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April 5, 2010
Back and Forth
Butler vs. Duke

by John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy

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John Gasaway: Greetings, everyone, to a spirited John-Ken discussion on the final game of the season. Amazing, isn't it? Seems like just yesterday that we were talking about North Carolina taking on Florida International. And now here we are: Butler vs. Duke. Ken, before we get into the previewy stuff, let's talk about the Bulldogs making it here. Exactly how end-of-the-world zany is that, did you see it all coming, and if so how'd I miss that post?

Ken Pomeroy: Yes, I did! I mean, wait a second, this is the most outrageous thing to happen in college hoops over the past month. Even more crazy than Houston winning the Conference USA tournament. Log5 said Butler has a 1.5 percent shot of making the title game. But hey, they were actually the second-most likely 5-seed to get here (behind Temple), so there!

John: Well, with all due respect to UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State, I'm glad the Bulldogs are here, if only to show it can be done and the major-conference focus can be a myopia. Still, this Butler run has not been for the faint of heart. The easy first-round win against the Miners aside, Brad Stevens' team has won their last four games by a total of 15 points. Could you envision a fifth consecutive tight game for these guys?

Ken: I can, if only because this game figures to be one of the slower championship games we've seen in some time. A combination of a sub-60 possession game and Butler's defense should keep the point total down. Did you know that the Bulldogs have held each of their last three opponents to their second-worst offensive game of the season in terms of points per possession? This defense is no fluke, and it will be fun to see how it handles the best offense in the land. The concern has to be whether Butler can score enough to give themselves a chance.

John: I'll be interested to see if the slower-paced tournament team is able to control the tempo. And by that I'm of course referring to Duke, which has averaged just 60 possessions per game in their tournament run. (Conversely Butler's racing along at a go-go 62.) The Blue Devils' win over West Virginia was, along with Old Dominion's win over Notre Dame, the slowest game in this here Dance. Anyway, the Bulldogs are about to receive their fourth consecutive tough test on their defensive glass. Have you been as impressed as I've been with Brian Zoubek during the tournament? I mean, he's now playing entire possessions without being called for a foul! What's that all about?

Ken: Big Z is certainly going out in style. He was even an offensive threat against WVU on an occasion or two after setting screens. He's revolutionizing the role of offensive rebounding specialists. Grab the board and fire it to a three-point shooter. It's a different kind of an offense than I've ever seen because most good three-point shooting teams do not have a rebounding machine like Zoubek. It would be in Butler's best interest to get him back to his January ways of picking up enough whistles to have to sit for over half the game. Can Stevens make that happen?

John: Before I get to that question, I want to join the Zoubek love-fest. He's playing 55 percent of the minutes in the tournament, which puts him solidly in DeMarcus Cousins land, and his rebounding on both ends of the floor has been absurd. In the Dance the big guy's been getting 23 percent of Duke's misses and and 30 percent of the other team's. This is not the guy I saw for the first 3.5 seasons, I'm telling you.

As to whether Butler can get Zoubek into foul trouble, with my own two eyes I saw Brian "Draws Two Fouls During Player Intros" Zoubek play a first half entirely free of foul trouble against the Mountaineers. The Bulldogs best take care of the defensive glass, just as they did against the Spartans. In fact that might be Gordon Hayward's most important task...um, besides scoring enough points for his team to win. Can Hayward and Shelvin Mack get the ball through the hoop enough times on their own?

Ken: I have to admit that while I'm not in the crowd that thinks this is merely a coronation for Duke, Butler is going to have to get creative to score some points. I actually think Hayward could be the key here. If he gets significant minutes at the 5, then he should be able to get some open looks, much like John Flowers did for West Virginia when Zoubek had to guard him. Except that Hayward's much more dynamic than Flowers. Keeping Matt Howard on the bench, assuming he's healthy, would have some ramifications on the defensive end, but I could see the trade-off being worth it. Because at the other four spots, open perimeter shots are going to be hard to come by.

John: Agreed. I hope Howard's OK and that he has a speedy recovery, but one of the underrerported mysteries of this tournament has been why the 2009 Horizon POY has struggled so mightily (11-of-30 from the field in the tournament). When Howard's not getting to the foul line, he's much less effective on offense. Plus getting Zoubek the heck out of the paint could open up chances for backcuts and offensive boards. Of course, this is all completely irrelevant if Duke puts on another shooting display like the one against the Mountaineers. Put it this way: Duke shot better against West Virginia than they did against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Ken, short of an electric fence how can Stevens force Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, and Nolan Smith to shoot those twos that they struggle to make?

Ken: Butler is no Duke in terms of three-point defense, but they're still pretty good. This is where people might be overreacting a bit in going ga-ga over the Blue Devils. Duke has made half of its threes in the last two games and that's while taking 41% percent of their shots from there. They would figure to come down to earth against an average defense, much less the Nored/Mack/Veasley trio, which has a rich track record of keeping opposing perimeter players from taking threes, let alone making them. Again, it's not on Duke's level, but it's good, and I think folks should expect that the Blue Devils will have to do a lot more work inside the arc here. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict Duke doesn't hit 1.4 points per possession in this one.

John: And I will join you way out on that limb. Ronald Nored won't guard any one player (against MSU he switched between Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious). Also I see a 58-possession game with hardly any turnovers. (It's true!) Lastly I think it will be close yet again. Butler's offense isn't poetry in motion, goodness knows, but if they could score enough to win against the defensive likes of Syracuse and Kansas State, I fully expect that they can get enough points to keep things close against Duke. Any parting shots before I ask you one final question?

Ken: I think we've said everything there is to be said. What else could you possibly want to know?

John: In February your computer started saying that Duke was the best team in the country, this at a time when very few humans were saying such. If the Blue Devils win this game is your computer going to be impossible to work with? Is it already gloating in front of you just in case?

Ken: I keep it humble by reminding it about BYU or Wisconsin. Or Memphis from last season. Maybe the biggest lesson from the participants in the title game is that conference affiliation is overplayed in determining a team's strength. Both of these teams came from leagues that didn't get much respect, but in the end, that means less than we think.

John: Alas, alleged conference strength will always suck up vast amounts of oxygen. Anyway, if your computer gets out of line just tell it there's an iPad on the way. Farewell, perhaps, 65-team era, and catch you next time, Ken!

Ken: Don't leave your shoes on the court or anything, John. Later.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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