INDIANAPOLIS -- You've heard of The Untouchables, The Incredibles and The Unforgettables.
Now meet The Intangibles.
That's my soon-to-spread-like-wildfire nickname for the quartet of teams that will descend upon Indianapolis this weekend. None of these teams will blow you away with eye-popping talent or overpowering athleticism. Indeed, it's hard to remember a Final Four that did not include a single player that will be an NBA lottery pick. I'm not talking about this year's draft. I'm talking about ever.
And yet, it's hard to imagine a group of teams more worthy to be here in this upset-filled NCAA tournament. Butler, Michigan State, Duke and West Virginia made it to Indy because they are tough, smart, efficient, unselfish and resilient. If I had told you three weeks ago that the Final Four would not include Kansas, Kentucky or Syracuse you wouldn't have believed me, but here we are. It's not every year that all the teams at the Final Four can take the court rightly believing they can win a national championship, but this is one of those years.
So who is going to win this thing? Well, if you can't tell by now, we so-called experts are guessing just like you. (Or didn't you notice I went 0-for-4 picking the regional finals on CBS last weekend?) When The Intangibles take the court, the games will naturally be decided by the little things -- who makes shots, who stays out of foul trouble, who makes the best decisions down the stretch, who gets more 50/50 balls. Those things aren't easily discernible to the untrained eye, but fortunately for you, I'm in full squint mode. Join me for a closer look.
I am interested to see how the Bulldogs react to playing at home, because it could go one of two ways. Does it inspire them to overachieve, as it did for Michigan State last season in Detroit during its semifinal matchup against UConn? Or will they come out tight and hyper, as Michigan State did last year in the championship game against North Carolina? By the time the Spartans settled down midway through the first half, the Tar Heels were up nearly 20 points, and the game was all over but the shouting.
If you want to take the measure of the Bulldogs' poise, look no further than the 5:45 mark of their Sweet 16 win over Syracuse and the 4:51 mark of their regional final triumph over Kansas State. That's when the favorites took the lead. Butler could have wilted or, worse, lost patience and gotten away from the things that had been working for the Bulldogs, but each time they stuck with the game plan, believed in each other and pulled out the win. They will need to react the same way if they fall behind this weekend.
Strategically, Butler's half-court defense has been one of the real revelations of this tournament. The Bulldogs don't deploy much full-court pressure, but their aggressiveness in attacking the passing lanes caused Syracuse and K-State to commit a combined 31 turnovers. This is a potential opening for their matchup with the Spartans, who were ranked eighth in the Big Ten this season in turnover margin.
By the same token, the Bulldogs have to make sure they take care of the ball themselves (they committed 20 turnovers in the win over Kansas State). That means making smart, strong passes and showing patience in the face of the best man-to-man defensive team they have played all season. If they can play their game without playing to the crowd, they'll have a real shot at winning.
I've said, written and tweeted it many times, so let me do so again here: If Basketball IQ were a measurable statistic,
In the second round against Maryland, after
It has been especially important for the Spartans to play smart during the tournament, because they look more like a MASH unit than a basketball team. Not only is their best player, junior point guard
By the way, the Spartans have also excelled in another critical intangible: luck. You don't win four NCAA tournament games by a total of 13 points without being a little bit lucky. A few more sprinkles of that Spartan magic and they'll by the ones taking the trophy home Monday night.
For most of the season, the Mountaineers have played essentially without a point guard. During their last two games, "essentially" became "literally" after their starting point guard,
Yet, according to Kenpom.com, West Virginia was ranked 12th in the nation in offensive efficiency this season and 10th in defensive efficiency. That's in large part due to the intelligence and versatility of its three interchangeable forwards -- Butler, 6-9 sophomore
Since Huggins realizes that Duke's guards are superior to West Virginia's, I expect him to try to control tempo in the game. If he can limit possessions, then each trip down the court will carry maximum significance, which should put efficiency at a premium. Huggins wants this game to stay in the 60s, and what Huggy Bear wants, Huggy Bear usually gets.
Considering the other three teams in the Final Four, and considering what we've come to expect from Duke the last few years, this might not be the intangible you'd expect to be ascribed to the Blue Devils. Yet it fits. Yes, this Duke team is bigger than it has been in recent years -- it's probably the biggest
If the Blue Devils can do that to Baylor, they can at least play even underneath with West Virginia, which is ranked ninth in the country in rebound margin. And if they play the Mountaineers to a draw inside, their advantage on the perimeter will loom even larger.
But the real toughness of this team exists in the minds and hearts of its players. Look no further than the way they have been able to close out close, tough games. After being knocked on their heels during the first half by a plucky Purdue squad in the South regional semifinal, the Blue Devils hung 46 second-half points on the Boilermakers. When Baylor took a 61-60 lead with 3:50 to play on Sunday, the Blue Devils outscored them 18-10 the rest of the way. Senior forward
While any of these four teams can win the championship, Duke has more ways to win it than any of the other three. That doesn't mean the Blue Devils will pull it off, but if they don't, it won't be because they weren't tough enough.
Okay, if you insist.
It's that kind of Final Four, folks. The smallest things will make the biggest difference.