Saturday, April 3, 2010

Final Four preview: Blue Devils to take down Spartans in final


So we've come to this. The most unexpected, unpredictable and, yes, exciting Final Four in a long time. Seriously. Who knows what will happen? No one's been able to predict the tournament to this point, so why would that change now?

I, for one, have close to no idea who will come out on top in the games tonight. But if I were playing the "You have to choose, otherwise you'll lose a finger in horror-movie excruciating style," game, here are my picks. Just don't actually bet on them.

So I wanted to use as evidence for this pick the fact that the Spartans have won four close games in the tournament, four nailbiters. But then I realized that, well, Butler has won three such contests. So that doesn't really fly. So I had to become even more myopic: The Spartans have won two games that came down to the final possession. The Bulldogs only have one such victory. 

The fact is, the Spartans are the more talented team (barely) even sans Kalin Lucas and have learned how to win the nitty gritty games during this Dance. They're also the most physical team left alive, and I think that'll bother the Bulldogs who haven't faced such a foe. Finally, there's the Tom Izzo factor: This is his sixth Final Four in 12 years. Brad Stevens is making his first. Stevens is a great, deserving coach, but the advantage in coaching experience can't be overlooked.

This is a rematch of a second-round game I covered two years ago in which the Mountaineers absolutely manhandled the Blue Devils on the boards. After the 73-67 loss, Duke's Kyle Singler, then a freshman, said: "They're not a big team, but they're a physical team and they're able to get into us and push us underneath our basket. And they're able to grab a lot of offensive rebounds." Well, that quote could now apply to these Blue Devils, who have dominated teams in the rebounding category and have been lauded for their physical play, which was lacking the past three years.

The Mountaineers return many of the players from that team and promise to be just as physical as the Blue Devils. They are, after all, just as strong of a rebounding team. But 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting will be the difference down the stretch. If WVU chooses to go to the 1-3-1 zone that flustered Kentucky last week, Duke will kill it with offensive rebounds that lead to 3s (as was the case in the waning minutes against Baylor). If the Mountaineers play man, the Devils will find ways to get to the FT stripe late and make them. WVU, on the other hand, looked tenuous at the line down the stretch against the Wildcats. I'll be another barn-burner, but the Devils will persevere at the end.

And so for the second consecutive year, it'll be ACC against Michigan State representing the Big Ten. And also for the second straight year, the ACC will deny the Spartans a title. This game will be much, much closer than the blowout that was predictable in the first 3 minutes a year ago, but the Devils' upperclassmen will have an upper hand against this crew from the Spartans that has overachieved in the tournament sans its star.

The big matchup will be Duke's Nolan Smith guarding MSU point guard Korie Lucious. He'll be on him like white on rice. Smith has been an underrated defender all season, and he won't allow Lucious the penetration he's been able to use to create open outside jumpers and easy buckets down low for his teammates. It won't be pretty on the other end, but I expect the Devils to take advantage of the Spartans' pursuing defense with some back cuts for easy scores — and that'll be the difference. 

Of course, I shouldn't even be making a championship-game prediction, considering my Final Four picks have a great chance of being wrong. Silly me. Whatever happens, this Final Four, I'm positive, will live up to the hype that's surrounded this entire tournament of buzzer-beaters, last-second defensive stands, bench-clearing celebrations and tears wept on the hardwood.

It's pure madness, folks. Just how March (and April) should always be.

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