The early Final Four game on Saturday pits Michigan State against Butler. To get there, the Spartans squeaked by a parade of low seeds, winning by a total of 13 points against teams seeded #12, #4, #9, and #6. Butler, on the other hand, beat #2 Kansas State in the regional final by 7 points – more than Michigan State’s combined margins for their games against New Mexico State (3), Maryland (2), and Tennessee (1) – and led #1 Syracuse by double digits before eventually winning by 4. This is all a long way of saying that in the games I watched, Butler won by outplaying their opponents, while MSU won by out-lucking them. But what’s done is done, and the way a team advanced to Indy isn’t going to affect this weekend’s final score. The only thing that matters is what goes down on the hardwood. Let’s take a look at what to expect when Michigan State has the ball.
Despite never having Goran Suton in the first place, Butler’s 2010 defense is also a clone of 2009 Michigan State. If ever there were a game perfectly set up to let Tom Izzo demonstrate his supposed March coaching genius, this is it. He’s facing a Butler team that’s drawing (justified) raves for its tremendous tourney defense, having manhandled two offenses that are significantly more efficient than MSU. His team’s leader in minutes, points, and assists is out of commission, and other significant players are nursing injuries. His opponent will be playing a mere 6 miles from their home gym. But the basketball gods have handed him an advantage to exploit – this fabulous defense that he’s up against is a whole lot like the one he happened to coach last year, and you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think a great coach like Izzo wouldn’t know how to best attack his own defense. How much is that style-familiarity worth? Beats me.
Michigan State’s biggest strength on offense, by far, is rebounding (40.1%, 8th), while Butler is one of the best in the nation at preventing offense rebounds (27.7%, 13th). I said the same thing before the Kansas State game (40.4%, 6th), and wondered which team would come out ahead in this battle of strengths. It was Butler, by a mile – they limited KSU to 29% of the boards. In hindsight, it’s not a surprise, as they had just held Syracuse (37.6%, 29th) to 30% two nights previously. Michigan State will need to buck this trend if they want to break the 1-point-per-possession barrier (something only 1 of the last 20 Butler opponents has accomplished).
Another area where both units excel is assists – the Spartans get a lot, and the Bulldogs allow few. Syracuse is similar to MSU in this respect, and they managed to keep their assist rate up (12 assists on 21 FGs), but it came at the cost of turnovers (18). Michigan State is similarly turnover prone, and if they try to force the ball into the small spaces that Butler creates, they may be in for high TO day as well.
The biggest point in Michigan State’s favor is probably that big red mark in 3PA/FGA, along with the splash of green under 2P%. They are dedicated to getting the ball inside to their “big” men, and this is one area where they can take advantage of Butler. As has been written ad nauseam, Matt Howard rides the pine a lot because of fouls, and with him out, Butler is vulnerable inside. During their game against Kansas State, Curtis Kelly scored efficiently when the ‘Cats managed to get him the ball (14 points on 10 shots), but K-State’s guards didn’t do a good job feeding him the ball – a point Len Elmore and Gus Johnson made repeatedly. I think Izzo’s Spartans will have the awareness and discipline to do better, should a similar situation arise.
Bottom line: Butler’s defense at its best is better than Michigan State’s offense at its best. Butler will take away Michigan State’s main strength (offensive rebounding), and will create turnovers when MSU tries to force passes. But when Matt Howard is on the bench with foul trouble, many of those passes should find their way to the paint, where the Spartans will be able to score. Of course, the big wildcard is Tom Izzo’s game planning – given his familiarity with Butler’s defensive style, he may pull something game changing out of his sleeve, in which case all analysis is moot.
Now let’s look at Butler’s offensive end:
No, that’s not the Northern Iowa team that knocked off overall #1 Kansas. No, that’s not the Wichita State team that advanced to the Sweet 16. No, neither of those are the New Mexico team that garnered a #3 seed. No, that’s not the Butler team that made the Final Four. There are a lot of good mid-major names here, but with the wrong year in front. That’s because this Butler offense is frankly terrible by Final Four standards. They’re currently listed 46th in adjusted offensive efficiency, with the potential to go up or down based on the last two games. The last time an offense this bad made the Final Four was George Mason in 2006 – they were ranked 49th.
Luckily for Butler, Michigan State’s non-elite defense is equally unprecedented. In fact, not a single team since Pomeroy has been keeping track (2004 tourney) had previously made the Final Four with a defense ranked as bad as the Spartans (33rd). The previous worst was another Izzo team – 2005 Michigan State, ranked 25th – perhaps not a coincidence?
In this battle of stoppable force vs. movable object, the matchups seem to favor Butler. Michigan State’s biggest strength on defense – as on offense – is their rebounding. But the Bulldogs usually don’t care about rebounds – and when you can beat a #1 seed in a game where you grab only 16% of your misses, why would you? They sacrifice the offensive boards in order to get back on transition defense, and it’s been working for them so far.
Another advantage seems to be turnovers. One of Butler’s strengths is taking good care of the ball, and Michigan State is not a team that forces turnovers – none of their NCAA opponents have turned it over on more than 17.4% of their possessions (the national average is 20.4%), and Maryland only coughed it up on 8%. Given Butler’s lack of second chance points, getting as many first chances as they can is important – and MSU will not do much to limit those first chances.
There are a couple of strength-on-strength matchups where Michigan State can make up the ground they lose on the rebounding and turnover matchups. Butler’s highest national rank in any of the Four Factors is 15th, in FTA/FGA (they’re also 31st in FT%). But Michigan State has done a good job of not putting teams on the line, ranking 45th nationally in FTA/FGA allowed. They also defend the interior well, so Butler may not be able to maintain their usually high 2P%. That said, the Bulldogs shoot a lot from long range (34th highest 3PA/FGA), while the Spartans generally don’t limit their opponents’ looks from 3 (297th in 3PA/FGA allowed), and allow an above average percentage to be made. So Mack, Veasley, and Hayward will get some open looks, and will be willing to take them. Whether they fall could be a key to the game.
So to summarize the action on this end of the court: Butler will avoid turnovers, get one look at the basket (oftentimes from 3-pt range), and then get back on D. The Spartans will grab any misses. Whether there are any fouls is up in the air – Butler draws them, but Michigan State doesn’t commit a ton. If Butler is hitting their outside shots, they may do well, but they’ve been held under a point per possession in the last 3 games, and I doubt they’ll do a whole lot better on Saturday.
So let’s put it all together:
Michigan State’s offense will struggle because Butler’s defense is playing very, very well – unless Izzo can exploit the fact that they’re similar to his 2009 team. Butler’s offense will struggle because they’ll forsake offensive rebounds – unless they start hitting the many looks they’ll get from outside. The similar opponents analysis indicates Butler is favored by slightly more than you’d expect from the seasonal efficiency numbers, and my subjective analysis agrees with that. Vegas has Butler favored by 1 point as I write this, so the consensus is that Butler is a slight favorite. Personally, I have a sneaky suspicion that one of my “unlesses” will happen, and it won’t turn out as close as we expect.