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March 29, 2010
Tournament Preview
An Improbable Final Four

by Ken Pomeroy

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A log5 update

                    Pre-tourney
                   Final4  Champ      Final   Champ
1S   Duke           51.2    24.5       69.6    56.0
2E   West Virginia  20.0     3.8       30.4    19.5
5W   Butler          5.3     0.5       57.7    15.4
5MW  Michigan St.    3.6     0.5       42.3     9.0

This is a log5 table. It's explained here. The "Pre-tourney" columns indicate a team's chances of reaching the Final Four and winning the title as estimated before the tournament began.

If you had this Final Four in your bracket, then you have my sincere congratulations because it had about a 1-in-5000 chance of happening. Itís no surprise that Butler and Michigan State are responsible for the rare figure here. Butler will play the Cinderella card, but the Spartans are the true long shot, surviving the brutal Midwest region without Kalin Lucas for two and a half games.

Tom Izzo deserves credit for leading the Spartans on this improbable run, but letís not forget that Michigan State got to avoid the top three seeds in its region and won three games that were decided in the final seconds. Izzo did a great job, but circumstances mostly beyond his control also played a role in the Spartansí trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.

While the chance of the Bulldogs or Spartans winning a title has risen substantially since the field was announced, their chance of winning the title game itself should they get there has actually decreased. Prior to the tourney, Butler had a 31 percent chance of winning the title game if they got there. That figure has dropped to 27 percent. For Michigan State the number has dropped from 32 to 21 percent. The reason for that should be obvious--now we know the opponent will be Duke or West Virginia. Before the tournament started it was more likely than not that it would be a weaker team.

One bookkeeping note: Iím not including any home-site boost for Butler. Our best information indicates that the Bulldogs deserve about a point for this, which is a quarter of the normal home-court advantage. Given the increased demands for each team during the week of the Final Four, the fact that the other three teams fly in early and arenít arriving from far away, and that Butler didnít exactly light up the turnstiles at home this year, the advantage of playing in Indy has been a bit overstated.

Nonetheless, the quality of Butlerís defense has been understated. Itís not lacking athleticism or solely benefitting from opponents that are tired and/or playing sloppy. Fellow coaches with struggling defenses would be wise to watch how Brad Stevensí team defends ball screens and passing lanes. This is a legitimately great defense.

By the way, Saturdayís first game is not merely there to determine which team will play the role of the Washington Generals to the Duke/West Virginia version of the Globetrotters. The undercard has a 1-in-4 chance of providing us with a champion, not so low that you can simply write off the title game as a non-competitive event.

Finally, as I have done each step of the way, I must warn you that Dukeís chances may be overstated by this analysis. However, I think we have to entertain the idea that Duke may be underrated by the national media. We can take subjective schedule adjustments or thoughts on the relative strength of the ACC out of the equation using the Blue Devilsí tournament results so far. Their offense posted the fifth-highest efficiency Cal has allowed this season, the second-highest that Purdue has seen, and the highest that Baylor allowed. The Duke defense held Cal to its fourth-worst offensive efficiency and Purdue to its second-worst. (Baylor actually had a decent offensive game against Duke.)

Despite being the teamís relative weakness, the Blue Devil defense does get some press for being great, primarily because it ranks high in points per game allowed. However, schedule-adjusted numbers have shown that ACC offenses were rather unspectacular this season, while the ACCís defenses were the best in the nation.

For whatever value you can place on 120 minutes of action, tournament play indicates that while Duke canít make a two-point basket to save its life, their reputation for having an average offense may indeed be grounded in the brutal defenses they had to face for 19 conference games. Based on their mastery of every offensive skill besides two-point shooting, the Blue Devil offense may not have an equal in 2010, as both in-conference figures and schedule-adjusted estimates hinted at during the regular season.

Saturdayís main event between Duke and WVU isnít the national title game of course, but it may be the best collection of team strength weíve seen on one court this season. Whichever team wins will have had its most impressive victory of the year. Whether the game produces any professional stars remains to be seen. Itís worth noting that the hard-working folks at DraftExpress do not project a single lottery pick (or anything close) among the 20 starters on the four remaining teams. (Duke reserve Mason Plumlee is a projected lottery pick for 2011.) Thatís the ultimate lesson learned from this tournament: Although it surely helps, a team doesnít need a bevy of future NBA starters to win a title.

Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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Erasing Misses (03/29)
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Tournament Preview (03/24)
Next Column >>
Tournament Preview (03/30)
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No Lopez Tonight (03/30)

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