INDIANAPOLIS -- After nearly a week of talk, the games are back. Before Saturday night's tipoff, four of our writers in Indy take one last shot at a few questions and predictions.
What are you most looking forward to Saturday?
Pat Forde: Seeing how Butler handles the big stage. This is the absolute apex of the program: the first Final Four, in the Bulldogs' backyard. Butler is plenty good enough to win -- unless it becomes awed by the moment. Nothing so far in this splendid tournament run has overwhelmed the Horizon League champions, but this is an almost unimaginable leap up in size and scope.
Andy Katz: A year ago, the Michigan State scene was quite a sight. The Spartans saved the Final Four with their presence in the stands, their enthusiasm during the weekend and the overall greening of Ford Field. Michigan State has a much larger alumni presence in Detroit and in the state of Michigan than Butler does in Indianapolis and Indiana. But the Bulldogs showed up well for the Friday practice session. If Lucas Oil Stadium is painted in blue and white before and during the game, it will be an immeasurable statement going forward for a school outside the power six structure.
Dana O'Neil: Will anyone in Indiana be watching the game on television, or will they all be at Lucas Oil Stadium? Judging by the clogged streets and packed stands for Butler's open practice round Friday, I'm figuring the lights will be out all over the central part of the state. Michigan State's contingent was awfully impressive in 2009 in Detroit, but the passion this state has for basketball could trump Sparty.
Mark Schlabach: I want to see whether home-court advantage or Final Four experience plays a bigger role over the next three days. Duke and Michigan State have been here before, but Butler is going to be the sentimental choice after becoming the first team to play in a Final Four in its hometown since UCLA in 1972. Can the Bulldogs handle the pressure? Can they feed off the home crowd? Or will Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's experience -- six Final Four appearances in the past 12 seasons -- pay dividends for the Spartans?
At the end of the day, whose performance will we be talking about?
Forde: Gordon Hayward's. He's the best player left in this tournament and the most versatile. He can bring the ball upcourt against pressure and initiate the offense, can guard the post when Matt Howard gets in his inevitable foul trouble, can handle the ball with either hand and can score from anywhere on the floor. He's averaging 16 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the tourney -- and in an unfortunate turn of events for Michigan State, his 3-point stroke has returned from an extended leave of absence. Hayward made 4 of 7 shots from behind the arc in Salt Lake City after making just one of his previous 13 tries.
Katz: West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler. He has had a knack this season for making the headline plays. I'm sensing a repeat performance with Butler causing Duke problems late in the game. He can make 3s, drive to the basket and hit the midrange shot. Butler might not put up monster numbers, but I sense a big-time, clinching bucket.
O'Neil: I've watched Da'Sean Butler take over games for nearly three weeks now, starting with West Virginia's Big East tournament run. I expect the player who flew under the radar through much of the regular season (backseated by Syracuse's Wes Johnson and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds) to become a household name here in Indy. I'm not sure whether he will have -- or will need -- his seventh game winner, but I expect the senior, whom few schools wanted to recruit, will have his handprint all over the Mountaineers' national semifinal game.
Schlabach: Butler swingman Gordon Hayward. The 6-foot-9 forward plays like a guard with extraordinary feet and an accurate shooting stroke. He's a matchup problem for any team he faces because of his size and ballhandling ability. I foresee the native of nearby Brownsburg, Ind., carrying Butler on his back into Monday night's national championship game.
Butler-Michigan State: Who wins and why?
Forde: Butler wins because the Bulldogs keep Michigan State from mauling them on the offensive glass, and the Spartans cannot make enough first shots against airtight defense. Butler wins because it makes a bunch of 3-point shots -- the Bulldogs have averaged eight made 3s over their past eight games. Butler wins because the valiant Spartans are tapped out, having gone as far as they could with major injury issues. And Butler wins 60-56 when it holds a seventh straight opponent to fewer than 60 points.
Katz: I've been as wrong on this bracket as on any other in the past decade. But I'm still going with my instinct that Butler will pull a 2009 Michigan State and win at least one game here as the host team. The Bulldogs have been a tremendous finishing team this season and simply find ways to win. Rebounding will be an issue, but the Dawgs won't play foolishly. If they can play the Butler way -- be precise, play tight defense and ensure they get quality looks -- they will win this game.
O'Neil: Butler wins because it's asking an awful lot for a Michigan State team playing without its point guard and with a forward (Delvon Roe) basically on one leg to handle a defensive team like Butler. The Bulldogs are not in the Final Four by chance. They're here because they play great defense. Butler allows just 57.2 points per game and will give replacement point guard Korie Lucious all he can handle.
Schlabach: Call me a softie or hometown homer, but I'm going with Butler. The Bulldogs defeated 1-seed Syracuse and 2-seed Kansas State in the West Regional, and those teams were better than Michigan State. The Spartans aren't at full strength after guard Kalin Lucas suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the second round. Guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley will shut down Michigan State's backcourt, and the Bulldogs will find a way to win a close game.
Duke-West Virginia: Who wins and why?
Forde: West Virginia wins because it gets the best of the wrestling match in the middle as two hard-edged rebounding teams do battle. West Virginia wins because its long, athletic 1-3-1 zone prohibits Duke's perimeter shooters from getting decent looks from 3-point range. West Virginia wins because Da'Sean Butler hits the big shots, yet again. And West Virginia wins 65-60 because Joe Mazzulla is playing the best basketball of his life, correcting the only significant flaw the Mountaineers have had this season.
Katz: I've seen both of these teams quite a bit this season. The maturation of each squad has been impressive. Duke has the better offensive rebounding team, but West Virginia's switching of defenses has been vexing to so many opponents. Both teams have big shot-makers, but I'm more inclined to go with West Virginia's role players making key plays for the Mountaineers to win. John Flowers could get that key block, Kevin Jones will be a tough matchup on the wing and Casey Mitchell could hit a 3-pointer to stretch a lead. This is just a hunch, but I think we might see the 76 Classic final we never got back in November in Anaheim, Calif.
O'Neil: West Virginia wins because the Mountaineers play like Bob Huggins lives: hard, tough and with an edge. They are perfectly fine uglying up a game, can hold their own on the boards despite a size disadvantage against virtually every team they play and are more than capable of drumming up offense when they need it (as witnessed by the 10 3-pointers they drained against Kentucky). In a game I expect to be a fairly brutal defensive battle, I think the Mountaineers' flat-out meanness will be the difference.
Schlabach: The outcome could go either way, but I'll go with Duke and its three-headed monster of Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. The Blue Devils overcame uncharacteristically bad shooting performances by Scheyer and Singler in the earlier rounds, and have yet to play their best basketball. Smith is capable of carrying Duke, which has the benefit of coach Mike Krzyzewski on the sideline. Duke's bench and frontcourt play leave something to be desired, but the team's experience and ability to score in myriad ways will make it tough to beat.