Butler, Duke will face off in a defensive battle for national title

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- The pageantry of Monday night's national championship game, the feel-good story line of the mid-major program playing for a crown in its home town, the prestige of the opposing squad competing in its eighth national title game in the past 25 seasons, the theme of David vs. Goliath -- all of it will evaporate around 9:20 p.m.

Butler and Duke, then, will fill the void with a brand of basketball that can be as unsightly as it is beneficial. For Butler to win its first national championship, the Bulldogs must adhere to a defense-oriented plan that ignores their considerable size deficiency. And in order for Duke to claim its fourth national title, the Blue Devils must match the stinginess of an opponent that has not allowed 60 points in a single game this NCAA tournament.

The culmination of the 2009-10 college basketball season might not be pretty but only because both teams prefer it that way.

"From what I've seen of Duke, they're a very scrappy team," Butler guard Zach Hahn said. "They're also very similar to us in the fact that they win games like that. They tend to win the tough games, the ones when maybe they're not making shots, but they're going to rely on their defense and just doing tough things down the stretch and executing.

"Maybe that's showing what [Duke] Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski and [Butler] Coach [Brad] Stevens, what their coaching style is and how poised they are. Maybe it's showing how poised our team is. But for one reason or another, we're both here because we've won tough games. Being scrappy and fighting for loose balls has been the difference in a lot of our games throughout this tournament."

Butler's dogged defensive approach paid dividends during Saturday night's national semifinal win over Michigan State. The Bulldogs shot 30.6 percent and made one field goal in the game's final 12 minutes, yet they prevailed, 52-50, by tallying 12 steals and forcing the Spartans to commit 16 turnovers.

Although Butler's offense stalled against Michigan State, its defense held the Spartans to a horrid 0.86 points per possession.

"Yeah," Butler's 6-foot-3 Willie Veasley said, "you could see another us-versus-Michigan State game, just because with both teams defense is such a big thing. You could definitely see it like that."

The Blue Devils, who held opponents to 61.1 points per game this season, said they wouldn't mind that at all. With a dynamic trio of perimeter scorers in Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, Duke appears more than capable of becoming the first squad to tally 70 or more points against Butler since Dec. 8.

But even if Duke's shots don't fall with great efficiency, the Blue Devils possess substantial front-court depth, which will come in handy in creating second chances off the offensive glass. Duke starts 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek, 6-8 forward Lance Thomas and Singler, who also stands 6-8. Forwards Miles and Mason Plumlee -- both of whom are 6-10 -- come off the bench.

Butler Coach Brad Stevens said Sunday that forward Matt Howard, the team's second-leading rebounder, will be a game-time decision after suffering a head injury against Michigan State. The Bulldogs' two top front-court reserves -- 6-8 senior Avery Jukes and 6-11 freshman Andrew Smith -- have played a combined 66 minutes over the past five games.

"If it becomes a game where we can be physical and play as aggressive defensively as we can, I think it works in our favor," Thomas said. "Maybe our size inside will wear them down. We can substitute guys in our front court that are all aggressive, so we're going to use the advantage that we have. We have a bigger front court than them, so we're going to have to make use of it."

In lieu of comparable size, Butler works to create opportunities off its low-pressure defensive approach. Twenty of Butler's 52 points (38.5 percent) Friday against Michigan State came off turnovers.

Krzyzewski's assistants told him Butler has score five times as many points off turnovers as any other team in the NCAA tournament. He said he's not sure that statistic is quite accurate, but given the way the Bulldogs have performed defensively of late, it sure seemed believable.

"They don't extend their defense; it's more top-of-the-key pickup," Krzyzewski said. "But it's very difficult to penetrate against them. They have, I think, of all the teams I've seen in the tournament, they have the most active hands. They don't get out in passing lanes and force turnovers, but if you try to penetrate, there's more than one person that will try to stop you, and that's where they come up with steals."

Should Butler prevail Monday night, its tale would be uplifting and inspiring. A Duke win would foster its reputation as one of college basketball's elite programs. Either way, any flash emanating from the game likely will come from contest's stakes rather than the action on the court. And both squads are just fine with that.

"Of course, we expect our offense to be there tomorrow and for our defense to create offense," Veasley said. "But if it's an ugly game, then it's an ugly game."

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