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Next Up - Butler

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There's been a certain undercurrent since Saturday suggesting that after what Duke did to West Virginia, that Butler is a minor obstacle before a coronation. Don't you believe it. Butler can absolutely win this game, and it's not because they could ride a bike to the gym, either, nor would it be an epic upset as some would have you believe, because this is a damned good team. Consider three words of caution: Virginia, ACC Tournament.

As you may have forgotten by now, with 6:24 left to play, that was a two-point game.

Why is this relevant? Because Virginia and Butler play similar defenses and Virginia's gave Duke's fits. You can reasonably therefore expect that Butler's might as well.

Hopefully, we come not just to praise Butler but to bury them, but praise them we must.

Butler's typical M.O. is to pack in the defense just inside the three-point line. This is a basic defensive strategy favored by Tubby Smith and of course Dick and Tony Bennett.

As a matter of fact, you could almost consider Butler a more talented version of Dick Bennett's Wisconsin teams, which drove everyone crazy by barely scoring yet consistently winning, even up to the Final Four.

Those teams were never easy to play either, and the defense tends to also psyche offenses into rushed decisions, which makes things even worse. Every possession becomes a form of psychological warfare, and that takes a toll on the most talented teams.

Playing Butler is greatly complicated because of the defensive talent of their guards who have a particular knack of stripping the ball from people who are driving or getting ready to shoot. We are not sure we've ever seen guards better at this than Butler's. They don't have good hands, they have great hands.

So obviously they're forcing a lot of turnovers in this tournament, and typically not making many themselves.

Against Michigan State, the advantage was 8-16. They lost the turnover battle to Kansas State, 13-20, won it against Syracuse, 7-18, Murray State, 6-16, and UTEP, 10-14.

And while we don't have time to go back and verify this, our impression is that a lot of those turnovers by their opponents came in the last five minutes. In their five previous games, only UTEP, their opening opponent, was an easy win. Everything else came down to the end and to intelligent decisions by Butler.

For us, the epitome of this was the end of the Kansas State game, where Butler just ate them alive in the closing seconds by either knocking or taking the ball away repeatedly.

You should also remember that Jim Boeheim said this team had the best defensive guards he had seen in 10 years. You should also remember that Tom Izzo said that what surprised him most was the physical nature of Butler.

When you look at their frontcourt, they might be physical, maybe wiry strong, but they're not that big. Gordon Hayward, 6-9, weighs just 207; Avery Jukes, 6-8, just 215, and Matt Howard, 6-8 checks in at 230.

We suspect that Izzo may to an extent be talking about their guards. Ronald Nored is 6-1 and 176, Willie Veasley is 6-3 and 206, and Shelvin Mack is 6-3 and 215. They're all pretty strong guys.

Size wise, at least up front, Duke has a significant advantage. Brian Zoubek has a five inch advantage over Howard and a good 30 pounds. Singler, Thomas, and both Miles and Mason Plumlee are all significantly bigger than Butler's primary frontcourt players.

They've used that size throughout the tournament to punish people on the boards. Just as Butler has thrived off of turnovers and takeaways, Duke has been living off their size advantage and their physical play.

This game, like most, is going to come down to which team can most successfully exploit their strengths. Butler plays a very intelligent game offensively and defensively, while Duke has combined three-point shooting, defense, and superb rebounding to get this far. And their defense doesn't get as much credit as it should, but it's been good too.

If Duke allows Butler to set the pace like Virginia did in Greensboro, has trouble penetrating, and can't hit three-point shots, they will be in trouble. And if Butler allows Duke to push them around on the boards, and to hit three-point shots, they'll be in trouble, too.

As we said above, Zoubek has a huge advantage inside, but the mismatches continue and how those evolve will be very important. Someone will have to guard Singler. If it's Hayward, he will have to go out on the perimeter with Singler which compromises their rebounding. If it's not Hayward, it'll be a guard. And while Singler should be able to shoot over their guards, he's had some issues in this tournament hanging onto the ball, issues which could get much worse against this team. And of course, he will have to guard a smaller player as well, and that could be a challenge.

Lance Thomas has a reputation for being able to guard just about anybody on the floor. He will probably end up with either Mack or Veasley. Whoever he doesn't get Scheyer will guard, and Nolan Smith will surely take Ronald Nored.

It's going to be really important for Duke to keep Zoubek, Singler and Thomas out of foul trouble. It might even be more important to keep Smith and Scheyer out as well. The book on Duke all year long has been that they are thin in the backcourt. It hasn't really mattered, but it might in this one since Butler's perimeter is so skilled and intelligent.

If we had to guess who might step up for Duke, we might expect it to be Scheyer. As great as Butler's been at forcing turnovers, Scheyer has been equally brilliant at protecting the ball. He's also shown an instinct for the clutch, and at 6-5, he should be able to get his shots off, particularly from the perimeter.

But there's also a natural role for Andre Dawkins to step up. He's got enough range to force Butler to loosen up the interior defense if he hits a couple. And in what may be a low-scoring game, a couple of threes could be huge.

Enough about offense though. Both teams have managed to get to this point despite some not-so-great offensive performances. This game is probably not going to be determined on that end of the court.

One final note: although Seth Curry is not eligible until next fall, he can still give Duke the best scouting report they will probably get on Hayward and Mack, since he played with both of them over the summer during the U-19 games and now knows their games very well.

Okay, one other final note: as impressed as we are with Butler, we should note that of their key players, Veasley and Jukes are seniors, Howard is a junior, and Mack, Nored and Hayward are all sophomores. It hasn't mattered so far, but it might.

Okay, final final note: in their last two games, Michigan State was 55.6% from the line, and Kansas State was just 50%. For K-State, the seven points they missed were the difference in the game; for Michigan State, two more free throws might have won the game. Let's hope that if it's tight at the end, Duke does well at the stripe.

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