You can pick your own moment, but here's one: With less than eight minutes remaining in the East Regional final last Saturday night in Syracuse, Kentucky's flashy freshmen-soon-to-be millionaires were hanging on desperately against Big East tournament champion West Virginia, a punishing, willful team that grinds opponents into a fine powder. When the day started the Wildcats were the clear favorite to win the NCAA tournament among the remaining eight teams, but here they were, trailing by 10 points and very much on the ropes against an older, more urgent opponent. At stake was some semblance of traditional order in the sport.
John Wall, the best of coach John Calipari's presumptive one and dones, took a halting, nervous three-point shot, as if someone with less skill and confidence had momentarily inhabited his body. The shot was blocked inches off Wall's fingertips by West Virginia junior John Flowers. While Kentucky would furiously rally to within four points in the final seconds, it was the rejection of the Wall shot that rang with clarity. Not only was Kentucky finished, but the NCAA tournament was fundamentally changed as well.
After all, a season spent searching for dominance in college basketball had produced only uncertainty. Then the tournament that customarily is so reliable in separating the genuine from the merely hopeful instead delivered a delightful uncertainty. Kansas, the overall No. 1 seed, was beaten by Northern Iowa in the second round. Syracuse, another No. 1 seed, fell to Butler in the Sweet 16 last Thursday night. Patterns established on a wild opening weekend (when four teams seeded ninth or higher won two games each) were holding. There were no super powers in the house.
Four teams representing a new age in college basketball arrive in Indianapolis this week to decide the national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium. Some of their names are familiar to the Final Four: Duke and Michigan State. Another is an integral part of college basketball history: West Virginia. The fourth seems stunning at a glance, but actually is not: Butler, a team of real-life Hoosiers that will be playing six miles from its campus.
Each is seeking to win in an era defined by the NBA's minimum-age limit, whereby the very best players will participate only briefly before leaving. Entire generations of not-quite-transcendent athletes will wage unpredictable, evenly matched battles for championships. "I think different teams have a chance to win now," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, before his team beat Baylor on Sunday in Houston. "Unless you get that super team that has guys sticking together who are pro-caliber.... It will be like this from now on, which I don't think is bad. It's pretty darn interesting. But it's tougher to maintain a high level."
Often the Final Four confirms greatness. The UCLA Bruins of the 1960s and '70s. Duke in the early '90s. Florida in 2006 and '07. And numerous others who won just a single title. This year the Final Four is trying to find greatness.
Perhaps it is Duke, which comes to the city where, in 1991, Krzyzewski won the first of his three NCAA titles (after an epic semifinal upset of unbeaten UNLV). The Blue Devils thrive on unglamorous verities, and even Krzyzewski has said repeatedly that the team is good, not great. "Everybody on that team understands his role," says Greg Paulus, who played point guard at Duke for four years before finishing his college athletic career last fall as a quarterback on the Syracuse football team. "They play defense and rebound, and that's usually going to give you a chance down the stretch."
It is Duke's first trip back to the Final Four since 2004, and it's with a team that had to be reconstructed last summer after freshman guard Elliot Williams transferred to Memphis for family reasons and junior guard Gerald Henderson Jr. entered the NBA draft (and was selected at No. 12 by the Charlotte Bobcats). "Those were two dynamic wing athletes in our program," says assistant coach Chris Collins. "When they left we had to evolve."
They have transformed themselves into a bruising defensive team built on the foundation of four rotating inside players: 7'1" senior Brian Zoubek, 6'8" senior Lance Thomas and the 6'10" Plumlee brothers, Miles (a sophomore) and Mason (a freshman), while 6'8" junior Kyle Singler was moved mostly to the perimeter. "The last couple of years," says Collins, "if it became a grind-it-out physical game, we got manhandled." The opposite is true now, best exemplified by Zoubek's crushing, borderline-illegal pick on burly Purdue guard Chris Kramer in Duke's Sweet 16 victory.
But it was in Sunday's win over Baylor that the Blue Devils fully meshed their inside and outside games. Guards Nolan Smith (29 points) and John Scheyer (20) outplayed the dangerous Bears backcourt of LaceDarius Dunn (22 points on 8-for-18 shooting) and Tweety Carter (12 points and four turnovers).
Waiting to play Duke is a West Virginia team that took out Kentucky with a spidery 1-3-1 zone defense and a bizarre offensive performance in which the Mountaineers made no two-point baskets in the first half—but eight threes. Their presence in the Final Four justifies West Virginia native Bob Huggins's 2007 decision to leave Kansas State after only one year of coaching there to take the Mountaineers' job. "I knew he wanted to come back, and I knew he felt bad leaving Kansas State," says West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong. "We're a small state of hardworking people. We take pride in our coal mines, our state university and our athletic teams. Bobby understands all that." And he has West Virginia playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1959, when Jerry West was a junior.
Huggins, who survived a heart attack in the fall of 2002 (and three years later an ugly separation from Cincinnati, which he took to the Final Four in 1992), inherited forwards Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith when he arrived in Morgantown. "From the first day he was telling us, 'You guys better start working because I'm going to bring in my guys and they're going to be tough,'" says Smith. "That was every day."
It was just a head game, but an effective one. "Those guys were great," says Huggins. "I was just getting after them. And it worked." The Mountaineers are not huge and not explosive in the traditional offensive sense, but they are a typical Huggins team—physical, tireless and workmanlike, with five regulars between 6'7" and 6'9".
Da'Sean Butler has hit six game-winning shots while playing all five positions, and West Virginia was flexible and deep enough to win the regional without freshman point guard Darryl (Truck) Bryant, who broke a bone in his right foot during practice on March 23. Redshirt junior guard Joe Mazzulla, who has spent more than a year recovering from surgery to correct a fractured growth plate in his right shoulder, replaced Bryant and scored a career-high 17 points against Kentucky. The Mountaineers led a team of future NBA players by as many as 16 points late in the second half, and Bryant could return for the Final Four—he went to Durham, N.C., last weekend to be fitted for a special orthotic that is designed to take pressure off his injured foot.
Michigan State is the most familiar of the four teams in Indianapolis. Under coach Tom Izzo, the school has reached the Final Four six times in 12 years. The Spartans' return might have been expected at the beginning of the season—after losing last year's national title game to North Carolina, they had three starters back and were ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll—but they lost nine regular-season games, including four of their last six, and were beaten in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State was seeded only No. 5 in the Midwest region, yet what might have been an early exit from the tournament has instead been four wins by a combined 13 points, despite the loss of junior point guard and leading scorer Kalin Lucas, who tore his left Achilles tendon in the second-round win over Maryland. Before their regional semifinal game against Kansas-killer Northern Iowa in St. Louis, Lucas's teammates hung his number 1 jersey from a TV set in their locker room for inspiration. During the two wins in St. Louis, Lucas sat on the bench, aluminum crutches in hand, having delayed surgery to be with the team.
In his absence the Spartans were forced to rely on two players who have been in Izzo's doghouse this year. First there was talented but enigmatic 5'11" sophomore guard Korie Lucious, who went 5 for 16 with seven turnovers in back-to-back February losses when Lucas was out with a sprained right ankle. Lucious then missed a class and was left home when the team traveled to Penn State on Feb. 13. "I don't really feel like I was ready [in February] to take on the responsibility of being a starting point guard," says Lucious. "[My teammates] have been staying on me ... so this time around I was ready." In the first game of the regional Lucious responded with 10 points, six rebounds, four steals, four assists and a sensational late jumper off an Earl Monroe--like spin move in the 59--52 win over Northern Iowa.
Equally important to the Spartans is 6'4" junior guard Durrell Summers, who was benched for his indifference on defense in the Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota. ("I kidded Durrell and told him I sat him ... to rest him for the [NCAA] tournament," says Izzo. "I think Durrell thought I was telling the truth, but I wasn't.") Summers, who met with the coaching staff before the tournament to clear the air, scored 40 points combined in the two regional games. "I've questioned a lot of things about this team," says Izzo, "But I've never questioned their toughness."
Butler will be described as the plucky outsider among the Final Four teams. That is accurate in one sense: Butler's enrollment of 4,200 is the smallest (one tenth that of Michigan State), and the Bulldogs practice daily at 6:30 a.m. so that players won't miss any class time. Yet the Bulldogs have been to the Sweet 16 three times in the last eight years and this season beat Ohio State and Xavier back-to-back in December. They were ranked No. 11 in the preseason and No. 11 at the end and enter the Final Four with 24 consecutive wins.
Bridging Butler's athletic and academic worlds is 6'9" swingman Gordon Hayward, the Horizon League player of the year who is an NBA prospect and a computer engineering major. Hayward's parents are both 5'10", and when he was growing up, his father, Gordon Sr., encouraged his son to develop perimeter skills. "I told him from the very beginning, 'At some point you're going to have to play guard, so you might as well play guard,'" said Gordon Sr. "I also told him, 'You're not going to be 6'8",' so what do I know?"
Butler took down No. 1 seed Syracuse last Friday night and No. 2 seed Kansas State two days later to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. Ten of the 15 players on the roster are from Indiana, as is third-year coach Brad Stevens, 33.
The team's Hoosier roots will be a popular theme, even if the Bulldogs don't remotely resemble the cinematic version of Hickory, whose fictional loss to South Bend Central in the movie Hoosiers was filmed at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse (the real-life site of the game on which the movie was based). "I think everyone growing up in Indiana watches that movie," says Hayward. Before the game against Kansas State, Stevens received an e-mail from a friend that said, "One more, Ollie," echoing poignant words from the movie. One more and we're going all the way.
So he would surely understand that for all the uncertainties in the NCAA tournament, 2010 edition, this much is true: The baskets at Lucas Oil Stadium are exactly 10 feet high. Just like the baskets at home.
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For Luke Winn's tournament blog and analysis from Seth Davis go to SI.com/cbb
Duke has transformed itself into a bruising defensive team built on four rotating inside players.
Butler's Hoosier roots will be a popular theme, even if the Bulldogs don't resemble Hickory.
SI asked assistant coaches who faced a 2010 Final Four team to share what they learned about trying to stop these red-hot lineups
HOW TO BEAT
WHEN THE SPARTANS HAVE THE BALL
You can make them miss because they're going to take jump shots, but the game within the game is getting the rebound—they're the best rebounding team in the country, and they're really good at putting back their misses. They're always in the right spots, so you need to do a great job on the weakside glass. They don't have great penetrators, so extend out and pressure them. And they've got some really good shooters, but they are guys who catch and shoot. You also have to get a hand in their faces.
ATTACKING THE SPARTANS' DEFENSE
They're physical and they're tough, so you need to ball screen them and try to get to the basket. And when you get to the basket, you have to finish. I don't think you can run a bunch of plays and come off screens and get shots. They're not going to let you do that. You're going to have to beat them off the dribble.
They haven't counted on [point guard] Korie Lucious (above) all year, and now he's going to have to make big plays. So far he's done that.
HOW TO BEAT
WHEN THE BULLDOGS HAVE THE BALL
They are an unbelievable dribble-drive team. They can attack you from four spots, and they also run tremendous ball screens. Whatever you do defensively, they will have counters for it. They are effective on the offensive boards because they all crash from the perimeter. You can't give them second-chance points, and you can't give them extra opportunities to run their offense.
ATTACKING THE BULLDOGS' DEFENSE
You have to make them move. You have to try to get the ball to the interior. It's hard to do that on the initial side that you enter; you have to get the ball reversed. You must put Matt Howard in some action and try to get him in foul trouble. Then you have to overcome their two guards, who are bulldogs defensively. You have to try to go to the offensive glass, but that's easier said than done against these guys.
Zach Hahn (above), who comes off the bench, is a good three-point shooter and can be dangerous.
HOW TO BEAT
WHEN THE MOUNTAINEERS HAVE THE BALL
The best approach to take is to pressure them into turnovers. Pick them up right away so they have less time to run their five-man motion. They move the ball well, and the toughest thing is that once they shoot, they really go after the offensive rebounds. Teams can guard their basic offense, but as soon as that shot goes up, you have to make sure to box them out.
ATTACKING THE MOUNTAINEERS' DEFENSE
They're very big, long and athletic. They switch on ball screens so they make things very difficult. It helps to push in transition and to speed them up so you can get a quick shot before their defense can get set. Once they get set in the half-court they are a very difficult team to go against, so you have to move the ball and look for a chance to get some back cuts.
They're going to use a lot of the shot clock, and they will look for their main guy, Da'Sean Butler (above), to take the shot. Deny him the ball and force another player to make a play.
HOW TO BEAT
WHEN THE BLUE DEVILS HAVE THE BALL
You have to make Kyle Singler (below) put the ball on the floor. When he's running off screens he is deadly, but not as much as off the bounce. With Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith, transition is key. They want to get eight to 10 points quick. Duke thrives on runs, so you have to stop its spurts. The Blue Devils want to outplay you the final three minutes of the first half and the first three of the second, so make sure that your players stay focused during those stretches. You can let them throw it inside because they don't have anyone who can score 15 in the paint.
ATTACKING THE BLUE DEVILS' DEFENSE
They do a good job taking away your strengths, and now that they're playing physically, they're even tougher. The key will be how the game is called, whether the refs allow them to be as physical as they want. You have to hope to get some calls and get to the free throw line.
If you can get Singler to force shots instead of getting them in the flow of the offense, that's the starting point to beating them.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
WALL TUMBLING DOWN The versatile Flowers (41) had three blocks against Wall and Kentucky as the Mountaineers tripped up the top seed and won the East Regional.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
UP IN THE AIR Can Willie Veasley (21) and the Bulldogs add Duke to their list of upset victims?
[See caption above]
DAVID. E. KLUTHO (LUCIOUS)
WIDESPREAD The effusive Izzo (left) and Huggins could wind up facing one another in the title game.
JOHN BIEVER (HUGGINS)
[See caption above]
DAVID. E. KLUTHO (IZZO)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (HAHN)
JOHN BIEVER (MAZZULLA)
THIS ONE'S DONE The heroics of Mazzulla (right) in Syracuse likely meant the end of Wall's college career.
JOHN BIEVER (BUTLER)
BOB ROSATO (SINGLER)