There are not too many Final Four games for which I do not care who wins and then already know that I will be rooting wholeheartedly for the winner in the title game. That is the case, however, with this half of the Final Four bracket.
Butler has been one of the most compelling stories of this tournament. They are not a Cinderella, though, as many people have described them; and it is sheer laziness or ignorance if you hear any basketball talking head refer to Butler this way over the course of the next week. Cinderellas do not start out the season ranked #10.
Rather, Butler is a terrific example of how a succession of good coaches, a system built around defense and teamwork, and a tradition of fielding a team with kids from Indiana can still be a recipe for success in college basketball. Now, if the Bulldogs can successfully navigate what will be an immensely challenging two game gauntlet against very good teams and very, very good coaches, they can capture their first ever national title in their own Indianapolis backyard.
Before Butler can even think about a national title though, they must first face a red hot, tournament tested team that is led by a man who would probably be a close to unanimous answer to the question: if your life depended on winning one NCAA Tournament game, who would you want coaching your team? I am referring, of course, to the great Tom Izzo, who will lead his Spartans against Butler on Saturday night.
Here is a quick breakdown of all the info you need to know for Saturday night’s game:
Final Four: West #5 Butler v Midwest #5 Michigan State
- Butler-Michigan State Final 4 Date: Saturday, April 3rd (Title Game on April 5th)
- Butler-Michigan State Final 4 Tip Time: 6:07 ET
- Butler-Michigan State Final 4 TV: CBS
- Butler-Michigan State Spread: Butler -1.5
- Butler-Michigan State Over-Under: 126
- Butler-Michigan State Final 4 Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg
- ESPN: Butler Bulldogs
- ESPN: Michigan State Spartans
- MSF: Duke-West Virginia Analysis and Prediction
- MSF: 2010 Final Four TV Schedule
- MSF: Final Four History – Past Champions, Runners-Up, Participants
- MSF: History of Final Four in Indianapolis
- StubHub: Butler-Michigan State Final Four Tickets
Before I jump into my analysis and prediction, chime in with yours:
Who do you think will win this Final Four matchup?
- Butler Bulldogs (36%, 173 Votes)
- Michigan State Spartans (64%, 305 Votes)
Total Voters: 478
Butler-Michigan State Preview
Next, let’s analyze this Final Four matchup.
[Note: If you followed our NCAA Tournament coverage here at MSF last year, you know that I published previews similar to this one for each game from the Sweet 16 on. Using statistical analysis from the ESPN Bracket Predictor, which is powered by TeamRankings.com, plus my own knowledge an intuition, I went 12-3 picking the 15 games that concluded the 2009 Tournament. The methodology is essentially the same this year; we’ll see if the results are. (So far, through Sweet 16 and Elite 8, I’m 8-4.)]
Here is how the numbers break down between Butler and Michigan State:
Butler-Michigan State Analysis and Prediction
Let’s start out by quickly analyzing the numbers above.
This is obviously the first time we’ve had the opportunity to look at two teams seeded the same; hence the 50-50 split in the seed difference category. Butler actually has a nice advantage in their Power Ratings model, which is obviously more a function of their higher scoring margins and 18-0 record during Horizon League play than their strength of schedule, which was 30 spots below Michigan State in the rankings. The Spartans own advantages in the other three categories for a 3-1-1 total advantage.
On offense we have two teams that are very similar. The Spartans and Bulldogs score nearly the same number of points per possession, have almost identical effective field goal percentages, and Michigan State turns the ball on 0.7% of their possessions. There are huge differences, however, in the other two categories. Expectedly, Michigan State owns a significant advantage on the offensive glass, while Butler is one of the most effective teams at getting to the line in America. Overall, it’s a very slim 3-2 advantage for Butler.
Defensively, Butler holds an advantage in three of the five categories as well, and no team has played better defense during the NCAA Tournament than the Bulldogs. Syracuse and Kansas State are two of the most explosive offensive teams in the country, yet Butler controlled the tempo of both games while seriously frustrating both opponents with their lock-down D. Michigan State has an advantage in rebounding and also does not send opponents to the line as much as Butler.
Statistically, if you add up the 15 categories above, it comes out to 7-7-1. An absolute dead heat. Makes sense to me. However, Butler is the 1.5 point favorite, which I was very surprised by. It’s a terrific sign of respect for the Bulldogs that they would be favored against a yearly tournament stalwart like Michigan State, and I would assume that the reasons factored into the 1.5 number include:
- A perceived home court advantage for Butler, getting to stay home in Indianapolis
- The continued absence of Michigan State’s purported best play, Kalin Lucas
- A recognition (and perhaps over compensation) that, hey, this Butler team is pretty damn good!
The third reason is obviously valid. Butler is good. And while I doubt the oddsmakers themselves underestimates the Bulldogs – too much money on the line – they may be expecting bettors to ride the hot team/story. Despite being ranked #10 in the preseason rankings, Butler was a #5 seed after going 18-0 in its conference. How that made sense, I don’t really know. What it showed was the obvious lack of respect still given to the Bulldogs on a national scale. That all changed with their wins over Syracuse and Kansas State.
I am not sure, however, that the first two reasons are all that meaningful.
Yes, I think it’s an advantage for Butler to not have to travel this week, and they will obviously enjoy the loudest cheering of the four teams in Indy this weekend, but it’s not like the atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium is going to be like it is at Hinkle. The Final Four, like the Super Bowl, is largely a corporate event, meaning many of the people with the best seats will have no particular rooting interest in the game.
Sure, Butler will have a large contingent of fans, but so will Michigan State, whose fans are Big Ten based and used to traveling to Final Fours…considering this is their sixth time doing it in 12 years. The same goes with the team. If any coach and team is used to tournament travel and not at risk of being overwhelmed or distracted by the moment, the pomp, or the circumstance, it’s the grizzled tournament veterans of Michigan State.
As for the absence of Kalin Lucas, I think Korie Lucious has more than proven himself capable of leading the Spartans to victory. He was terrific at the end of the Maryland game, he played superbly against Northern Iowa, and the Spartans beat Tennessee with Lucious playing well defensively (5 steals) but struggling on offense (2-9 shooting, 5 TOs). Moral of the story: Tom Izzo’s bunch has proven itself tough, resourceful, and capable of winning in a variety of ways; Kalin Lucas’ absence is no longer an issue.
The previous six paragraphs have been my way of saying that I think this game should be a pick ‘em, and when it comes down to determining who will win this game, or any game that I anticipate to be very close, there are five key areas I look at to break a perceived tie: coaching experience, player experience, defense, free throw shooting, and rebounding. Let’s quickly break each area down.
Michigan State-Butler Matchup Analysis: Coaching Experience
This one is pretty much a no-brainer.
Brad Stevens is an excellent coach who has won more games during his first three years at the helm than any other coach in college basketball history. He showed on a national stage against Syracuse and Kansas State that he can go toe-to-toe with some of the best coaches in the business and devise expert game plans that exploit strategic weaknesses. But he’s no Tom Izzo. Not yet. And he’s got a long way to go to get there.
As calm, cool, and poised as Stevens has been during the tournament, he’s never coached in a Final Four before. This is Izzo’s sixth. There is absolutely no way that this is not an advantage for Izzo. There is nothing Stevens can do about it; it just is what it is. This is a big plus on the side of the Spartans.
Advantage: Michigan State
Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, and the rest of the Bulldogs have proven that they can rise to the occasion in big spots. We’ve seen it time and time again during this tournament and throughout the season. We do not know, however, how they will respond to the bright lights of the Final Four.
On the other hand, it was just a year ago that we saw exactly how these Spartans reacted to the Final Four.
Despite being big underdogs, Michigan State knocked off UCONN to reach the title game. (I realize they got blasted two days later against UNC, but any team in America would have.) Raymar Morgan was superb in that UCONN game, scoring 18 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and getting 5 steals. Kore Lucious during one stretch scored 9 straight points for the Spartans. Durrell Summers, Chris Allen, Delvon Roe, and Draymond Green all played big minutes.
Remember, it’s only a 40 minute game. Even if it takes Butler 4-5 minutes to get their “sea legs” playing on the biggest stage of their careers, that could be enough time for Michigan State to jump out to an early lead. In a game expected to be won by a razor thin margin, that could be important.
Advantage: Michigan State
Now, while the two categories above are important, they are far from be all, end all. We’ve seen teams and coaches perform very well during their first Final Four, and Butler’s ability to be in familiar surroundings will help. Still, all else being equal, you’d rather have the coach and team with more experience; and in this game, the “all else being equal” statement is pretty close to true (for evidence, see beginning of this analysis).
Michigan State-Butler Matchup Analysis: Defense
Michigan State teams under Izzo have a well-earned reputation for playing for tough, physical defense. I don’t think this year’s Spartans are as good on defense as last year’s – you can’t lose a guy like Travis Walton without experiencing some drop off on D – but they are still very good defensive as a team.
Butler, however, has proven itself to be outstanding defensively. Led by the lockdown prowess of Nored, Butler has held opponent after opponent in check during the season and during the tournament. The Bulldogs do not have the length or athletic ability of Tennessee, but they make up for it with tenacity, teamwork, and a tremendous ability force difficult shots.
If you have watched Butler’s last two games, you can’t possibly give the defensive advantage to anyone else. (Note: check above. The season defensive stats back me up here too.)
Michigan State-Butler Matchup Analysis: Free Throw Shooting
Another extremely important element that often decides close games is free throw shooting. This one is pretty easy to assess; let’s just look at the percentages: Butler shot 73.9% from the line during the regular season while Michigan State shot 68.8% (and it may be a misleading 68.8%; Lucas took the most free throws on the team and made them at a 77.2% rate, meaning the remaining Spartans are far less than 68.8% shooters from the line based on their season stats). Give the Spartans credit though, as they shot 73.7% and 76.2% from the line during their Sweet 16 and Elite 8 victories.
Michigan State’s experience suggests that they will probably continue to shoot well from the line in the Final Four. Regardless, I trust the team that’s made the significantly higher percentage during the season, and continued to make them during the tournament.
Michigan State-Butler Matchup Analysis: Rebounding
Do I really need to provide explanation here? Is there any team that you give an advantage to over Michigan State when it comes to rebounding? The Spartans have the better rebounding numbers, and while Butler is no rebounding slouch, they need Matt Howard to stay out of foul trouble to compete on the glass versus of the Spartans, which he’s had trouble doing the last few games.
Advantage: Michigan State
So…the statistical breakdown to begin this post was a 7-7-1 tie. The the “Five Components of Winning Big Games” section broke Michigan State’s way 3-2. That makes for a total of 10-9-1 Michigan State in the different areas of analysis used for this matchup, and it confirmed what I suspected when I first starting thinking about who I was going to pick: I’m taking the Spartans.
As I’ve mentioned already in previous posts, I picked Michigan State to lose in the second round. Then I picked them to lose to Northern Iowa. I finally wised up and picked them to beat Tennessee and swore I wouldn’t pick against Tom Izzo again. And the more I think about it, such faith in Izzo is warranted in the absence of an opposing coach or team that demands the same or more based on past success.
Butler is an emerging basketball power, and Brad Stevens is an emerging coach, and they are more than capable of winning…but I want to see it against Tom Izzo and Co. before I believe it.
Regardless of who wins, one thing is for sure: we’re going to be treated to a great game between these two teams on Saturday night. And whoever wins, they are my adopted rooting interested against whichever villain (Duke or Bob Huggins) wins the other game.
Michigan State-Butler Prediction: Michigan State 63 | Butler 61
Michigan State-Butler Spread Pick: Michigan State +1.5
Michigan State-Butler Over-Under Pick: Under 126
* – Tom Izzo cutting nets photo credit: AllBigTen.com
* – Brad Stevens photo credit: AP via SI.com
* – Tom Izzo spazzing on sidelines photo credit: Golf.com
* – Ronald Nored, Gordon Hayward, and Shelvin Mack photo credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson via Indy Star
* – Raymar Morgan photo credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images via SI.com