‘And Then There Were Four’

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When West Virginia (31-6) and Duke (33-5) clash in Saturday’s semifinal matchup, it’ll be the classic battle of rugged vs. finesse. The Mountaineers stormed their way through the first four rounds of the tournament by utilizing an in-your-face brand of tough defense. By closing off cutting lanes, doubling and even triple-teaming low-post big men, the Mountaineers dared their adversaries to shoot from the outside– a feat its opponents have failed at miserably.

Against West Virginia’s switching zone defense, teams have shot a woeful 20 percent from three-point range, connecting on only 17-83 shots from beyond the arc. The Mountaineers have used a barrage of missed shots to fuel their fast break and collect easy baskets but if there’s any team equipped to solve West Virginia’s defensive riddles, it’s the sweet shooting Blue Devils.

Duke’s starting guard trio of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have all shot more than 38 percent from behind the arc this season and have had some monumental games in the tournament. Shooting from deep is something that Duke not only thrives at, but lives for. Legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski does a great job of instilling discipline in his clubs but also has stamped in his players minds to fire away at will. And that’s a good thing because against West Virginia’s “I-dare-you-to-shoot” defensive style, Duke will have its chances.

The Butler vs. Michigan State matchup is more of a popularity contest, so to speak. The well known vs. the unrecognized. But it’s not in the order you would suspect. Butler, located in Indianapolis, will become the first team to play a “Final Four” in its hometown since 1972. The least noticeable school out of this year’s “Final Four” cast will be come the most popular over the weekend as thousands of fans will undoubtedly be pumping fist and waving flags in favor of the Bulldogs.

If any team can understand what kind of support Butler (32-4) will receive Saturday night it’s the Spartans (28-8). Michigan State’s “Final Four” run last year ended more than 80 miles away from their campus against North Carolina in the title game at Detroit’s Ford Field. Michigan State is well aware of what they’ll be up against this weekend and they should be. Head coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans have reached the “Final Four” six times over the last 12 seasons.

Izzo doesn’t seem to be affected by early departures or years of adjusting to new talent on the fly; he simply wins with whatever crew of players that walk through his door. Izzo will be gunning for his second title this decade and another championship would cement his legacy as well as Michigan State’s as one of the top coaches and programs of the modern era.

But Butler is beginning to create a legacy of its own. The Bulldogs are currently riding a 24-game win streak – the longest of any team in the Final Four– and haven’t won less than 26 games since the 2005-2006 season. The upending of  one and two-seeded Syracuse and Kansas State have made 31-year-old head coach Brad Stevens a top candidate as one of the best young coaches in college basketball. Add in Stevens’ collection of gritty and hardnosed players and Butler more than makes up for its lack of popularity as one of the better teams in the nation.

The 2010 NCAA Tournament has been a wild and wacky ride for much of the last few weeks. With a host of Goliaths slain and droughts ended, a descent upon downtown Indianapolis this weekend is the last stop in the quest for a championship trophy. With two games remaining and four highly touted and talented teams, the best of March Madness has yet to come.