National title game: 10 things to watch

April, 4, 2010
4/04/10
6:55
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- We're less than a day away from Butler-Duke, the mother of all David-Goliath matchups, which means it's time to get ready. What should you watch for? What are the keys to the game? Here are 10 things -- stats, people, and even a member of the K-9 kingdom -- sure to make an appearance at Lucas Oil stadium as we crown the 2010 champions Monday night.

1. One storyline to rule them all. 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.

Kyle Singler
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCan Butler handle Kyle Singler and the rest of a tall Duke lineup?
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?

3. Matt Howard has to play. Howard's presence could be a major difference for Duke. The former Horizon League player of the year has had a rough postseason, playing a combined eight minutes in the last two first halves because he got into foul trouble. Saturday, Howard suffered what may or may not be a minor concussion. (Butler coach Brad Stevens wouldn't confirm either way on Sunday.) Howard was woozy and couldn't return Saturday night and he has been classified as a game-time decision by Butler's staff. If Howard can play, and Butler needs him to, he will have to stay out of foul trouble. Or that whole size problem gets much, much more drastic.

4. Jon Scheyer is playing just fine, thanks. During the regular season, Duke's big three never really seemed to put it together. Scheyer stormed to the best start, earning a few early player of the year plaudits while Singler struggled to find his stroke. Then, when Singler began to take over games down the stretch, Scheyer was noticeably slumping, even in the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament. Scheyer's broken the mold in his last two games, scoring 23 and 20 points against West Virginia and Baylor, respectively, and looking as calm and in rhythm as at any point during the season.

5. Which is where Butler's guards come in. The trio of Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, and Shawn Vanzant have brutalized opposing guards on the defensive end in this tournament. UTEP's Randy Culpepper. Syracuse's Andy Rautins. Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. Michigan State's Korie Lucious. In each of their five NCAA tournament wins, Butler's guards made life extremely difficult for a pair of players absolutely crucial to their opponents' success. Can they do the same to Scheyer and Nolan Smith?

6. Will Duke push the pace? Butler's strategy is clear. It wants to play ugly. Actually, ugly isn't strong enough. It wants to play a game that can barely be called basketball, a game so slow and defensive that it doesn't matter if they shoot 15-of-49 and ignore the offensive boards, as they did against Michigan State. Duke isn't a particularly fast team, either. They prefer to grind out wins, grabbing rebounds, getting putbacks, and using their size and silky half-court offense to demoralize the opposition. Butler has been able to make some very good, very talented teams play its style, and none of those teams managed 60 points against the Bulldogs in this tournament. Duke may not want to fast-break, but they will want to push the ball up the floor and try to get open looks in the secondary break before Nored and company have a chance to get into that smothering half-court man-to-man defense.

[+] EnlargeGordon Hayward
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill Butler star Gordon Hayward be able to lead the Bulldogs to the school's first NCAA title?
7. Jimmy Chitwood is in the building. If Butler is Hickory High, then Hayward is Jimmy Chitwood -- the team's one true star. (If you prefer Milan High to Hickory, then Hayward is Bobby Plump, the real-life Chitwood. Semantics.) One funny thing about Butler's underdog status is that Hayward isn't just Butler's star, a very good player on a team of average ones. Hayward was the highest-ranked NBA prospect of any player in the Final Four. You'd expect Duke to have the pro talent, but with the exception of Singler, none of Coach K's players are likely to get a whiff of the NBA. Hayward will. Before that, though, he has a chance to become every bit as famous as Plump/Chitwood, writing the perfect final chapter to an already brilliant story. The 6-foot-8 forward came through on Saturday night. Will Hayward grab the pen again?

8. Blue II, too. Even with Hayward doing his Chitwood-esque thing, let's not forget who the real star of the Final Four has been: Blue II, Butler's bulldog mascot. He rocks a clean Nike sweater, garners an introduction along with the team, and specializes in sitting in one place and looking really, really cute for extended periods of time. Other strengths include: drinking water enthusiastically, destroying boxes with opponents' logos on them. Needs to work on: lateral quickness, not running onto the court during open practice. Projected draft position (in the arbitrary Eamonn Brennan awesomeness draft): lottery.

9. Butler's defensive end will determine this game. It can't be much simpler than that. What happens when Duke has the ball in the half court offense will be the final difference. The Bulldogs have proven over and over that they don't need to score points to win games. They don't even have to shoot 30 percent. What they do have to do is slow down that Duke offense, keep them from getting open looks, find a way to block out Zoubek and keep the Blue Devils off the offensive glass -- and, as above, harass Duke's guards -- the Bulldogs have a chance. But if Duke comes out and plays like they did against West Virginia -- efficient, in control, smooth, smart -- what happens on the other end of the floor isn't going to make a bit of difference.

10. Stevens vs. Krzyzewski. How must it feel to be Stevens right now? At his news conference Sunday, Stevens said the difference between he and the coaches he's faced in this tournament -- Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and now Mike Krzyzewski -- is that "they write books and I get to read them." That sums it up pretty well. Stevens, the second-youngest coach ever to make the final game, will be facing a man 30 years his elder, one who has already won three NCAA titles, been to eight national championship games, participated in 11 Final Fours and is a near-guarantee to overtake his mentor Bob Knight's all-time Division I wins record before his career ends. Ironically, Coach K, the old, experienced hand, will be the more lively of the two on the sideline; Stevens' sideline demeanor is as calm as any coach's in the country. It's yet another difference between the two, whose resumes, ages, and styles are every bit as different as their programs.

It's a classic matchup. If we're lucky, it will be a classic game.

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