April 2, 2010

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By Anthony Oliva III

INDIANAPOLIS - Although not many would have predicted this matchup before the tournament started, this game is not likely to disappoint. Butler, playing just miles away from its campus, has been the talk of the town. Thousands came out to watch the Bulldogs practice and almost everywhere you look you see Butler fans. The players have become celebrities, signing autographs everywhere. They've signed them on the court, on campus and in class. Reserve center Andrew Smith even had a fan wander into his room at 1 a.m. this week seeking a signature. This game is big. And the whole city knows it.

Nobody knows that feeling better than Michigan State. Last year, the Spartans played in the Final Four in nearby Detroit. The Spartans eventually lost to North Carolina in the title game, so this year they are back and hungry for a title.

Where Butler has the advantage:
As we saw against Syracuse, Butler's defense can wreak havoc. The Bulldogs forced 18 turnovers against the Orange on its way to the monumental upset. During that game, the potent Syracuse offense never looked in sync. Throughout the week, players and coaches have mentioned countless times what they are calling the "Butler Way". Defensive intensity is a big ingredient to that.

"That's a main concern because earlier in the year we definitely had problems with turnovers," Michigan State guard Chris Allen said. "It was ridiculous, but I feel like we've been doing a lot better job on that. I think it's basically because everybody has more confidence and everyone is playing within themselves."

Much of the ball-handling responsibility for Michigan State will fall on sophomore guard Korie Lucious. Lucious has done an admirable job filling in for injured guard Kalin Lucas, and coach Tom Izzo called Lucious "fearless and a little cocky."

For the tournament, Butler is plus-5 in turnover margin. The Spartans are minus-3.

Where Michigan State has the advantage:
In the last two years, the Spartans have played 10 NCAA Tournament games, not including the game(s) they're about to play. The year before that they played in three. Much of this roster has a wealth of NCAA Tournament experience, but what may be more important is that this team has already been in the Final Four. Being in Indianapolis, it's clear to see that it would be easy to get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding the Final Four. From the media obligations to the crowded open practices, there are a multitude of pitfalls that can sidetrack a player's focus. No team is better equipped to handle that than Michigan State.   

"This time we're not feeling that excitement," Green said. "This time, we came to win."

Oh, and Michigan State's coach has been there before, too. Izzo has been to six Final Fours in 12 years, and has seemed relaxed and confident all week. And, while Butler coach Brad Stevens has portrayed similar qualities, there is just no substitute for Izzo's experience.

"I don't think there's a school in the country that prepares for games how we do," Allen said. "It's to the extreme. I'm not worried about the plays or a player going into the game because I already know their every move."

What To Watch For:

Rebounding Battle
The Spartans are once again one of the best, if not the best, rebounding teams in the country. They lead the nation in rebounding margin, averaging nearly nine more boards per game than their opposition. With a sizeable frontcourt comprised of the likes of Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe, Derrick Nix and others, Butler, which lacks Michigan State's size, is going to have its hands full.

"Michigan State is a very good offensive rebounding team, so boxing out and keeping them off the boards is going to be key for us," Butler forward Matt Howard said.

If Butler can hang with Michigan State in the paint, it will dramatically improve its chance of advancing to the finals.

Homecourt Advantage
How will playing in Indianapolis affect Butler? That is a question that many are wondering this week. Michigan State had a similar homecourt advantage last year, and rode that momentum to the championship game. While fan support can be energizing, the high expectations and bevy of distractions could also be a detriment. Or, as Izzo has suggested, it may not have much impact at all.

"I don't think it will affect us that much," Izzo said. "I don't think it will help them that much. Once the ball is tossed, I think you'll see that the players take over, not the fans and the coaches."

Downplaying this aspect of the game is something that all participants have seemingly been schooled to do this week. But, if Butler goes on a run, it will be interesting to see if it can capitalize on the emotion of the crowd.