Final Four Analysis



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Over the years we've spent a lot of time emphasizing the importance of defense and rebounding when handicapping college and pro basketball. We're continually astonished (ASTONISHED!) and how many pundits and handicappers just leave this out of the equation when discussing games.

We've typed'defense and rebounding wins championships' probably 10,000 times since the NOTEBOOK started here online. We'll be doing that again in the next few days because it's GUARANTEED to happen at the Final Four in Indianapolis! All four remaining teams are strong in these vital areas.

Take a look...

Duke 44% vs. a very strong schedule
Michigan State 45% vs. a strong schedule
West Virginia 46% vs. a very strong schedule
Butler 46% vs. a strong schedule

A rating of 46% by itself is enough to rate in the top third nationally. You have to mentally adjust upward for all four because of their schedule strengths. Butler may have had a slightly softer regular season schedule than the others. But, once you knock out teams seeded 1-2-4 in Syracuse, Kansas State, and Vandy...that strength of schedule is going to get a lot better!

Duke grades out as the best of the four inside. They don't have a lot of depth, so they need to keep their starters on the floor to maintain that level of accomplishment this weekend. We often think the Blue Devils are overrated (they usually are!). This year's collection has impressed us with their hustle and intensity on both ends of the floor. Holding a strong schedule to 44% inside the arc is a fine job indeed. The 44% mark by itself is good enough for top 40 in the country (out of well over 300 measured teams). Factor in strength of schedule, and you can see how disruptive this group is.

West Virginia and Michigan State are probably about equal when you adjust for strength of schedule. And, by that, we mean equally good. It's far from a collection of defensive juggernauts, we'll admit that. Butler doesn't recruit juggernauts. Duke really doesn't either because of their academic restrictions. Given the talent on the floor, all four teams are making the most of what they've got on this side of the ball.

Now, check out these rebounding notes...

*West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding. That's SECOND out of well over 300 teams!

*Duke ranks 7th in the nation in offensive rebounding. You saw how that won the game for them last week vs. Baylor. They needed every last one of those offensive rebounds to salvage a game they very easily could have lost.

*Michigan State is 8th in the nation in offensive rebounding, and 22nd in the nation on defense. That's THREE teams in the top eight when it comes to crashing the offensive boards. Michigan State has the athletes and schematic to thrive on both ends.

*Butler ranks 14th in the nation in defensive rebounding, choosing to emphasize'stops' with their strong box out schematics rather than crashing the offensive boards.

Defense and rebound wins championships. There isn't a Bill Russell on the floor this weekend by any means. The principles are still very much in play. It will be VERY interesting to see what happens when four very similar teams that emphasize many of the same things square off to determine a champion.

How similar are they? Let's also include pace factor in today's report...

Duke 67
Michigan State 66
West Virginia 65
Butler 64

The national average is 67, so we're looking at average and below average in terms of pace. When you adjust for their schedules (Duke plays in the fast ACC), you actually get four teams who are almost dead ringers for each other. That's why you're seeing such low totals in these games in Vegas. All four prefer slow down basketball. On offense, they try to work for a good shot. On defense, they do a good job of disrupting opponents in a slow down game. Each crashes the board with nationally ranked intensity on at least one side of the court.

This is a far cry from what we've been seeing in the FINAL FOUR in recent years. North Carolina flew at people and dared you to stop them. Kansas and Memphis largely did the same, but also had very aggressive defenses that constantly hounded the ball. 2010 is a throwback year...with ALL FOUR remaining teams largely playing a style from another era.

We've focused on Phantom Scores this year throughout the Dance (two-point scoring plus rebounding). That's a'secondary' score we use to shed light on the most important elements of the game. Three-point shooting blows hot and cold (with both West Virginia and Duke blowing HOT at just the right time last week, against opponents who blew cold). Free throw shooting comes at the whims of officials. The elements of Phantom Score are most consistent, and have the best predictive value. Let's run through those in matchup order.

Vegas Line: Butler by 1, total of 126

BUTLER Phantom Scores So Far:
UTEP 68, Butler 47
Murray State 58, Butler 42
Syracuse 61, Butler 57
Butler 64, Kansas State 61

Butler deserves credit obviously for getting past Syracuse and Kansas State in a killer weekend. The stats above do show relative weakness compared to what real powers are supposed to do. Butler wins some games with three-pointers...and wins some with turnover differential (neither of which is included in Phantom Score). If they run into teams who can also make three's (or it's a day where Butler isn't hitting), and can handle the ball, Butler is in trouble. It's VERY rare for a team with Phantom Score blowout losses vs. teams like UTEP or Murray State to last this long. They HAVE to do everything else right!

It would be tempting to say that Butler is a pretender. This is a year without perfect teams...and a season where everyone had to do some things to scrape by. You'll see that next with Butler's opponent.

MICHIGAN STATE Phantom Scores So Far:
Michigan State 64, New Mexico State 62
Michigan State 79, Maryland 61
Michigan State 55, Northern Iowa 46
Michigan State 60, Tennessee 58

On the real scoreboard, Michigan State played nailbiters with New Mexico State, Maryland (buzzer winner), and Tennessee. Those were teams seeded 12, 4, and 6...and you'd have to go back a long way to find a National Champion that had to sweat THREE games vs. mid and low level seeds like that. Phantom Score shows that the nailbiters in the first and last games weren't illusions.

Vegas has the game near pick-em because neither team has established they can win by margin on purpose vs. quality. Butler has to hit treys or hope for a mistake-prone foe. Michigan State is a grinder.

Vegas Line: Duke by 2, total of 131

DUKE Phantom Scores So Far:
Duke 74, Arkansas Pine Bluff 48
Duke 82, California 61
Duke 77, Purdue 54
Baylor 79, Duke 63

Duke was dominant in its first three games, then needed an 11-5 edge in treys vs. Baylor to survive the Elite Eight. Now, Baylor is a DOMINANT Phantom Score team because of their inside power. It's not really a shame to lose this stat to the Bears (though -16 is a bit much). Just remember that Duke had a great day on the offensive boards, yet still lost a stat influenced strongly by rebounds by that many!

We complain about Duke a lot. Don't think of them as a'great' team. Think of them as a short rotation that makes up for its weaknesses with a lot of hustle. They were certainly a lot better than Arkansas Pine Bluff, California, and shorthanded Purdue. Pencil in normal three-point shooting in the Baylor game for both teams...and Duke is watching this weekend on TV like the rest of us. The same can be said about their opponent this week!

WEST VIRGINIA Phantom Scores So Far:
West Virginia 82, Morgan State 64
West Virginia 64, Missouri 58
West Virginia 84, Washington 63
Kentucky 83, West Virginia 54

Interesting similarities to that both crushed a first round pretender...crushed a Pac 10 team with a soft underbelly...then needed three-pointers to counteract significant inside edges in the Elite Eight. West Virginia beat Kentucky 10-4 on treys, and didn't make a two-pointer in the first half.

We have to say, this isn't exactly a'dream' Final Four! It's way out of character from past seasons, when we generally saw Phantom powers steamrolling people. As we said earlier, it's a throwback year. Slower teams hit an above average number of treys at just the right a season where there were fewer power teams than normal.

How do you handicap games like this? The fundamentals still apply. And, the edges of JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK still apply! We've got SCOUTS and SOURCES in Indianapolis. We've got STATHEADS crunching every number (as you saw today, numbers we invented ourselves!). We've got COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS running simulations around the clock. We've got WISE GUY CONNECTIONS monitoring the smart and dumb money. JIM HURLEY IS GOING TO CASH TICKETS ONCE AGAIN IN THE FINAL FOUR!

The number to call for today's action is 1-800-323-4453. You can also purchase the card or longer term packages here at the website with your credit card.

One team on the floor today is your next national champion. When championships are on the line you need WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by and For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.


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