It's time. In just five days, the entire college basketball world will descend on the sleepy burg of Indianapolis for the Final Four, where we will observe as Michigan State, Butler, West Virginia and Duke, um, duke it out for the 2010 college basketball title. Just joining us? Skipped the early parts of the tournament? No big deal. Here's a handy primer packed with obvious -- and not so obvious -- things to know about this year's college hoops carnival.
I. The Storylines
1. Butler is going home. This will be the biggest story of the next five days, and deservedly so. With the Final Four in Indianapolis, Butler picked an awfully good time to play its first April basketball. Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler's legendary gym, is the former site of Indiana's high school basketball championships, the site where the real-life "Hoosiers" played in 1954. (The movie was also filmed there.) Expect at least one or two analysts to draw the connection between those Hoosiers -- a group of overachievers from a tiny school in Indiana -- with Butler, a mid-major program with a comparatively tiny athletics budget that just so happens to be stocked with actual, you know, Hoosiers.
2. Tom Izzo is a freak. The Michigan State Spartans are heading to their sixth Final Four in 12 years. In 13 years of Tom Izzo tenure, no upperclassman to commit to the coach has missed out on playing in a Final Four. At this point, there's so little left to say about Izzo that all you can do is stand back, look at those two pieces of information, and shake your head. The man is a genius. That's all there is to it.
3. Welcome back, Duke. Duke has spent much of the past decade hearing laments about how Duke isn't Duke anymore. The complaints were legitimate. From 1985 to 2001, Duke won three NCAA titles and appeared in nine Final Fours. From 2002 to 2009, Duke made it past the Sweet 16 just once, earning the reputation among casual tournament fans as one of those vaguely untrustworthy tourney teams sure to kill your bracket with an early-round loss. That's over: In 2009-10, Duke capably and methodically dominated the South Region en route to Coach K's 11th Final Four appearance. It must feel good to be back.
4. To the place I belong. West Virginia has a torrid love affair with its college hoops team. This year, that team finally loved back. Bob Huggins, a WVU grad, took his alma mater to its first Big East tournament title, which he promptly followed up with the team's first Final Four appearance since 1959, when some dude named Jerry West was playing point guard for the Mountaineers. Win an NCAA tournament, and Huggins can start picking out materials for his statue in Morgantown. Bronze? Gold? As long as Huggins keeps rocking that jumpsuit and the Mountaineers keep winning, everything's on the table.
5. No one knew. Anytime you get two No. 5 seeds in the Final Four, it's obviously going to be a bit topsy-turvy. But no one predicted this. Out of nearly 5 million brackets on ESPN.com, only 200 people -- which is startlingly low, considering the millions of entries, but still feels high, considering the outcomes -- picked this Final Four to happen. Before the tournament began, this specific Final Four had about a 1-in-5,000 chance in happening.
II. The Stars
6. Butler's Gordon Hayward. When Hayward arrived at Butler, he was a three-star recruit from Brownsburg, Ind. Now he's a versatile wing with a teenager's face and an NBA swingman's body. Hayward has done a little bit of everything for his team since returning from a late-season back injury -- scoring, rebounding, ballhandling, defending in the post and out on the wing, all of it. Ironically enough, with blue bloods such as Duke and Michigan State involved (not to mention a talented West Virginia squad), the Butler product is Chad Ford's highest projected NBA first-rounder in this year's Final Four. You'll see why.
7. West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler. Who is Da'Sean Butler? Why, only the most clutch player -- and in Butler's case, the word "clutch" actually means something -- in this tournament. Butler has made six buzzer-beaters this year, including two in the Big East tournament, one of which came in the title-game win over Georgetown. West Virginia has handled its tournament opponents without needing any last-second heroics from Butler, but if there's one player in the Final Four you want taking your team's final look, it's Da'Sean.
8. Duke's Nolan Smith. Everyone talks about Duke's "big three" -- Smith, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer -- but sometimes that talk makes it feel more like the big two. Scheyer and Singler get the majority of the spotlight, while Smith, who scores 17.2 points per game to Singler's 17.4, toils in relatively obscurity. No more. Smith put the Blue Devils on his back in Duke's wins in Houston this past weekend. Smith scored 29 points in the Elite Eight win over Baylor, and it was his two key back-to-back 3s that helped separate Duke from No. 4-seeded Purdue two days before. With Scheyer having struggled at times in the tournament, Duke needs Smith's scoring more than ever. He appears fully up to the task.
9. Michigan State's Durrell Summers. In his three-year Michigan State career, Summers has had moments of brilliance mixed in with stretches of complete incoherence. If you had told Michigan State fans earlier in the season that Summers would be the player hitting 8-of-10 from the field in the Spartans' Elite Eight win -- on a Kalin Lucas-less team, by the way -- it's safe to say they would have slapped you in the face for making up such a beautiful lie. But it's true. Summers has arrived.
III. The Surroundings
10. Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. Butler is going home, but nothing about Lucas Oil Stadium -- with the possible exception of the fans' navy-blue attire -- will resemble Hinkle Fieldhouse. Hinkle was built for $1 million in 1928; Lucas Oil was finished two years ago for a grand total of $720 million. The stadium seats 63,000 for Colts games, which is expandable to the NCAA's minimum of 70,000 for basketball events. (The 63,000 seats is an increase of more than 5,000 seats over Indianapolis' former tournament home, the RCA Dome.) Want to make an appearance? Get ready to pony up the cash. The seating chart (PDF) reveals the seats in the upper echelons of the stadium generally fetching $180 at face value; they're even higher on the secondary market. Or you could really ball out: Lucas Oil has 137 luxury suites, including eight "field suites" and 12 "super suites." Special note: If you do this, please invite me. Because anything called a "super suite" has to be completely, well, sweet.