Experts' roundtable debates title game
What does Butler have to do to pull off the upset?
Eamonn Brennan: Stop Duke's offense. It sounds simple, but it's what Butler has done to seemingly superior teams all tournament, and Duke is a seemingly superior team. Duke is coming off its best offensive performance of the NCAA tournament. Butler has advanced on the strength of its defense. If Butler can shut down the big three and keep Duke off the offensive boards, I think the Bulldogs win.
Pat Forde: Butler must play the game at its pace, successfully chase shooters around all those solid Duke screens, and hold its own on the glass. Gordon Hayward has to play like the best guy on the floor. And it is vital for Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard to be OK physically.
Andy Katz: The Bulldogs must, I mean must, rebound with the Blue Devils. I have to disagree with Gordon Hayward when he said not having Matt Howard won't faze the Bulldogs. I'm not sold on Avery Jukes and Andrew Smith being able to contain Duke's bigs. Rebounding isn't just about height. We know that. But the Bulldogs need some help against Duke's frontcourt.
Dana O'Neil: The Bulldogs need to do what they've done all season: Play defense. The last thing Butler can afford to do is to try to trade buckets with the Blue Devils or allow Duke to get out in transition. They need to get hands in the faces of Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith and be disruptive by forcing turnovers. Duke has not been great at limiting miscues this season, and if Butler can create easy points off turnovers, it can win this game.
Mark Schlabach: Butler needs to shoot the basketball better than it did against Michigan State and give Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack some help. If the Bulldogs can defend the perimeter and play defense like they've played defense the past two weeks, they'll have a chance to upset the Blue Devils. But Willie Veasley or Matt Howard or someone else will have to help the Bulldogs on the offensive end.
Will the home crowd have any effect?
Brennan: I doubt it. For as good as Butler fans have been, the Final Four is still the Final Four, and a good portion of those 73,000 seats will be taken up by people who bought the tickets long before they knew the matchup. That said, I think the hometown fervor here is palpable. Butler wins, and a mess ensues. That can't be discounted.
Forde: Home crowd can lift the Bulldogs, but isn't likely to rattle the Blue Devils.
Katz: Yes, if Butler asserts itself in key moments: the outset of the game, end of the half, start of the second half and close of the game. If Duke can build a double-digit lead early and keep Butler at arm's length then any advantage from the crowd will be nullified. Duke has a significant fan contingent. But so too did West Virginia and Michigan State. We'll have to see if the Butler fans gobble up the extra tickets to make it a dominating Bulldog crowd.
O'Neil: I don't think so. I think it will amp up the atmosphere and certainly fuel Butler, but in terms of intimidating Duke? Not buying it. The Blue Devils maybe haven't played in front of bigger crowds, but they've played in front of more hostile crowds (Maryland, anyone?). They know very few people outside their own alumni base will be rooting for them tonight, and I actually think they're enjoying that a little bit.
Schlabach: I would be stunned if it didn't. The Bulldogs are the first team since UCLA in 1972 to play in the Final Four in their hometown, and they'll be the sentimental favorite across the country. But being Public Enemy No. 1 is nothing new for Duke, which seems to get booed every time it takes the floor away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils have surely developed pretty thick skins by now.
Who is the X factor for Duke?
Brennan: Brian Zoubek. That feels weird to write, but it's true. Zoubek is the tallest, most physical player in this game. If he dominates the offensive boards the way he has throughout the tournament, it's hard to see Butler match up.
Forde: The X factor for Duke is Mason Plumlee, the most athletic of Mike Krzyzewski's four big men. He could be this year's Ed Davis -- ready to end his freshman year with an exclamation point in the title game.
Katz: I'm still going with the Z-man. Brian Zoubek has been the difference for the Blue Devils from the midseason on through the NCAA tournament. If he can offensive-rebound, change shots and be an overall presence, then the Blue Devils win, and this team will have created quite a legacy at Duke. It will be remembered as a team with great character, toughness and a physical side that prevailed in March and early April.
O'Neil: Brian Zoubek isn't likely to lead Duke in scoring, but the way the Blue Devils' big man plays against Butler will be critical. He's averaging 10 rebounds per game in this NCAA tournament, and against an undersized Butler team should be able to really work the boards. But more than rebounding, Zoubek's ability to set bone-crushing screens will be equally important. Butler is a savvy defensive team that switches well and offers great help defense, but it can't run through Zoubek. If he can screen for his shooters, Butler could be in trouble.
Schlabach: Brian Zoubek. If you had told me in November that Zoubek would be the difference between the Blue Devils winning a national championship and not winning a title I would have checked you into rehab. But the 7-foot-1 senior gives Duke a sizable advantage in the paint against the Bulldogs, who don't start a player taller than 6-9. Zoubek averages 5.5 points and 7.7 rebounds and has pulled down 10 rebounds or more in three of five NCAA tournament games.
Who is the X factor for Butler?
Brennan: Gordon Hayward. This also feels weird to write, because, duh, Hayward is a great player who everyone knows about; this isn't exactly trenchant insight on my part. At the same time, Hayward will need to score and rebound and also contain Kyle Singler, who has been on a tear since the beginning of the ACC tournament. If he can do that, Butler's guards can pick up the rest of the slack. It's a tall task, to say the least.
Forde: The X factor for Butler is Avery Jukes, who must play big inside, especially if Matt Howard is at all slowed or sidelined by the blow to the head he took against Michigan State.
Katz: Ronald Nored. He was the defensive player of the year in the Horizon League. He'll have to be something special for Butler to pull off the historic win. If Nored is on Scheyer or Smith he'll need to lock them down. West Virginia couldn't play catch-up with Duke because of the 3-point shot. The Blue Devils moved the ball well and the Mountaineers couldn't find the open shooters. Nored has to be the stopgap to prevent that happening.
O'Neil: I'd say the biggest X factor is the biggest question mark, Matt Howard. If the concussed Howard can't go, the matchups become incredibly difficult for the Bulldogs. But if he does play, Howard cannot get into foul trouble against a deep Duke frontcourt. The junior has fouled out of nine games this season and has a foolish tendency to pick up ticky-tack fouls, rendering him useless from the bench. Butler needs his 6-8 frame on the court.Schlabach: Forward Matt Howard. The junior from Connersville, Ind., has been plagued by foul trouble throughout the NCAA tournament, and he played sparingly in the second half against Michigan State after hitting his head in the second half of the national semifinals. Howard doesn't have the bulk to contend with Zoubek, but he's athletic enough to score points in the paint. If Howard can't play, Butler will have to rely on freshman Andrew Smith to be its low-post presence.
Who wins and why?
Brennan: My burgeoning relationship (and by "burgeoning" I mean I saw a dog in the press room and thought he was a sweetheart, and definitely way cooler than Uga) with Blue II would say Butler. Ah, but the heart says one thing and the head says another. I think Duke wins, only because of its size. Matt Howard will get into foul trouble. It's going to happen. Once it does, Duke should be able to control the glass easily, get buckets on the interior and do what it did to West Virginia on Saturday night even if the offense isn't quite that crazily efficient. Butler is an incredible, legendary story, and you have to have a heart of stone to root against them. (Even if I was a Duke fan, I might be having a Rocky-Drago moment right now.) But I think Duke wins, anticlimactic though it may be.
Forde: Butler wins 62-60 when Hayward pulls a Bobby Plump and hits the winning shot in the final seconds. Why? Because truth has been stranger than fiction this NCAA tournament.
Katz: Duke wins because of the uncertainty of Howard, the ability to rebound better off the offensive glass and the likelihood that Duke can score more easily than Butler and in bunches, too. Duke has the tendency to go on runs that stretch the game more than Butler does. That's what my mind says, but my heart wants to see an iconic story receive a winning conclusion of a Butler Bulldogs team that refused to lose in 2010.
O'Neil: I think Butler pulls the single greatest stunner in NCAA tournament history. The Bulldogs' quick hands will make it hard for Duke to set up in its half-court offense, and Butler's savvy defense won't allow the Blue Devils to get any easy shots. I know how well Duke shot the ball against West Virginia, but that's more exception than rule. This isn't ordinarily a great shooting team, and I suspect the Devils won't be able to match that offensive firepower. Mix in the talent of Gordon Hayward, whom I suspect will be guarded by Kyle Singler, and I see Butler marching the five miles down the street with trophy in hand.
Schlabach: I'm probably guessing more with my heart than my mind, but I think Butler finds a way to win a close game. The Blue Devils won't shoot the ball as well as they did in their rout of West Virginia in the national semifinals. The Bulldogs won't allow them to have as many open looks on the perimeter, and guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley will take away two-thirds of Duke's three-headed monster. Gordon Hayward will hit big shots down the stretch, and Butler will march the trophy from Lucas Oil Stadium to its campus in north Indianapolis.