Championship Preview

 HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

IT'S DOWN TO DUKE AND BUTLER
WITH THE TITLE ON THE LINE

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

And then there were TWO...and not the two that any of you had in your pre-tournament brackets!

Well, Duke was probably a popular choice, though they didn't exactly fit the profile of past champions thanks to a...lack of athleticism...lack of depth...and lack of an inside scoring game. They were a #1 seed, and people stick #1 seeds in the Final Four regardless of how skinny the player's arms are.

Butler? They're not exactly the surprise of the century given their preseason ranking and long undefeated string. If a mid-major was going to make history in the modern era, they were a very logical nominee. Given the scarcity of mid majors in recent Final Fours (plus Butler's own lack of athleticism, lack of depth, and lack of an inside scoring game relative to many other national powers), they seemed like a longshot.

Our use of 'Phantom Score' through the tournament has helped put that longshot status in perspective. We don't want to say it's 'luck' that's propelled Butler to the championship game. They have managed to play at a very high level in certain areas that have trumped their weaknesses in others.

Phantom Score is two-point scoring plus rebounding, which has had a VERY strong correlation in past years to success in the postseason. Butler is inconsistent in those areas relative to other contenders...but they've performed well from three-point land, in the turnover department and they've had a knack for earning trips to the free throw line which is uncommon for three-point heavy teams.

Does that mean we'll be de-emphasizing Phantom Score in the future? Probably not. It's a rare team that can consistently overcome weakness inside with three-point shooting and free throws through the Big Dance. They have to play perfectly in those other areas just to grind out wins...and they also need self-destruction from their opponents. Butler's games featured some of BOTH...and they still barely snuck into the party through a backdoor.

Here are the Phantom Scores from Saturday...

SATURDAY'S RESULTS

*Final Score: Butler 52, Michigan State 50
*Phantom Score: Michigan State 62, Butler 50

Butler was outclassed inside the arc, but made up for that with a 17-10 edge in made free throws and a 5-4 edge in treys (neither team shot well from long range). That's plus 10 points in a game they only won by two. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wasn't very happy about the game's officiating. Key Spartans were dealing with foul trouble all night, which is a killer on a shorthanded team. Even up the free throw category and Michigan State wins. We'll run through the Phantom Scores for all Butler tournament games in a moment.

*Final Score: Duke 78, West Virginia 57
*Phantom Score: Duke 58, West Virginia 47

Interestingly, the Duke/West Virginia game was actually very similar in style to the first slobberknocker. It just didn't seem that way because Duke was making its treys!

SATURDAY'S TREYS
Butler 5 of 21
Michigan State 4 of 11
West Virginia 5 of 12
Duke 13 of 25

That's 8-9 more than the other guys...which is 24-27 more points from long range. Duke had 78 on the scoreboard...subtract all the extra treys and you get something in the 50's. All the swishes made the game less ugly. Stylistically, the two games were actually very similar.

Let's stack them this way:
Duke 58, West Virginia 47
Michigan State 62, Butler 50

Duke wins bigger in 'real life' because of a big day from long range. Michigan State doesn't win because of a big free throw deficit and turnover issues. Very similar games in terms of pace, two-point scoring, and rebounding.

Of course, it's not Duke-Michigan State in the finals...it's Duke/Butler. Let's focus on that matchup the rest of the way...

NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

The Jim Hurley Network is racing to the finish line of the NCAA Tournament. We had a big 2-0 day on Saturday and ready to do it again on Monday, when we both the side AND total on the Duke-Butler final game! Our basketball experts are studying tapes and examining whether Butler's defense can contain Scheyer and Smith in the Blue Devil backcourt. Our on-scene sources have sent us their thoughts on who's going to maintain their focus in the short turnaround from Saturday. And our Vegas pipeline has clued us in as to whether Duke's blowout win makes them to hot to go against, or too overvalued to take. We'll have it all--the side, the total and a 13-5 payoff at the end! Get it all for $25!

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*BUTLER VS. DUKE
Vegas Line: Duke by 7, total of 129

Early estimates for the line had been Duke by 4.5. In fact, a Nevada sportsbook had offered that as a preliminary line prior to the weekend. You could bet any of the four championship possibilities...and Duke was -4.5 over Butler (and -5.5 over Michigan State). Once everyone watched Butler struggle to survive Saturday, then saw Duke run away and hide from West Virginia...perceptions changed. Early openers Saturday Night had Duke by 6. Early action (some of which came from the public that was still in sportsbooks after having watched the games) drove the number to 7 or 7.5.

Is Duke really that much better than Butler? Is a line of -7 too high for a grinder-type game? Let's review the Phantom Scores for some guidance.

BUTLER Phantom Scores So Far:
UTEP 68, Butler 47
Murray State 58, Butler 42
Syracuse 61, Butler 57
Butler 64, Kansas State 61
Michigan State 62, Butler 50

Average Result: Opponents 62, Butler 52

Butler is 1-4 in Phantom Score, averaging a 10-point loss. They've made up for that with treys, free throws, and a stellar turnover advantage in big games. It's important to note that if those other edges disappear, Butler is -10 in our pet category in a game where the Vegas line is +7. They'll be in the neighborhood of the spread even if they can't capture their past magic.

DUKE Phantom Scores So Far:
Duke 74, Arkansas Pine Bluff 48
Duke 82, California 61
Duke 77, Purdue 54
Baylor 79, Duke 63
Duke 58, West Virginia 47

Average Result: Duke 71, Opponents 58

Solid performances for Duke. Remember...this is +13 in a category that IGNORES their performance from three-point land. It's not exactly a killer schedule in those first three games considering how weak the Pac 10 was this year, and the fact that Purdue was missing its best player. If you adjust down for strength of schedule...or throw out Arkansas Pine-Bluff because they're not really a major team...something like +10 would probably be more accurate.

So...Phantom Score presents Duke by 10 as a starting point, then will challenge Butler to cut into that with its approach.

*Can Butler win the three-point category here? That will be tougher against Duke than anyone else they've faced. Though, Duke has been so hot the last two games that they may cool off a bit.

*Can Butler with the free throw category here? Against Duke? It's tougher to get the calls against Duke than maybe anyone else!

*Can Butler earn an edge in productive possessions by winning the turnover category? Duke's is a great ball handling team. They only suffered 6 turnovers vs. West Virginia Saturday, and 11 vs. a very aggressive Baylor defense. Here's another area where Butler may have trouble chipping away at disadvantages.

You can see why Duke is now -7 or -7.5 instead of something much smaller. It's a tough matchup for Butler...arguably much tougher than what they faced with shorthanded Syracuse (a #1 seed) and exhausted Kansas State (a #2 seed that had the talent of a #1). Butler's edge in fundamentals is less apparent vs. Duke.

Clearly handicappers have their work cut out here. We've presented part of our thinking process to you here in the NOTEBOOK. Luckily JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK has SCOUTS and SOURCES on site that will help us get into the mindset of each team. Will Duke be overconfident? That's certainly possible given how easily things went for them Saturday. Will Duke be in a letdown off their 'revenge' victory? Remember that West Virginia knocked out Duke then taunted them two years ago. Is the pressure off Butler now? Meaning they can shoot free and easy since they're playing as a dog rather than a favorite (the team shot a very nervous 31% vs. Michigan State).

We also have WISE GUY connections offshore and in Las Vegas. We know what the 'strike point' is for sharp underdog bettors (if there is one!). We know how much of the early line surge came from pro bettors, and how much came from tourists and locals hanging around the sportsbooks. You can rest assured that we'll be in line with the smart money by release time.

If you're having trouble making a decision in tonight's national championship game, call 1-800-323-4453 right now to sign up. Be sure to ask about Major League Baseball (huge day today!) and the NBA when you call. Game day releases and service packages can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card.

The national champion will be determined tonight when Duke battles Butler. When championships are on the line, YOU NEED WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!

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

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