A Look Ahead: Duke vs. Butler National Championship Preview

       The college basketball season comes to an end as Butler and Duke tip off in the National Championship game in Indianapolis this evening. Duke, a No. 1 seed was foreseen as a favorite to advance to the Final Four by many analysts, while others had written off Butler as early as the opening round of March Madness. Will Duke's storied past become relevant again as the Blue Devils take national title number four or will the "Cinderella" Butler Bulldogs write their own fairy tale ending with their first ever crown?

Could the basketball programs possibly be more different?

Program History and Coaching

        Duke is making their 10th NCAA Finals appearance, and first since 2004, while Butler is making their first-ever finals appearance since the school opened over 150 years ago. In fact, Duke has made 11 Finals Fours under Coach Krzyzewski, while 2010 marked the first time Butler has advanced to the regional finals. Butler's 33-year old coach, Brad Stevens has logged a career record of 89-14 (.864) in his three seasons, while Coach K has over 850 wins (867-279, .757) and three national titles.

        The sheer numbers favor Coach K and Duke in an overwhelming fashion, but don't let these statistics or Brad Stevens' age fool you. Butler has recorded 25 straight wins, having found success in every game since mid-December. Stevens has certainly pushed all the right buttons so far and made all the right moves, but there is nothing that Coach K hasn't seen in his 30 years at Duke.

The Starting Five

        Butler has struggled tremendously on the offensive end since their opening round victory over UTEP. In the four games since, they have connected on just 76-of-208 total shots, hitting 36.5% of their field-goal attempts; this is coming from a team that shot over 45% during the regular-season. The Bulldogs are shooting 34% from behind the arc in the NCAA Tournament, struggling to knock down almost eight 3s per game. Considering Duke is the best team in the nation at defending the 3, statistically speaking, Butler's perimeter shooting needs to improve to keep them in this game.

        Normally, the 6'8" Gordon Hayward is a mismatch problem for any team with his length, versatility and outside shooting ability. However, tonight, he will be matched up against a very similar player in Kyle Singler. This is one of the game's better matchups to keep an eye on. Hayward has displayed much more consistency and versatility over the course of the 2009-10 season, but Singler was in quite the rhythm last game against West Virginia, finishing with 21 points and 9 rebounds. Hayward picks his spots, but has the ability to take over when needed. He is tougher, better defensively and offers a better feel for the game than Duke's Singler.

        Despite limited time last game against Michigan State with food poisoning, Shelvin Mack, Butler's sophomore guard, is back to full strength. He is averaging 16 points per game and is the Bulldog's most dangerous perimeter shooter although he has been streaky in the NCAA tournament. Matt Howard is a game-time decision this evening, after suffering a concussion in Saturday's win over the Spartans. As last season's Horizon League Player of the Year, Howard has not had the junior season many expected. He is too often on the bench after picking up a few quick foul calls, which hampers his aggressiveness the rest of the game. Despite his lack of impact in the tournament, Howard is a much-needed player for Butler. He will be taking on Duke's frontcourt of Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and Miles and Mason Plumlee. He has the quickness to take Zoubek off the dribble, getting Duke's center in foul trouble, but more importantly, he is a key component to Butler's 4-out attack. He roams the area inside the 3-point arc, setting screens and rolling to the basket, freeing up shooting and occasionally getting an uncontested lay-in. Ronald Nored, the league's defensive player of the year, has been harassing defenders all season long, especially frustrating the bigger, stronger and more athletic Durrell Summers last game. Yes, Summers ended up with 14 points, leading the Spartans, but Summers expelled most of his energy attempting to get free on the offensive end and not affecting the defensive game per usual. Nored will be matched up on Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer tonight looking to have a similar impact. Willie Veasley is Butler's fifth starter, a 6'3" senior forward. Albeit undersized, he uses his quickness and athleticism to make plays on the court, especially on the glass, hustling after rebounds and running in transition.

        Much of the talk has been about Duke's "Big Three", Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, however, Brian Zoubek could impact the game this evening just as much as the trio. In Duke's past four games, Zoubek is averaging over 7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, including nearly five offensive boards per game. These offensive rebounds are not so much quick put-backs for two points as they are kick-outs to perimeter shooters. On three occasions against West Virginia, Zoubek grabbed an o-board, and hit Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith in stride for a 3-point field goal. Butler is nowhere near as big or as physical or as athletic as that West Virginia team that the Blue Devils easily disposed of. Combined with Lance Thomas on the inside, the front court tandem excels at doing all of the dirty work.

        Credit must be given where it is due- Duke's trio has been very good all season long leading the nation in scoring for a three-man trio, but they were absolutely fantastic last game against the Mountaineers. The three combined to score 63 points (of the Blue Devils' total 78) and tally 17 assists and just three turnovers. All three were dangerous threats from behind the arc, hitting 12 3s. They shot the lights out, but now face a different type of defense, a quicker defense that matches up better against their three. Scheyer is a quick penetrator and a deep perimeter threat, but he also possesses a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Smith is averaging a team high 21 points per game in the since the opening round, excelling in the past two contests from behind the arc where he is a 40% shooter on the season.


        Butler's depth will be severely compromised if Matt Howard, a game-time decision with a concussion, does not end up playing this evening.  Avery Jukes, an athletic 6'8" forward, will step into the starting lineup if Howard cannot go. Two guards off the Butler bench are brought into the game for two different reasons. Zach Hahn is a legitimate 3-point threat anywhere inside 27-feet, but does not contribute much elsewhere. He should be a defensive liability if Butler stays man-to-man with Hahn in the game because of Duke's size and strength at both guard spots. Shawn Vanzant is the other guard who comes off the bench for Brad Stevens. He is a pass-first playmaker, who does not really look for his own shot, but instead looks to keep the ball in the offensive rhythm and get the ball to Hayward and Mack on the perimeter.

        The size Duke brings off the bench should be burdensome for Butler, who does not have much depth up front, especially with the injury to starting forward, Matt Howard. Miles and Mason Plumlee see regular minutes spelling both Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek for brief periods. They are both athletic 4-men who are capable of scoring in the low blocks and attacking the glass hard for put backs. Their speed and athleticism should give Brad Stevens some problems off of the bench. A third guard, freshman, Andre Dawkins, is likely to see a few minutes tonight giving Scheyer or Smith a quick breather. He is a perimeter threat with deep range, but should only see limited time.


        Duke ranks near the very top of the nation in securing extra possessions via offensive rebounding and have been even better as of late with the resurgence of Zoubek. The senior center is averaging over 4 offensive rebounds a game in the NCAA tournament, while Lance Thomas has been just as effective hitting the offensive glass, averaging just under 4 offensive rebounds per game. On the defensive end, Zoubek, Thomas and Singler can dominate the boards, rarely giving second chance opportunities. With Duke's size advantage over Butler, the Blue Devils should be able to control the tempo of the game with second chance possessions and extra shots on the offensive end.

        Butler's key to the game has to be to limit second-chance points for the Blue Devils. Guards, as a whole, have a tendency not to block out their man and instead, leak out in transition or seek an outlet pass. However, with the size disadvantage Butler has, the Bulldog's guards, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored need to find their men, and put a body into him and drive him out, making it less likely an offensive rebound with be secured. Boxing out and maintaining contact with their men is a must for Butler's backcourt. Too often over the course of this season, and notable last game against West Virginia, has Duke capitalized off of second chance opportunities with put-backs and back-breaking 3-pointers. Butler is one of the better teams with the defensive rebound, ranking 14th in the nation in offensive rebound percentage, while Duke ranks as the sixth best team in the nation on the offensive glass, getting extra possessions over 40% of the time.


        Duke's players are all relatively healthy and injury-free, while two of Butler's key players and starters were limited last game with injuries. Shelvin Mack fell ill due to food poisoning before the game, playing a significantly diminished role against Michigan State, but he is expected to be back at full health for this evening's contest. Matt Howard, is a different story. Howard left the second half of Butler's semifinal win after banging his head on the floor after a collision and later taking an elbow to the head after returning to the game. He missed practice yesterday with a concussion and feeling "woozy", but will be re-evaluated this morning by the team's medical staff and his status for tonight's game will be a "game time decision".


        Despite Duke's pedigree and storied history, no one on the roster has played in an NCAA final, as the Blue Devils haven't come this far since winning it all in 2001. Butler has never made it this far, but could draw strength from a near "home game" as the Final Four site, Lucas Oil Stadium is less than 6 miles from Butler's campus. The Bulldogs had a lopsided crowd Saturday in their semifinal game against Michigan State and those numbers could fall even more in Butler's favor Monday night for the finals. Butler is 15-0 at home this season.