The wonderful madness of March has culminated, bestowing upon us that wonderful gift of the first weekend of April: the Final Four.
To be sure, no one probably picked this Final Four. I, for one, did include West Virginia in my final four, but that was all.
Duke has been synonymous in recent years with the words "early exit." I had them losing in the Sweet 16. Sure, the Blue Devils may have had an easy region, but they did not have an easy path. According to cbssports.com's Gary Parrish, after all, Duke is the only Final Four team that has played three teams seeded eighth or higher.
Michigan State did not even seem like the best team in its conference and when its leading scorer Kalin Lucas went down against Maryland in the second round, people were sticking a fork in Sparty.\nAnd then there's Butler. Sure, they were ranked in the top 10 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' preseason poll, but who honestly had them penciled in - other than the residents of Indianapolis?
What follows is a breakdown of each matchup. Afterward, I'll pick the winners, and though I'll inevitably fail in the same way I did with my bracket, the point is I'm trying. I'll also include a totally subjective section where I'll pick winners based on mascot.
Game one: No. 5-seed Butler Bulldogs (32-4) versus No. 5-seed Michigan State Spartans (28-8), 6:07 p.m., ET.
Butler defeated No. 12 seed UTEP, No. 13-seed Murray State, No. 1-seed Syracuse and No. 2-seed Kansas State in the West region final to make it to Indy. The Bulldogs enter Indianapolis as the home favorite - the Butler campus, after all, is mere minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium - and on a mammoth 24-game win streak, as they last lost to UAB Dec. 22. They are led by Gordon Hayward, who is averaging 15.2 points per game this season and had his best game of the tournament in the Elite Eight against Kansas State when he scored 22 points. Shelvin Mack leads the Bulldogs in tournament scoring, tallying 16.5 points per game. Butler has surrendered only 56.5 points per game in the tournament. Third-year coach Brad Stevens has made the tournament every year at Butler and boasts an 88-14 overall record. No other coach in NCAA history has won more than 88 games during his first three years.
Michigan State toppled No. 12-seed New Mexico State, No. 4-seed Maryland, No. 9-seed Northern Iowa and No. 6-seed Tennessee in the Midwest region final. The Spartans are without Lucas, but Durrell Summers has stepped up big time, averaging 20 points per game during the tournament after averaging only 11.2 during the regular season. Raymar Morgan is the next biggest scoring threat at 11.5 points per game during the regular season. Draymond Green is the team's leader in rebounds, but his production in that area has decreased each game of the tournament. The Final Four is old hat for both coach Tom Izzo and his players: Izzo has made it to the Final Four six of the last 12 years, and most of the current Spartans were a part of last year's team that lost to North Carolina in the finals. Michigan State sports an enormous 8.7 rebounding margin.
My pick: You have to like Izzo's success and experience, but it seems as if the Spartans are often on the losing end of big games. Butler coach Brad Stevens is a rising star and has the Bulldogs poised to make a statement. Butler is not afraid of the big stage or coaching legends, having downed Syracuse and coach Jim Boeheim in the Sweet 16. You would think that the absence of Lucas would eventually catch up to Michigan State. Plus, Delvon Roe and Chris Allen are hampered by lingering injuries. How long can the Spartans hold up? They have not won any tournament games by more than seven points - how long will luck be in their favor? I would like Butler to edge Michigan State 64-63, riding the wave of the pro-Bulldog crowd and a 24-game winning streak to victory.
Better mascot: I have to go with Sparty, the forever-bulky Michigan State mascot. I love the real-life bulldog for Butler and all the schools that use real-life bulldogs, but it isn't very original.
Game two: No. 1-seed Duke Blue Devils (33-5) versus No. 2-seed West Virginia Mountaineers, 9 p.m.
Duke beat No. 16-seed Arkansas Pine-Bluff, No. 8-seed California, No. 4-seed Purdue and No. 3-seed Baylor in the South region final on the road to Indy. The Blue Devils have been led all year by the "big three": Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, all who average more than 17 points per game. Scheyer appeared to be slumping following a seven-point effort against California but then put up 20 against Baylor. Singler went an uncharacteristic 0-for-10 from the field against the Bears and must shoot better against West Virginia. Smith totaled a career-best 29 points against Baylor. As a team, Duke shoots an impressive 38.2 percent from three-point range while holding opponents to only 27.8 percent from beyond the arc. Brian Zoubek grabbed 7.3 rebounds per game during the regular season, but has been even more of a force inside during the tournament, averaging 10 boards per game.
West Virginia downed No. 15-seed Morgan State, No. 10-seed Missouri, No. 11-seed Washington and No. 1-seed Kentucky in the East region final in its four tournament games. The Mountaineers have been very impressive in the tournament, beating every opponent by at least seven points. Da'Sean Butler has been solid throughout the season, averaging 17.4 points per game. Darryl Bryant - who has not played the last two games because of injury - is among the team leaders in assists, but coach Bob Huggins is unsure of his status Saturday. Joe Mazzulla filled in spectacularly for Bryant against Kentucky, scoring 17 points after only chipping in 2.1 points per game during the year. Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks have both increased their scoring during the tournament. The Mountaineers have been stingy on defense, only allowing Kentucky to score more than 60 points during the tournament.
My pick: These teams appear to be the best left in the tournament. The Mountaineers have won four tournament games by an average of 14 points per game, while Duke's margin of victory is 16 on average. Before Duke's contest with Baylor, I would've picked West Virginia by 8-10 points, but I thought the Blue Devils were very impressive against the Bears. Duke has three go-to guys and a supporting cast of players that know their roles. Though the Big East did not perform as expected in the Big Dance, it is hard to go against West Virginia, which won the conference's tournament. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is coaching in his 11th Final Four, but his first since 2004. If he can't win it all with this group, will he ever win it again? West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is in the Final Four for just the second time, the first being with Cincinnati in 1991-92. Despite the poor tournament showing, the Big East has still looked deeper than the ACC this year, and I just can't trust Duke. Plus, I'm sticking with the only team left I had in my Final Four: West Virginia in a tight one, 69-66.
Better mascot: Wouldn't a Mountaineer just be able to shoot a Blue Devil? Or would the Blue Devil be able to apparate and avoid the bullets? Or maybe the bullets would just go through the Blue Devil all together? Well, either way, I'm going with the Mountaineers, because that's the mascot of my high school.
Championship game pick: West Virginia has been solid all year. Butler will have the city of Indianapolis behind it and perhaps a lot of the nation. I think the Mountaineers have enough firepower to overcome the staunch defense of Butler. West Virginia wins 65-63.