What an exciting NCAA Tournament this season. Exciting finishes? Check. Adversity overcome? Check. Solid, battle-tested teams? Check.
The excitement of the tournament at large is now over. It’s time for the best teams to get down to business and decide who the champion is. It’s time for the writers here at The Sports Debates to provide three opinions on which potential championship game matchup would be the best. For me, the answer is clear. The best possible matchup would be the Michigan State Spartans against the Duke Blue Devils.
It is not secret that I have a bias toward Michigan State because of the incredible respect I have for head coach Tom Izzo. While other certain writers here grab at the opportunity to poke fun of my enthusiastic and healthy respect for Izzo, the fact remains that the coach has again achieved what few thought was possible for his team this March. For the second time in the last decade Izzo has taken a fifth seeded team to the Final Four. The road has not been easy, either in opponent or in circumstance. A first round victory over New Mexico State was solid but expected. A tough win over a hard-nosed Maryland team – in spite of losing Big Ten Player of the Year and team star Kalin Lucas to a season-ending Achilles Heel injury – was amazing and unexpected. Notch two more wins over tournament Cinderella Northern Iowa (sorry Butler, you are too good to be fitted for a glass slipper) and a very tough Tennessee team, and Izzo’s Spartans have achieved victory over great basketball teams and a healthy stroke of bad luck.
Duke is an excellent basketball team that earned its number one seed. With only one blemish on the team’s record since January 31, Duke ramped up to the NCAA Tournament with a string of workman-like victories over good teams. The team has incredible scoring balance with Jon Scheyer connecting from the perimeter for 18 points per game and Brian Zoubek manning the middle for nearly eight rebounds and the team’s highest shooting percentage of over 64 percent. Kyle Singler provides versatile scoring as well. Duke is a deserving number one seed that has played the entire tournament with the poise and consistency of a properly seeded team.
Besides the fact that both teams are so good, a potential matchup would be incredibly entertaining because of potential player matchups. Zoubek is accustomed, at least in ACC play, of staying down low in the post and fending off talent like Derrick Favors from Georgia Tech (a Loyal Homer favorite). Michigan State’s Draymond Green, however, is a player unlike any that Zoubek has faced. Green has the size of Favors, with the ball handling and perimeter shooting ability of Clemson’s Trevor Booker. And better decision making than both combined. While the Spartans are missing Lucas, point guard Korie Lucious has really stepped up for the team. He has connected on more long range jumpers, grabbed more rebounds, played better defense, and played a lot more minutes for the team while the star is absent. His in your face defensive style – combined with his quickness – will be an interesting matchup for Scheyer who prefers to stay on the perimeter but can get to the basket when necessary. Singler will match very well with Raymar Morgan at both ends of the floor. Each team features more talent than just the players mentioned here, but these are the three matchups that I find most intriguing.
What is also interesting about these teams is how their respective conferences shaped them in one way or another. For Duke, it appears that the team is excellent in spite of the overall lacking conference the team played in during the regular season. The ACC disappointed virtually every time it was thrust on to the national stage. But Duke remained solid, proving it could succeed in a national tournament setting despite an unchallenging conference schedule to sift through. Opposite of Duke is Michigan State, a team that that is good because of the Big Ten schedule it played. The Big Ten was the only conference to have three teams present in the Sweet Sixteen, and with good reason. The consistent toughness and defense-first approach of the Big Ten always translates well in March… even if the brand of basketball lacks the sex appeal to be featured in a series of nationally televised games.
I am not in the prediction business. There is good reason for that, too. But am I in the geek business. My geeky instincts tell me Michigan State has a great opportunity here. Having beaten a Maryland team that already defeated Duke this season, the Spartans – provided they are able to get past an extremely balanced and talented Butler team – have earned the confidence to win the championship. Duke certainly is an excellent team, especially considering how it handled Purdue… a team the Spartans split with during the regular season. It just seems like the Spartans are tougher than Duke – especially on defense. Toughness matters in March. Toughness is also an Izzo trademark.
Michigan State was not expected to make the Final Four. Duke was, but is not playing as though it expected to. Both teams and coaches are to be commended for that. Given the obvious potential ratings and the potential coach and player matchups, the best possible championship matchup is Michigan State and Duke.