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National Championship preview/open game thread

If you didn't see it earlier, I'll be watching tonight's game at The Ram in Puyallup (by the South Hill Mall) with my wife. If you live in the Western Washington South Sound area and happen to stop by, feel free to join us -- or at least say hi. I'm wearing a crimson colored adidas warmup jacket with the stripes down the sleeves.

I'll also be offering my thoughts via my Twitter account (@NussCoug) during the game, since I don't have one of those fancy-schmancy smartphones and can't comment on this thread. I can, however, text in some Tweets.

Next Game

(5) Butler Bulldogs
@ (1) Duke Blue Devils

Monday, Apr 5, 2010, 6:21 PM PDT
NCAA Tournament - Championship - Lucas Oil Stadium - Indianapolis, IN

Complete Coverage >

When I was talking with Seth on 18 And Life last week, I mentioned that Butler versus Duke would be CBS's "wet dream" matchup, given the four teams left in the tournament heading into the weekend. I figured the combination of cinderella darling playing in its hometown against basketball royalty would create a matchup that America would approach with great anticipation.

Yet, oddly, I don't sense much of a buzz about this game. Which I think is a darn shame, because while this game is unlikely to be a beauty from the casual fan's perspective -- dunks and fastbreaks figure to be at a premium -- it's likely to be hotly contested and one of those games that true basketball aficionados will talk about for years.

What will make this game so special? Well, as WSU fans, you're going to recognize this as the kind of game we grew accustomed to watching for six years under the Bennetts. In fact, this Butler ought to make you wonder what might have been back in 2008 if the Cougs hadn't played in an NCAA Tournament with some of the best teams of this decade (Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina, etc.) all in the same tournament.

Butler 2010 is remarkably similar to WSU 2008. They shoot it reasonably well, but it's on defense where they really make their mark. The interesting thing about Butler is that while they're ranked No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency most of their defensive components don't jump out and grab you -- the Bulldogs are merely above average at defending 2s and keeping opponents off the line, and pretty good at defending 3s and taking the ball away.

But they do one thing exceptionally well: Defensive rebound. People wonder why I harp on that as an important defensive skill, but the Bulldogs are the perfect example of why it matters. They're good-not-great at a lot of things, but the fact that they don't give opponents extra opportunities to score makes them a great defensive team overall. That's how important it is to end possessions, and it was the difference against Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State. Butler held them all to under 30 percent offensive rebounding -- and these are teams that were at 37.6, 40.4 and 39.7. They are able to take relatively ordinary talent and produce simply extraordinary results through being better fundamentally than all of their opponents.

They're likely going to have to be just as extraordinary tonight if they want to have a chance of shutting down Duke and pull off what will be considered an accomplishment of historical proportions. The Blue Devils have only been held under 42 percent offensive rebounding once in this tournament (by Cal, oddly enough), and that's not an accident -- they ranked No. 6 nationally in OR%.

Beyond that, Duke's offense is heavily dependent on its ability to offensive rebound: There's a +.47 correlation between their offensive rebounding percentage and their offensive efficiency. While you might think that's common for all great offensive rebounding teams -- common sense would tell you that increased opportunities to score should lead to increased scoring -- it's not actually always the case. A great example is the team that Duke just beat: WVU is the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the country, yet only has a +.23 correlation with offensive efficiency.

So while all the pundits will try and make this matchup really complicated, I'll go out on a limb and break it down this way: If Duke dominates their opponent on the offensive glass again, the Blue Devils will win this one going away. But if the Bulldogs can keep Duke under, say, 32 percent offensive rebounding, this game will come down to the final possession. The Blue Devils are unlikely to duplicate Saturday's somewhat fluky shooting performance (their 64.5 eFG% was their highest against high-major competition this year), and the fact that this game will likely be around 60 possessions should promote a close contest.

This won't be the most aesthetically pleasing game to the masses, but I'm fired up for it -- ball movement and good decision making will be at a premium to beat these two defenses. This will be a championship game from another era, and while Bill Simmons will have a lot of fun ripping it, those who actually understand that real basketball is more than just a series of isolation plays and 2-man sets ought to appreciate what they're going to watch tonight.

I honestly believe Butler will do a better job against Duke on the defensive glass than any of the Blue Devils' opponents so far this tournament, so impressed have I been with the Bulldogs. That's why I'm calling my shot now.

This will be an instant classic. I can't wait to watch.