NCAA MEN'S HOOPS FINALS (Butler vs Duke, 8:21 PM tip-off)
When I ranked the list of NCAA Finals permutations from "Most Compelling" to "Least Compelling" in this space last week, I had Butler vs Duke ranked as the most compelling. The figurative "Cinderella" (although let's not forget that Cinderella was favored to win their semifinal game against Michigan State) against the gold standard for consistent, overall college-basketball excellence for the last twenty years. David against Goliath, I guess. And while those storylines haven't faded, my confidence that Butler can pull off the upset certainly has.
While "David and Goliath" was more of a lazy "sportswriter's crutch" before the Final Four began, after Duke's complete dismantling of West Virginia in the semifinals, along with Butler again getting by pretty much on guts, a lot of misses by their opponent, and sporadic greatness from Gordon Hayward....well, let's just say that I want to believe that Butler can win tonight, I really do. After all, I am the same guy who spent an entire blog post helping all of you better hate the Duke Blue Devils.
All of that said, I think Duke kills Butler tonight. Like the same type of annihilation we saw Duke administer to West Virginia. And while Vegas doesn't necessarily agree with my double-digit thrashing assessment, they have put a 7.5 point spread on the game which is higher than Duke's SECOND-round game against eight-seed California.
I realize it's the NCAA tournament, and anyone can beat anyone, and to call Duke a lock or even near-lock to win this game is silly based on (1) how crazy this tournament has been and (2) the fact that the last time Butler lost a game, the calendar read "2009."
But for me, it comes down to simple sports homeostasis (i.e. "balancing of the universe") -- Butler escaped against Murray State, caught Syracuse without Arinze Onuaku, caught Kansas State two nights after a double-OT killer against Xavier, and caught Michigan State without Kalin Lucas. And they were all close games -- close games that Butler was better built to win than their opponents each time. Tight, low-possession, ugly games.
Duke is healthy and playing their best basketball of the season; Butler is surviving every game (not an insult, by the way) and now has their own set of health issues to deal with after forward Matt Howard suffered what may have been a concussion against MSU (although to be honest, Howard has seemed overmatched against the bigger, better teams in this tournament anyway). Most importantly, while Duke wants to up the tempo, they've got the size (Zoubek, Thomas) and the perimeter scoring to be comfortable playing a slower tempo.
My fear for Butler is this game stays close for a little while, and then Duke goes on one of their runs where Scheyer hits a three, Singler hits a three, and Nolan Smith knocks down a circus layup, and next thing you know a two-point deficit is a ten-point deficit and Butler is having to play a style they're not comfortable playing. Kind of like a football team who is trying to play the Colts or the Saints by playing ball control, but they throw a pick-six, have a three-and-out which turns into a quick touchdown, and now you're down 14 and having to open up the passing game when you don't want to.
The NCAA tournament is where teams that can win regardless of a style imposed upon them succeed. If I Clark Kellogg were to coin a made-up word for it, it would be the best "tourna-meleon" wins the tournament. (Combination of "tournament" and "chameleon," and if you don't think Clark Kellogg would make up a saying this stupid, then you didn't hear him trying to pass off "KYP" as an accepted phrase -- stands for "know your personnel," don't worry if you didn't know. No one else did.)
Duke can win this game ugly, they can win it BIG speeding the game up. They're the best "tourna-meleon." I think they win big.
DUKE 70, BUTLER 54
ASTROS SEASON PREDICTION
I'll make this one quick because it needs very little analysis. The Astros have been set at 74.5 wins as their over/under number in Las Vegas. These things we know about the Astros --
1. Their top three players account for almost $49 million of their roughly $92 million payroll. These players are Carlos Lee ($19M), Lance Berkman ($15M), and Roy Oswalt ($15M).
2. Among the players Carlos Lee is listed as most similar to by baseball-reference.com at this stage of his career are Dante Bichette, Greg Luzinski, and Kent Hrbek. I list these players because they have almost exactly the same body type as El Caballo. Oh, and they all fell off the cliff at this same age. (Here is where I mention that the Astros have Lee signed for through 2012 at $19 million per year.)
3. Among the players Lance Berkman is listed as most similar to by baseball-reference.com at this stage of his career is Carlos Lee. This is purely statistical and doesn't take into account the fact that Berkman's knee has been swollen since he set foot on the field in Kissimmee at spring training.
4. Roy Oswalt won eight games last season and has spent portions, sometimes sizable portions, of the last two seasons battling nagging injuries.
5. Name one place in this lineup where the Astros can pencil in 25 home runs and not even have to think about it. You can't. (Lee is the closest thing, but even he has averaged only 27 per season the last two years.)
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6. Name four places you can confidently pencil in more than 20 home runs. You can't.
7. You're counting on Wandy to have a season like he did last year (which he has done exactly once), you're counting on Bud Norris to take a major step, and you're counting on Brett Myers to win double-digit games. And if all that happens, you might win 84 games.
8. All of that won't happen.
PREDICTION: ASTROS 70-92 (5th place)
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.