. After Lucas pulled up lame against Maryland, nobody outside of East Lansing thought MSU would have made it this far.
Butler relies on a team oriented offense that features multiple players scoring double-digits while taking high-percentage shots inside the perimeter.
Each Bulldog player has a high basketball IQ and administers a suffocating style of defense.
The team has allowed its opponents to score an average of less than 60 points per game the entire season thus far.
Although Butler can be described as playing a “Big Ten” style of hoops, Michigan State ironically brings more of a multidimensional brand of basketball that involves high scoring, athleticism, and a relative reliance on fast breaks compared to the rest of the conference.
Coach Izzo’s tutelage provides the Spartans with confidence and maintains focus on team chemistry in lieu of their star point guard.
The adversity MSU has faced in light of injuries and suspensions has made them a tougher unit that can win close games.
Butler is fortified with two of the biggest intangibles of all: home court advantage in both games of the Final Four, and a 24-game winning streak.
With tens of thousands in attendance expected at their game at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis will hearken back to happier days when Hoosier basketball dominated the national landscape.
Willie Veasley needs to contain Raymar Morgan and continue to provide the little things he's alway done for Butler like setting screens, pulling down critical rebounds, and providing the senior leadership for the Bulldogs that will keep them focused in what is sure to be a raucous environment on April 3.
Long viewed to be Butler’s unsung hero, Veasley’s high basketball intelligence is what causes him to play larger than his 6’3” stature may indicate. His experience from his first three years as a Bulldog coupled with a significant home-court advantage will provide him with necessary poise not commonly found at this stage of the tournament.
For Michigan State, the X Factor will be their ability to run against Butler. If they can maintain a faster pace and catapult the scoring into the seventies as opposed to the low sixties, then Butler won’t be able to keep up.
Butler 66, Michigan State 63 – MSU will try and quicken the pace of the game with fast breaks, but Coach Stevens will have his team well-prepared to slow the pace of the game to offset the Spartans’ athleticism.
Michigan State is battered and bruised. Although their squad is, by and large, bigger and stronger than Butler's, MSU will struggle to stay fresh given the Bulldogs' physical style of play coupled with the Spartans' depleted roster.
Tipoff is at approximately 6:07pm EST