MBB: A look at the Final Four

Chris Cuellar —


No. 5 Michigan State Spartans (28-8) vs. No. 5 Butler Bulldogs (32-4)

No. 2 West Virginia Mountaineers (31-6) vs. No. 1 Duke Blue Devils (33-5)

Michigan State (Big Ten)

Final Four appearances: 8th

How the Spartans got here: vs. New Mexico State 70-67, vs. Maryland 85-83, vs. UNI 59-52, vs. Tennessee 70-69

Coach: Tom Izzo, 15th year, 364-145 overall

Like every other team Izzo has taken to basketball’s summit, the Spartans just find a way to win. With clutch plays down the stretch of every tournament game thus far, Michigan State has won its last two games with point guard and leading scorer Kalin Lucas out of uniform after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon against Maryland. Sophomore Korie Lucious has filled in admirably for Lucas, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Maryland that advanced the Spartans to the Elite Eight. Sitting No. 2 in the preseason top 25, Michigan State didn’t look like a lock to return to last year’s national runner-up form, but with balanced scoring and the nation’s top rebounding margin, the boys from East Lansing are back in familiar territory and headed back to the site of the Big Ten tournament.

Butler (Horizon)

Final Four appearances: 1st

How the Bulldogs got here: vs. UTEP 77-59, vs. Murray State 54-52, vs. Syracuse 63-59, vs. Kansas State 63-56

Coach: Brad Stevens, third year, 88-14 overall

As champions of the “mid-major” Horizon League, it would have been easy to label Butler and its baby-faced coach as a Cinderella story. You won’t find the Bulldogs or their opponents putting that moniker on them, though. Butler is headed home to Indianapolis, a city where it sits at 15-0 on the season, and it’s bringing a legendarily stubborn defense and a winning attitude back with it. Stevens’ squad hasn’t lost a game since Dec. 22, an NCAA-leading 24 victories in a row. Butler’s four tournament victories have been against teams that averaged greater than 75 points per game this season, and none of them saw the daylight of 60 against a locked-down Butler man-to-man attack. The Bulldogs might be rookies to the biggest dance floor in the land, but if forward Gordon Hayward’s step-back 3-pointer against Kansas State was any indication, they’ll be looking to steal the show.

West Virginia (Big East)

Final Four appearances: 2nd

How the Mountaineers got here: vs. Morgan State 77-50, vs. Missouri 68-59, vs. Washington 69-56, vs. Kentucky 73-66

Coach: Bob Huggins, third year, 670-240 overall

It’s been a long time coming for the Mountaineers and their coach as West Virginia hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1959, and Huggins has been absent from the Big Dance since taking Cincinnati in 1992. As another team playing stifling defense in the tournament, the Big East Tournament champs finished behind Syracuse in the regular season but have used a more varied zone defense than the Orange showed — and that’s kept the “Huggy Bears” alive. Guard Da’Sean Butler is averaging 20 points and seven rebounds in his last three games, but the loss of point guard Darryl Bryant to injury in the tournament has been like a small dark cloud hovering over the Mountaineers. With an assortment of styles and crashing the offensive glass like few other teams in the game, West Virginia is hoping to build on the groundwork laid down by Jerry West in the late ’50s.

Duke (ACC)

Final Four appearances: 15th

How the Blue Devils got here: vs. Ark. Pine Bluff 73-44, vs. California 68-53, vs. Purdue 70-57, vs. Baylor

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski, 30th year, 865-279 overall

As the lone No. 1 seed to advance to the Final Four, Coach K and the polarizing Blue Devils boast three scorers with more than 17 points per game and were able to remain unchallenged in the final minute of any tournament games. The Dukies haven’t been to the Final Four since 2004, which to Butler and West Virginia may sound appealing, but to the program with 18 ACC titles has felt like an eternity. Led by the scoring string of upperclassmen Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, this Duke squad has the firepower to cut down the nets again — the only question that remains is whether or not it has the guts. Winning its four games by a combined 64 points, saying this team does not have the potential becomes increasingly difficult to argue.