Editor's note: March Madness is too much for any one person to handle, so I'm adding help. The guys behind Ballin' Is a Habit, Rob Dauster and Troy Machir, will be contributing throughout March and into the Final Four, both with content from their Web site and original articles for us. This post originally appeared at BIAH.
By Rob Dauster
Butler (32-4) vs. Michigan State (28-8), 6:07 p.m. ET on CBS
Based strictly on seeding -- that pesky little number always showing up next to the team names -- Michigan State and Butler should probably not be playing in the Final Four.
How quickly we forget that these two teams were picked by many back in October to be Final Four teams.
Butler struggled early against some of the better teams that it faced, and it led many people to write off the Bulldogs -- myself included. They were too small, they didn't have the athleticism to matchup with the power conference teams, and they play in the Horizon League. As much love as we give mid-majors programs here, there is a reason they are mid-major programs. Butler is a great basketball program, but they aren't going to be landing any McDonald's All-Americans. They aren't going to be churning out lottery picks. The way Butler is going to win games is by maximizing the talent that they do get into their program.
But don't fool yourself into thinking that Butler lacks talent.
Gordon Hayward is going to play in the NBA one day. A 6-foot-9 two-guard with his skill set is going to get a shot somewhere, and he may even sneak into the back end of the lottery when he finally decides to go pro. Matt Howard was recruited by a number of Big Ten schools. He didn't end up at Butler, he chose Butler. Shelvin Mack is a Lexington, Ky., native who drew interest from some high-majors and slipped through the cracks. I think he's certified himself as an Adam Dunn special -- one of the guys that the big schools whiffed on.
While Butler does have talent, the key to its team is it doesn't rely on that talent to win. What Butler does is play arguably the nation's toughest half court defense, forcing you out of your comfort zone offensively, finishing off possessions by clearing the defensive glass. There may not be a better perimeter defender left in the tournament than Ronald Nored (if you don't believe me, go back and watch the struggles of talents like Randy Culpepper, Andy Rautins, Jacob Pullen, and Denis Clemente when they played Butler).
Then look at a guy like Willie Veasley. At 6-3, he essentially plays the small forward spot for Butler most of the time, but he was the one that drew the assignment of helping Nored slow down Kansas State's backcourt in the Elite Elite. Anyone that saw that game would attest -- he did an exemplary job.
Michigan State, for much of the season, was the exact opposite of Butler. While it didn't exactly have NBA potential littering their roster like Kentucky, there are more than a couple guys on this team that will get a shot at making an NBA roster. During the season, these guys just didn't live up to their potential. So while the inconsistent play of Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan and Kalin Lucas made everyone in the country temper their expectations for Sparty, it in effect made us forget just how good they really are. Remember, this is a team that returned a lot of important players from a team that was the national runner-up.
And in typical Tom Izzo fashion, Michigan State saved its best for the tournament. Summers -- the Midwest Region MOP -- was outstanding, averaging 20.0 ppg through the first two weekends. He was knocking down jumpers, getting to the basket, and turned into the Spartans best player in the clutch. Morgan has been playing like the tough, talented combo forward we all knew he could be. Delvon Roe, balky knee and all, has been active on the offensive glass. Draymond Green has done everything your glue guy and team leader is expected to do. Remember who set up both of Michigan State's game winners in this tournament?
There are a number of areas that can decide this game.
Michigan State is a very good rebounding team and Butler will have to keep them off the offensive glass. The Spartans are going to have to find a way to slow down Mack and Hayward. Howard has been foul prone all season, and while Andrew Smith performed valiantly on Saturday against K-State, Butler probably doesn't want to have to rely on another performance like that.
But where this game will be decided is with Korie Lucious. As we mentioned, Butler's back court is very, very good defensively. The Bulldogs can pressure the ball and make it difficult for your guards to be able to do anything on the offensive end. Lucious has not been great in his limited time at the point this year. He is a bit undersized, more of a natural scorer than a pure point guard, and as Izzo has said, has a little street ball in him. He has shown a tendency to turn the ball over when faced with pressure, and you better believe that Brad Stevens will have his players getting all over Lucious.
One thing you can be sure of is Izzo's ability to game-plan and to diagram sets that can be effective. If Lucious is able to perform against that pressure and get the Spartans into these sets, Michigan State is going to be in a very good position. If he can't, than Michigan State may not break 60 points, like each of Butler's last six opponents.
So who wins out? The team missing their star but led by Izzo, or the team on a 24-game winning streak playing in their home city?
Expect a dogfight that ends with a coaching chess match.