Commentary

A first look at the Final Four teams

Originally Published: March 28, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

What will you remember about the 2010 NCAA tournament? There's been plenty to choose from.

Duke ending its mini-Final Four drought? Michigan State making an improbable run back to the Final Four? Butler giving a whole new meaning to "Final Four host school"? Conquering hometown hero Bob Huggins coaching his alma mater West Virginia past favorite Kentucky and into the Final Four for the first time in 51 years?

Or will you always think about the first two rounds, a series of head-spinning games that left you wanting more and more and more?

It's hard not to remember this tournament for the greatness of those opening rounds:

• Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh hitting not just one but two shots to essentially ice games against UNLV and top-ranked Kansas in Oklahoma City.

• The finish of the Michigan State-Maryland second-round game in Spokane and its frenetic final 20 seconds. And let's not forget Michigan State escaping against New Mexico State two nights before.

• Murray State's Danero Thomas' buzzer-beater to knock out Vanderbilt in the upset that everyone either picked or claims they picked.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWith 11 Final Fours now under his belt, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski exudes confidence.

• BYU's Jimmer Fredette pouring in 37 points in a thrilling double-overtime victory over Florida in the first round in Oklahoma City.

• No. 14 Ohio stunning No. 3 Georgetown by 14 points in a game that is still surreal to consider when pondering the domination by the ninth-place MAC school over the Big East tournament runner-up.

Ishmael Smith's buzzer-beater for Wake Forest that knocked out Texas and mercifully end the Longhorns' disastrous 2010 portion of their schedule.

• Cornell blasting past Temple and Wisconsin and into the Sweet 16 for the first time in Big Red history.

• Purdue's Chris Kramer going to the basket to beat Texas A&M and send the Boilermakers, sans Robbie Hummel, to an improbable Sweet 16.

• Robert Morris not being pleased with the late-game calls in missing out on a regulation win over Villanova, and then losing to the Cats in overtime in the first round.

Omar Samhan's dominating performances for Saint Mary's in upsetting Richmond and Villanova en route to the Sweet 16.

Or maybe you'll take with you the road to the Final Four that included:

• A magnificent double-overtime game between Kansas State and Xavier that goes down as one of the finest we've seen. The 101-96 win by K-State reminded me in some ways of those classic Gonzaga-Arizona or Illinois-Arizona games from previous tournaments. You didn't want this one to end.

• Butler stunning top-ranked Syracuse in the West. That's still hard to fathom.

• Michigan State beating Tennessee on a free throw by Raymar Morgan with a second left.

• Cornell opening up a 10-2 lead on Kentucky in the Sweet 16, only to get smashed by a 30-6 run to end the first half.

• Kentucky missing 28 straight 3s at one point against Cornell and West Virginia, and the Mountaineers being up by two at the half without making a 2-point basket in their Elite Eight victory over Kentucky.

That's good stuff so far. No one seems to be whining about who wasn't in the field, that's for sure. Seeding the tournament was certainly a debatable point. Selections weren't. And the excitement of this 65-team event, one that shouldn't expand beyond maybe 68 in years to come, hasn't disappointed. Will the Final Four continue the trend? Let's hope so:

East Regional Champion

No. 2 West Virginia (31-6, 13-5, tied for second in the Big East)

Tourney run: West Virginia had little trouble dispatching No. 15 Morgan State in the first round in Buffalo, 77-50. No. 9 Missouri was a bit pesky in the second round but was unable to dictate the tempo, for the most part, in its 68-59 loss to the Mountaineers. Two days before West Virginia's Sweet 16 game against No. 11 seed Washington in Syracuse, N.Y., point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant broke his right foot in practice. That was supposed to be the story of the night, but it didn't matter in a grinder of a game, with the Mountaineers winning an ugly affair 69-56. And then there was Kentucky on Saturday in the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers made eight field goals in the first half -- all 3s. UK was crushing the Mountaineers on the boards, but had 10 turnovers in the first half. Kentucky would shoot 4-of-32 on 3-pointers and watch as point guard Joe Mazzulla sliced through its defense in West Virginia's convincing 73-66 victory.

Early-season memory: I've known coach Bob Huggins for nearly 20 years. He has about as dry a wit as anyone. He loves to dish out zingers. He does it in a low voice, with a sly grin and with timely delivery. At a dinner I was emceeing for the 76 Classic tournament at Disneyland, I introduced the other seven coaches and, for some reason, forgot to mention Huggins. He quickly reminded me of that as soon as the event ended. He quickly reminded me of that as soon as the Thanksgiving dinner ended. He still didn't let me live that one down as he won the East Regional in Syracuse. What was interesting about the Mountaineers back then was how they were trying to figure out if Devin Ebanks could be a major factor early in the season after missing the first three games for unspecified reasons and whether Mazzulla was healthy enough to be a factor. Ebanks became a defensive stopper, and by late in the season Mazzulla was clearly an invaluable asset.

[+] EnlargeDa'Sean Butler
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWith the game on the line, Da'Sean Butler has been money for WVU.

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• Big Shot Butler: Senior forward Da'Sean Butler has had quite a career at West Virginia. He beat Marquette with a buzzer-beater on Dec. 29 to tip off the home Big East schedule. He knocked off Villanova with a shot in overtime on March 6 to end the regular season, and then he hit buzzer-beaters to beat Cincinnati in the Big East tournament quarterfinals and Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game. If a WVU game is on the line in Indianapolis, Butler will be the man to take the shot.

• The Bryant foot: Bryant's injury was much ado about nothing in Syracuse. The Mountaineers missed his presence but they didn't need him to beat Washington or Kentucky. Now there is a chance Bryant will return for the national semifinal against Duke on Saturday. Bryant is getting a specialized shoe made for his right foot to help alleviate pain. If he can practice, then he'll likely get a shot to participate.

• Mazzulla: He nursed a surgically repaired shoulder all season and finally felt like he had free range of motion about a month ago. And as his confidence grew, so too did Mazzulla's ability to make key buckets and timely passes. His 17 points in 30 minutes against Kentucky has to go down as one of the best performances by any Mountaineer this season.

Deniz Kilicli: Throughout the preseason, Huggins said Kilicli would be a factor for his team. But the Turkish center was suspended for the first 20 games. Since he arrived 14 games ago, Kilicli has made the most of his minutes. He is averaging 3.4 points and about a rebound in just 6.6 minutes per game. Huggins uses him in spot situations, but Kilicli does come into the game, bang and aggressively look for the offensive putback. He'll be major bench strength for the Mountaineers against Duke's size.

• The 1-3-1: Huggins has used John Beilein's leftover zone to perfection this season. It was a major problem for Kentucky on Saturday and could cause fits for Duke in Indy. Huggins mixes defenses, but it's amazing to see how much he has embraced a defense the Mountaineers are comfortable running from the previous staff.

Rising star: Kevin Jones. So much is made, and rightfully so, about Butler and Ebanks. But Jones was the guy this season who seemed to cause so many matchup problems for opposing teams. Jones could hit the 3-pointer when teams weren't keying on him and could also score in the post. Jones wasn't much of a headline-grabber when he arrived, and at times he has been overshadowed by Butler and Ebanks, but Jones is a stud and needs to get his due.

Advantage: Huggs and the passion of a people. Huggins has professed his love for the state of West Virginia throughout the run to the Final Four. He has waxed poetically about the game being piped into the mines in West Virginia. He seems genuine about how much this run means to the people, a state in which he is beloved and returns the affection. This is Huggins' cause in Indy. A year ago, Michigan State was able to ride the depressed auto industry into rallying the people to back the Spartans. Huggins has an entire populous in West Virginia behind him in his attempt to deliver good news -- in the form of a title -- to a state that doesn't always receive much positive press nationally.

Midwest Regional Champion

No. 5 Michigan State (28-8, 14-4, tied for first in Big Ten)

Tourney run: The Spartans rode the line of defeat more than any other Final Four entrant. Michigan State beat No. 12 New Mexico State in the first round in Spokane 70-67 as NMSU coach Marvin Menzies questioned a lane-violation call against the Aggies on a critical late free throw. Michigan State's win over No. 4 Maryland two days later should go down as one of the best games of this tournament and easily the most exciting exchange by two teams in the final 20 seconds. Terps guard Greivis Vasquez exhilarated the crowd with a short runner at one end before Spartans guard Korie Lucious buried a 3-pointer to win the game on a pass from Draymond Green across the top of the key that got to Lucious only because teammate Delvon Roe ducked at the last second. Lucious replaced Kalin Lucas in the game after Lucas went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Spartans survived No. 9 seed Northern Iowa in a gritty game in the Sweet 16, 59-52, and then beat 6-seed Tennessee in Houston on Sunday when Raymar Morgan converted a free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining for a 70-69 win. That's four wins decided by a total of 13 points. Since the field expanded in 1985, no Final Four team has had that small of a margin of victory in its first four games.

Preseason memory: At the Breslin Center in late October, Lucas told me that he would love to repeat what Mateen Cleaves did in 1999 and 2000. He looked up at the banners and saw the Final Four in '99 and the championship banner in '00. Cleaves was on both teams. Lucas led the Spartans to the championship game a year ago in Detroit. He won't have a chance to play in the Final Four, but he will still be an instrumental member of the locker room and the pregame prep.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Elsa/Getty ImagesTom Izzo is having a great time on this improbable ride.

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• Lucas out: Lucas' injuries have been, perhaps, the top storyline for the Spartans. He sprained his ankle against Wisconsin in Madison on Feb. 2. MSU lost that game and then the next two at Illinois and to Purdue, the latter with Lucas playing 29 minutes, but he was clearly not the same player he had been before the sprain. His injury came at a time when it looked like the Spartans might run away with the Big Ten. His postseason injury has also reshaped this squad. The Spartans suddenly became the underdog against Northern Iowa, at least in perception. Yet, given the prep time, MSU coach Tom Izzo found a way to handle the Panthers and snuff out the Cinderella story.

• Big-game misses: The Spartans were constantly searching for healthy bodies, the right combinations and consistent players during various stretches this season. What was rare for an Izzo-coached team was how the Spartans couldn't win big games prior to the NCAAs. Michigan State did beat Gonzaga at home in November, but following that it lost to Florida in New Jersey, at North Carolina, at Texas and at home to Ohio State when winning the Big Ten title outright was still within reach.

• Balance: Despite all the warts, the Spartans have consistently found a way to win key games at the right times to survive and advance. This team was supposed to have star potential yet due to injuries and inconsistencies never could develop headline performers outside of Lucas.

Rising star: If there is one player who has surpassed expectations, it's sophomore forward Draymond Green. Izzo constantly talked in the preseason about missing Goran Suton and the need for a big man to play well. Green has done that for the Spartans. He has been huge when needed and he clearly has the team's ear; he's constantly chirping to keep everyone focused on the task at hand. He's also extremely skilled, with the ability to score facing the basket and in the post. After the Spartans lost the title game to North Carolina last April, he was the one player who told his teammates they could be back in the Final Four again, just as the Tar Heels had done in their title season.

Advantage: Izzo. Seriously now, can we start to push Izzo's Hall of Fame campaign? What he has done with this squad is simply amazing. The Midwest was supposed to be the most brutal bracket, and to get through you needed a tough squad and a determined coach. Who else but Izzo and the Spartans? This is his sixth Final Four and easily his most rewarding with a depleted crew. Watch Izzo at the end of these NCAA games and he's almost in disbelief that his team has advanced yet another round. Two more and the Spartans will reach their intended preseason goal all along, a path hardly expected by anyone in the program for most of the season.

South Regional Champion

No. 1 Duke (33-5, 13-3, tied for first in the ACC)

Tourney run: Ripping the South Regional was the easy thing to do when the bracket was announced on Selection Sunday. The Blue Devils had the weakest No. 2 seed of any region and appeared to have a clear path to Indianapolis. It wasn't completely without a bump, but Duke did get to the Final Four without much resistance. Does that mean the road was clear of any obstacles or was it because the Blue Devils were simply better than the rest and are playing as well as any team in the tournament? Duke took out No. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the first round rather handily, 73-44. Cal put up a fight for a few minutes before retreating in its 68-53 loss in Jacksonville. The Purdue score wasn't as wide as it would appear. Duke beat back the fourth-seeded Boilermakers 70-57, but Purdue made this a grinder until the latter stages of the game. No. 3 Baylor pushed Duke plenty, but the Blue Devils put together a string of key buckets late from Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer and free throws from Kyle Singler to ice the Bears 78-71 in the Elite Eight on Sunday in Houston.

Preseason memory: Prior to practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium, coach Mike Krzyzewski talked about how much different this team would be compared to previous seasons. He said the Blue Devils wouldn't be able to extend their press as they had been able to do in the past. But he spoke confidently of the size, length and strength of the frontcourt and how much of a different look the Blue Devils would have this season. That became the blueprint for this squad. They were tough to deal with throughout the season up front defensively because of that size and offensive rebounding.

[+] EnlargeJon Scheyer
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJon Scheyer has averaged nearly 39 minutes of playing time the past three games.

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• Road woes: Early in the season, the easy thing to pick apart was Duke's home versus road stats. The Blue Devils were decidedly better at Cameron in shooting, free throw attempts, field goals and wins. Duke didn't lose at home. The Blue Devils lost at Wisconsin, at Georgia Tech, at NC State, at Georgetown and at Maryland. But there were some glimmers of hope, such as winning at Clemson, gutting out a win at Boston College and at North Carolina in consecutive road games, and then winning games at Miami and at Virginia. The loss at Maryland was acceptable. But following the Georgetown loss, there was a shift with this squad. The early-season storyline became moot.

• The Big Three: Scheyer, Smith and Singler can be a dominant threesome. Duke loaded up on these three for minutes, points and overall production. For months the chatter was that they would wear down. It was an easy thing to dissect. But the Blue Devils haven't wilted in the tournament and now they're heading to Indy.

Brian Zoubek: No longer simply the tall guy, Zoubek became a serious player. He had previous injury issues that seemed to derail his progress. But Zoubek was the defensive presence throughout the season that the Blue Devils desperately needed to be a major factor in the national chase. Watching him bark at his teammates in an encouraging way Sunday in the win against Baylor, you could see just how much his leadership has meant to this team.

• Tragedy: No one will really know what it's like to walk in Andre Dawkins' shoes. His sister Lacey was killed in a car accident earlier this season. Dawkins got to campus a year earlier than expected after graduating high school last summer. He was supposed to be a vital piece of the Blue Devils' perimeter. Dawkins has had his moments when he has been a key contributor, but expecting anything from him this season should be a bonus. His heart must be heavy, and just being on the court and with the team is a monumental achievement while dealing with immense grief.

Rising stars: Mason and Miles Plumlee. The Plumlee brothers continue to be quite a pair of reserve forwards who change the game when they enter. Think about how rare it is for a team to have that kind of length and rebounding potential coming off the bench. Duke is one of the tallest teams in the country this season, and it's not like that's going to change in the Final Four. No other team will have its size inside.

Advantage: Clearly, three of the four coaches enter the Final Four without hesitation about the task at hand. Three of the four have been in this event and two of three have won titles. But there is a confidence that Krzyzewski exudes with his Duke players that is hard to match. The Blue Devils have been knocked down throughout the season as a team that really isn't as good as its ranking. Everyone seems to be waiting for Duke to lose in the tourney. Well, the Devils haven't. Coach K gets a lot of credit for infusing his club with the confident attitude that has driven them to this stage.

West Regional Champion

No. 5 Butler (32-4, 18-0, first in Horizon League)

Tourney run: Fools. Well, fool. That was me, who for some reason didn't think this No. 5 Butler team would handle No. 12 UTEP in a first-round NCAA tournament game. It wasn't close in the second half after the Bulldogs trailed by six at the break. Butler outscored UTEP 50-26 in the second half and won 77-59 in San Jose. I was a believer in the Bulldogs in the second round, but it took a gutty Gordon Hayward defensive dive to prevent a last-possession shot by 13-seed Murray State in the second round to win 54-52. Syracuse posed the next mountain to climb for the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 in Salt Lake City. Butler looked like it had met its match before Syracuse sort of self-destructed against Butler's defense. Instead of SU's zone, it was Butler's man-to-man that had the Orange flustered, and they lost 63-59. Butler then faced Kansas State, a tough 2-seed, in the Elite Eight. But the Bulldogs once again made the plays at the end in their 63-56 victory over the Wildcats. Hayward was terrific in scoring 22 points, and the defense on the perimeter by Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley was lockdown tight when the game mattered most.

Early-season memory: I didn't visit with Butler prior to the season, but I was with the Bulldogs in Anaheim at the 76 Classic. What I remember most about this squad that week in November was how even-tempered coach Brad Stevens was. I'm not sure I've seen another coach so cerebral and so intense in his preparation, yet so seemingly relaxed and unmoved by his current situation. The Bulldogs had a preseason top-15 ranking at the time yet weren't feeling any added expectation. He wanted the Bulldogs to relish the attention, welcoming the newfound flattery that came with a respectful standing in the poll. But he never let it consume them. He put together a daunting nonconference schedule and the Bulldogs never got worn down by the stress of the schedule. He challenged them early with road games at Northwestern, Evansville, in Anaheim for three, at Ball State, in New York against Georgetown and at UAB -- the team's last loss on Dec. 22. Yet Stevens never complained about how tough a slate this would be for his team.

[+] EnlargeShelvin Mack
Frank Victores/US PresswireShelvin Mack leads an underrated Butler backcourt.

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• Hometown team: Last June, I was in Colorado Springs for the USA Basketball trials and asked Purdue players Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson about playing at "home" in the Final Four in Indianapolis. Hayward and Shelvin Mack of Butler were there too, and when I talked to them I never asked about their possibly hosting the Final Four in Indy. Oops. Even if the Bulldogs had been asked, they are cut from the Stevens' cloth and would not have discussed anything too far ahead. The Final Four is on a bizarre streak of late. Michigan State saved the Final Four by hosting it in Detroit last season. Indy is always a great host because of its love of hoops, and the NCAA's headquarters are a few blocks away from the arena. Having Butler as the host school while also playing in the event is unprecedented.

Matt Howard's foul problems: Early in the season, Howard couldn't stay out of foul trouble. The junior forward fouled out of four straight games and then fouled out of three more, ending at UAB on Dec. 22. Howard has still had some foul issues but he has been staying on the court longer, which has benefited the Bulldogs. His decision-making about when to challenge shots has improved. His ability to stay on the court has been a must for Butler's survival.

• The streak: Butler hasn't lost since the road defeat at UAB. That means the Bulldogs haven't lost in 2010, and the streak is at 24 games and counting. That streak includes a four-game road trip in the Horizon League, a home BracketBusters win over Siena, and NCAA wins over Syracuse and Kansas State.

• The defense: Butler's man-to-man defense has been one of the best all season. The Bulldogs allowed an average of 59.6 points a game. Butler has some issues scoring, but the ability to finish plays in games throughout the season has led them to the winner's circle almost every time.

• The role players: Veasley, Nored, Zach Hahn, Shawn Vanzant and Avery Jukes have helped this team win games. The balance Stevens has professed has been consistent throughout the season. He never lets these players feel second-class.

Rising star: Gordon Hayward. If you don't know him, you better familiarize yourself. A 6-foot-9 sophomore, Hayward is a lock for the first round of the NBA draft whenever he declares and is steadily moving up the draft charts. I wouldn't be surprised if he pushed deep into the lottery. He's a stud. His basketball IQ is off the charts. His desire is at a high. His improvement in his overall basketball skills continues to be impressive. Hayward has steadily increased his defensive ability, as well. Butler wouldn't be here if it didn't have at least one pro on its roster. The Bulldogs do with Hayward -- and possibly Mack, whose strength at the guard spot reminds many of a Chauncey Billups-type guard.

Advantage: Are there distractions for the Bulldogs? Sure. But there are plenty of advantages to playing at home this week, such as being able to practice at Hinkle Fieldhouse, sleep in the dorms and deal with a regular life instead of sitting around idle in hotel rooms. Butler can have a regular routine that the other teams won't this week. That might not mean a win on Saturday or, if Butler beats Michigan State, on Monday. But it's hard to debate how much of an advantage Butler will have by being able to stay home. Can you imagine if the Bulldogs were to win Saturday and Monday? There would be no need to wait until Tuesday afternoon to arrive back in the city to display the trophy. Stevens and Co. could leave Lucas Oil Stadium and march down to campus with the trophy up high.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com