Monday, April 5, 2010

Size Doesn't Matter

I've seen some people suggest that Duke's size advantage could prove consequential in tonight's game, particularly on the glass. I don't really agree.

In the piece linked bleow, Eamon Brennan offers us a bit of this CW:
2. Size matters. Once the ball is tipped, the pregame storylines will fade away, and what you see on the court will matter most. What, exactly, will you see? You'll see the tallest Duke team of coach Mike Krzyzewski's career take on a team with three players in its rotation -- one of which, Matt Howard, has been in foul trouble for much of this tournament and might not play in the first place; more on that below -- that stand 6-foot-8 or taller. The other two are Gordon Hayward and Avery Jukes, both are capable rebounders, but neither have the size to match up with Brian Zoubek, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, and the brothers Plumlee on the interior. Hayward will likely spend much of his time harassing Singler. Butler has given up size before in this tournament, but never this sort of size, and never to a team that banged the offensive rebounds quite so hard. Can the Bulldogs stand up to that test?
This last part is just factually untrue. Yes, Duke is a great offensive rebounding team, but so are Kansas State and Michigan State -- all three are ranked in the top 10 in Division I in offensive rebounding percentage. The Wildcats rebound 40.4% of the shots they misses, and the Spartans 39.7%.

But here's the thing. Butler is a great defensive rebounding team (14th in the country), and they kept Kansas State and Michigan State off the boards, holding them to 28.9% and 25.0% offensive rebounding percentages. Those would be very solid numbers against any team, but they're simply outstanding against teams like Kansas State and Michigan State. It was K-State's worst offensive rebounding percentage of the year and MSU's second worst.

In short, the Bulldogs have sufficient size and tenacity to keep Duke from dominating the game via the offensive glass. What about rebounding on the other end of the floor? Well, first, Duke is a fairly mediocre defensive-rebounding team, but even if their size advantage makes them better in this game -- so what? Butler doesn't rely on offensive rebounding the way Duke does. They would rather run back on defense to prevent easy transition buckets than crash the glass, and they've managed to win 24 straight games with a very low offensive rebounding percentage.

The key point here is that Butler has the tools to take away a key part of Duke's offensive game -- offensive rebounding -- while Duke's potential advantage in defensive rebounding won't do much to contain Butler's strengths. Abstract commentary about Duke's rebounding advantage (offered in such crude terms as +/- rebounding per game - sorry, Jay) unmoored from this context is not really helpful.

But are there other ways in which Duke's size advantage might help them? Perhaps, but not in a way that is likely to prove decisive. Comparatively speaking, Duke a small percentage of its points from two-point shots. They have a relatively poor 2-point field goal percentage, and they don't sport any meaningful low post threats. Instead, the Blue Devils rely heavily on three-point shooting, dribble penetration, and getting to the free throw line. With the exception of the somewhat anomalous Cal game, that's proven to be the case in the Tournament. Check the box scores.

The key for Butler will therefore be perimeter defense: (1) containing Smith, Scheyer, and Singler off the dribble without overhelping, and (2) staying close to, and aggressively closing out on, three-point shooters. If Duke shoots 13-for-25 or 11-for-23 from 3 (as in their last two games), Butler will likely be in trouble.

1 Samuel 17:49

And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and slung it. And it struck the Philistine on the head and he fell to the ground.

Be cynical if you want, but you'll be the only one

Eamon Brennan with a preview of tonight's game:
In 2010, it's easy for a sports fan to be jaded. In our modern world, where seemingly inconsequential sports contests are drowned by layer upon layer of analysis, fun storylines are uncovered, chewed up, spit out, and discarded atop so many others the minute we grow tired of them. It's just how it works.

But Butler's miracle run to the precipice of sporting history is one that will stand the test of time. You don't need me to reiterate how large the gulf is between Duke and Butler when it comes to resources, tradition, and profile. What's interesting about Butler's run, though, is that it would be just as awe-inspiring if the Bulldogs were playing West Virginia or Baylor. A mid-major team from Indiana with a bunch of under-recruited, disrespected players -- which just so happens to play its home games in a historic arena that provided the backdrop for the most famous basketball upset of all-time and the film ("Hoosiers") that lionized it -- playing for its first NCAA title in its basketball-obsessed hometown? Come on. Be cynical if you want, but you'll be the only one. The whole thing is just too cool.
I quibble with a substantive point or two -- particularly the implications regarding Butler's size/rebounding disadvantage -- but on the whole, a solid preview piece.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented."

Pat Forde with a follow up on last week's column, in which he steals my closing line from the post below. I'm willing to forgive it, though, because as usual, Forde has hit the nail on the head in terms of the historic nature of what will be one of the most compelling championship games ever:
Well, of course. This is the only way it could end.

The most dramatic, theatric and in some ways therapeutic NCAA tournament in many years -- maybe ever -- has to come down to this. By all that is hoops holy, it has to end with an overdog-underdog matchup of epic proportion.

Duke versus Butler for the national championship. C'mon. This is better than the movies -- and you know which movie I'm referring to.

. . .

From a program-imbalance standpoint, 1979 comes to mind. Indiana State of the Missouri Valley Conference against Michigan State of the Big Ten. But the Sycamores had Larry Bird and were an undefeated No. 1 seed. The Spartans, with Magic Johnson, were a six-loss No. 2 seed.

So feel free to flip back, back, back through the record books and find the contrast that strikes you best. Texas Western-Kentucky, 1966? Loyola Chicago-Cincinnati, 1963? Knock yourself out.

All I know is that this gives us a lot to talk about between now and 9 p.m. ET on Monday. And once the game starts, the Blue Devils officially are on notice:

Don't get caught watching the paint dry.
Certainly it is hard to beat Texas Western - Kentucky, which had superpower-underdog implications that went well beyond the basketball court. But Butler versus Duke in Indianapolis is nonetheless one of the greatest games that anyone, Shooter Flatch included, could invent for the First Monday Night in April. I can't wait to see how the script ends.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Let's win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here."

Pat Forde had your obligatory Hickory Huskers / Butler Bulldogs comparison column last week, but with the Bulldogs now playing on the First Monday Night in April, expect this diehard Hoosiers (and Hoosiers) fan to keep the allusions coming fast and furious.

For anyone who's seen arguably the best sports movie of all time, the coincidences are, of course, eerie. The championship game in the movie was played at Butler's real-life legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse, Jimmy Chitwood's character was based on a real-life Butler legend, and now in their own hometown of Indianapolis, the anonymous mid-major has a chance to, in the timeless words of Merle Webb, "win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here."

Don't get caught watching the paint dry, boys.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


As forlorn as Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen were after K-State just coughed up their chance at a Final Four, they really have only their decisionmaking to blame. It was unbelievably aggravating to watch the dynamic K-State guards ignore big man Curtis Kelly for the entire second half. Particularly damning was one possession where Kelly realized Gordon Hayward, who couldn't handle him in the post, was on him down low. Kelly screamed for the left side side to be cleared out, which, for once, it was; sealed off Hayward on the low left block effectively; and begged for the ball from Clemente on the left wing. Clemente promptly....passed all the way to the right corner for a bad shot. What?!?

The second half was a maddening progression for any K-State supporter to watch, with missed layup followed by bad shot followed by defensive lapse. I have nothing but admiration for the game the Wildcats played on Thursday night, there are few college basketball games in history that will ever top it. And today you could understand Pullen and Clemente trying to put a struggling team on their backs. But their failure to keep feeding their only consistent offense in the second half doomed their comeback attempt, and their succession of clanged jumpers and turnovers from over-dribbling should sting for a long time.

All that said, an absolute standing ovation to Butler for poise and execution down the stretch. Coach Brad Stevens has made this team into a high-basketball-IQ force in the clutch, with tremendous baskets by Gordon Hayward and Ronald Nored down the stretch cinching a homecoming for the ages for the Bulldogs. As I said to Shankar last week, when you're having trouble picking a tourney game, go with basketball IQ, and I dare say the number of clutch situations in this tourney has proved me right. Of course, I picked K-State to the Final Four over...Syracuse. Oh well.

I'm officially rooting for Butler to win it all. As a Memphis fan, the prospect of a Final Four with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Duke looms as a possibility too horrifying to contemplate....As for now...GO MOUNTAINEERS!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Five more minutes

If for some unknown reason you are reading this blog, but do not have your television on, TURN IT ON. In a tournament full of incredible games, the knockdown, dragout war between Kansas State and Xavier lands firmly at the top of the heap.

And it's not even over.

Oh, and Gus Johnson is calling it.