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, Draymond Green would lead the country. You've heard of a point forward? Green is a point center. During this tournament, he made two of the smartest clutch plays you'll ever see from a guy who stands 6-foot-6 and plays in the post.
In the second round against Maryland, after GreivisVasquez put the Terps up with seven seconds remaining (Maryland had lost the lead on Green's 15-foot jumper seconds before), Green brought the ball up the court and made the game-winning assist to point guard Korie Lucious. Then, in the regional final against Tennessee, Green made a similarly beautiful feed to Raymar Morgan in the post, where Vols guard J.P. Prince had to foul him, allowing Morgan to hit the game-winning free throw.
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 Kalin Lucas, out with a ruptured Achilles' tendon (remember, he got hurt late in the first half against Maryland, so they played the last 2 1/2 games without him), but backup guard Chris Allen is also playing with plantar fasciitis in his foot and starting power forward Delvon Roe is limited by a torn meniscus in his knee. Yet, the Spartans have persevered thanks to savvy play at both ends of the floor. They have limited their turnovers and taken smart shots on offense; and on defense they have "gapped" opponents by taking away their driving lanes and forcing them to shoot over the Michigan State defenders. That will be a smart idea against a Butler team that has just one player who makes better than 39 percent from three-point range.
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, Darryl "Truck" Bryant,went down with a foot injury. Bryant is doubtful for this weekend, and while his backup, JoeMazzulla, did an admirable job scoring 17 points off the bench in the win over Kentucky, the reality is, the team's point guard is actually 6-7 senior forward Da'Sean Butler, who led the team in assists this season with 3.2 per game. (Bryant was second with 3.1.)
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 Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones, the unsung 6-8 sophomore who is the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder. It is also the result of excellent coaching. Bob Huggins is masterful when it comes to emphasizing strengths and hiding deficiencies, and there is nobody better at identifying the one thing an opponent does best and taking it away. Huggins knew that if he could eliminate Kentucky's driving lanes and ability to feed the post, the Wildcats would have to beat him from behind the three-point line. So he went with the 1-3-1 zone and Kentucky took the bait, hoisting 32 three-point shots and making only four.
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 Coach K has ever had -- but size alone does not get you to a Final Four, and it does not automatically equate to a lot of offensive rebounds. This squad has made its living off the offensive glass all season, but I did not think the Blue Devils could dominate the boards against a big, strong, quick team like Baylor. Yet they did just that to the tune of 22 offensive rebounds.
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 Lance Thomas, the Glue Guy's Glue Guy, gave his team extra possessions with eight offensive rebounds, and Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer were tough enough to make those buckets in a high-pressure situation. And while Kyle Singler went 0-for-10 from the field, he still got to the foul line six times (making five), dished out four assists and played lockdown defense on Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn down the stretch. That's what I mean by mental toughness.
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.
Michigan State 64, Butler 60. I'm going with the Spartan magic.
Duke 74, West Virginia 69. Duke will hold its own inside, and the Big Three won't go 4-for-32 from three.
It's that kind of Final Four, folks. The smallest things will make the biggest difference.