Pick against him. I dare you.
I’ve done it a time or two this tournament myself using a litany of excuses. “This opponent’s too big. This team’s too deep. This squad’s too athletic.”
Only to utter excuses and lamentations after the Butler killed and disposed of my brackets and millions of brackets around the world.
The Butler did it!
As for the Spartans, the route was similar in its improbability. The key difference is that Michigan State was supposed to be good. They started the year preseason No. 2, after all.
Now they’re at least the fourth best team in country. An improbable survive-and-advance tournament clinic was done without Spartan’s best player and unquestioned leader, Kalin Lucas. Instead, MSU used a roster that resembles a M*A*S*H unit more so than a Final Four caliber team.
Two teams, two unlikely stories, with two entirely different paths to Indianapolis. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to punch their ticket to the Championship game and keep dancing.
Keys for Butler
Matt Howard. As in find a way to keep Matt Howard on the floor. Play some zone, hide him against a less accomplished scorer like the dinged up Delvin Roe, but do whatever it takes to keep Howard out of the type of foul trouble that’s plagued the 6′11″ post for most of the tournament.
If Howard has to sit for a long stretch in this ballgame, the Spartans will pound the Bulldogs on the glass Tom Izzo style.
Identify shooters. Not all shooters were created equal, and Michigan State’s bombers are no different.
Since Izzo loves his motion game and can run your defenders through a labyrinth of screens before finding an open look. You have to preserve your limited help resources by knowing who to extend beyond the arc and who to play soft on.
If you treat every shooter like he’s Reggie Miller, then there’s too much paint to defend against talented athletes like Green, Roe, and Morgan.
Rest assured, Brad Stevens is all too aware of this fact.
I’m confident that 40 percent deep-shooter Chris Allen will be contested coming out of the locker room, while 30 percent shooter Korie Lucious will be played more straight up until he's proven he’s found his stroke.
In the regional final, Stevens used his quickest defender, Ronald Nored, to chase KSU’s sharpshooter Jacob Pullen off of shots, while playing everyone else on the floor honest. The result was a season low 56 points for the Wildcats.
Stop Baby Magic. Kalin Lucas’ injury left the Spartans without a true point guard, and although Korie Lucious has played admirably, he’s still had trouble protecting the ball and creating for teammates when the Spartan motion game gets bogged down.
This is where Baby Magic, Draymond Green, has stepped in. The 6′8″ power forward is a terrific ball handler for a big guy, especially when he’s being guarded by slow-footed 4’s. Green has been a pressure outlet as well as a dime-dropper, finding Raymar Morgan for the game-winner against Tennessee.
In their regional final, Volunteer coach Bruce Pearl made a huge tactical mistake by not jumping or trapping Green and his Magic act 15 feet from the bucket when the Spartans were running offense through the big fella.
Green has a good handle for a post, but when you run guards at him to make Draymond make split-second decisions, I suspect he’d turn the ball over more often than he makes plays with the rock.
Keys For Michigan State
The Paint is Your Friend. Butler is one of the most sound defensive teams in all of college basketball, so they’re perfectly content to guard you, let you shoot over the top, and then block you out for one and done’s all game long.
They did it to Syracuse, who fell in love with the jump shot when they had an advantage inside, they did the same to Kansas State, and they’ll do it to MSU if the Spartans cooperate.
MSU needs to run its motion game and make touches for Roe, Morgan, Derrick Nix, and Green inside a focal point of the offense.
It’s an absolute must for three reasons: Gordon Hayward, depth, and size.
You must make Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs best player, defend the post. MSU can throw a double post 3-2 look at you and make Hayward defend in an effort to wear down the talented forward or draw fouls. Plus the Bulldogs have little depth along the front court after Howard and Hayward, and these guys don’t have elite size.
Protect the basketball. The Spartans struggled with Tennessee’s perimeter pressure and they’ll see the same caliber perimeter defenders from the Bulldogs.
In fact, I’d argue that Butler is the best defensive team MSU has faced this tournament just because they’re such a sound help and recover team.
They guard as well as Purdue, so if MSU doesn’t value the basketball, they’ll lose possessions and shots that would normally result in points or offensive rebounds for State. Anything over 10 turnovers in this game for MSU could spell doom for the Spartans.
Funnel Shooters. If there’s a knock against the two offensive stars for Butler, Mack and Hayward, it’s that they don’t finish at the rim all that well against big athletes. If I’m Izzo, I tell my kids to jump on this duo’s shooting hands and then chase them to the bucket where my bigs are waiting.
Neither player is an outstanding athlete, but they both have great mid-range games and can shoot the eye out of the three-ball.
MSU’s advantage is at the cup on both ends, so they need to make most battles in this game occur at the rack.
This is the Final Four. Every team is skilled, tough, gelling, add whichever adjective you prefer. I get the feeling, however, that Michigan State is a little more smoke and mirrors at this point without Lucas, while Butler’s success is more second nature.
I think the Bulldogs have the same talent as the Spartans, but they’re more comfortable with their identity as a team. Mack, Hayward, Veasley, and Howard are Butler’s four double digit scorers and they’ve had these roles for multiple seasons now.
On the flipside, Lucious and Green have been playing point guard and point forward respectively for about a month. Add the Bulldogs ability to defend to the mix, and it could shock an MSU team that’s played defensive lesser-lights NMSU, Northern Iowa, Maryland, and Tennessee to get here.
Meanwhile, Butler has smothered explosive offensive teams like Syracuse and Kansas State in back-to-back sub-60 point games.
For those reasons, I like Butler to win by six in a defensive grinder.
The glass slipper fits for another game.
Kevin writes the leading college hoops blog March To March.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarchToMarch