INDIANAPOLIS -- Our Final Four has been pared down to a final two, and as storylines go, this one couldn't be much better. Duke, the disliked powerhouse. Butler, the real-life "Hoosiers," playing in its hometown, winning one for all the little schools that never had a chance. In the next few days, you're going to hear plenty about what this game means, the implications for college basketball, and what it says about our sport if -- gasp -- Butler actually upsets Duke. (And yes, after tonight's two games, a Butler win would definitely be an upset.)
But for the Bulldogs to do that, they have to take care of business on the court, where things are much more difficult than a made-for-Gene Hackman script belies. So, in the spirit of staying grounded amidst the reverie, here are a few quick preliminary on-court things worth keeping in mind:
1. Butler's defense is great. But is it great enough? The most impressive unit in the entire NCAA tournament has been Butler's D. The Bulldogs are the first team since the 1985 Villanova Wildcats -- how's that for bringing things full circle? -- to hold five straight opposing NCAA tournament offenses to 60 points or less. That Butler's defense has owned this tournament like no other team is not up for dispute. Or it wasn't, anyway, until the Duke Blue Devils utterly steamrolled West Virginia's defense on Saturday night. Duke scored just under 1.45 points per possession against a team ranked 10th in the country in defensive efficiency, one that allowed its opponents a mere .88 points per trip throughout the 2009-10 season. To witness this mastery was to think that finally, perhaps, Butler will meet its match. Syracuse and Kansas State, two of the best offenses in the country, looked like high school teams compared to what Duke did to West Virginia on Saturday. If Butler fans got an ominous feeling during their postgame celebration, you can forgive them.
2. Who matches up with Gordon Hayward? Duke is as variable a team as there is in college basketball. The Blue Devils have gotten a bad rap for being unathletic this season, but they just manhandled a very athletic team that managed to contain the Kentucky Wildcats no more than a week ago. Athleticism isn't an issue. Matching up with Hayward is. Kyle Singler is the best bet, and that should be a brilliant little one-on-one battle. Whoever guards Hayward, you can expect Coach K's strategy to involve a lot of help defense, plenty of double-teams, and an ethos of harassment unlike anything Hayward has seen this season. It will be fascinating to watch this play out.
3. Speaking of which, how does Butler match up with Duke's Big Three? Saturday night, Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith combined for 63 points, 17 assists, 12 rebounds and 12-of-23 from behind the arc. They scored 63 of the Duke’s 78 points, which was -- get this -- six more than West Virginia’s entire team. So, yeah, you could say that stopping Duke's trio is absolutely crucial. Good news here, actually: Butler has the players to do just that. Ronald Nored, Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant have shut down elite guard combos in this tournament before. As mentioned above, Hayward is as close to a perfect matchup with Singler as any player in the country. And if you can harass Scheyer and Smith into passing up shots and keep Singler from blowing up too much, you force Duke's periphery guys to beat you. That proposition looks far less daunting.
4. Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. If it's been the statistical story of this tournament, it could also end up being the story of the national title game: rebounding. Duke has morphed into a vicious offensive rebounding squad, currently the sixth-best offensive rebounding percentage team in the country. Butler, meanwhile, held Michigan State -- a top-10 offensive rebounding percentage team itself, remember -- to six offensive rebounds in its win Saturday night. The Blue Devils won't face much pressure on their own glass; Butler is more than happy retreating from the offensive glass and setting up its half-court defense as soon as possible. But at Butler's end, the outcome could be decided by how well the Bulldogs can keep a much bigger, stronger Duke team off the offensive glass. No one's managed to do it yet.
5. Will Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard play? And, you know, play well? Butler guard Shelvin Mack left Saturday's game with dehydration. Butler center Matt Howard left with a minor concussion. The Bulldogs were forced to gut out a win without two of their best, most important players; that they did so remains remarkable. But it's hard -- OK, it's impossible -- to envision a Mack- and Howard-less Butler squad beating the Duke team yours truly keeps emphatically, almost embarrassingly raving about. (It's like I just saw the Mona Lisa get up out of her chair and hit 13 3-pointers against one of the country's best defenses. At times, it felt kind of like that.) Mack needs to get those fluids going -- push the electrolytes, kid -- while Butler needs to hope Howard can tell you his address by Monday evening. Bank on both of them playing. Whether they play well is a different story.
One important corollary here: Howard would do well to stay on the floor a bit longer. Sure, Butler keeps proving it can win without its center, who, thanks to foul trouble, has played four minutes in each of Butler's last two first halves. But Howard has to stay on the floor Monday night if Butler plans on keeping Brian Zoubek and company off the boards.
There will be plenty more to dissect and analyze in the next day or so, but for now, keep an eye out. Monday night's game -- and whether we get a finale worthy of this magnificent setup -- could ride on any, or all five, of the above.