Duke heads diverse Final Four

Blue Devils are picked to win

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2010 

After an NCAA tournament full of stunning upsets, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked about the diversity of the Final Four field.

Krzyzewski, who will coach in his 11th Final Four, isn't surprised to see new teams or a pair of No. 5 seeds joining Duke in Indianapolis.

Duke is the lone No. 1 seed that will travel to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Saturday evening's first semifinal at 6:07 p.m. will match the No. 5 seeds, Michigan State and Butler.

Butler is the underdog, hometown favorite from a less prominent mid-major conference making its first Final Four trip. Michigan State advanced through the Midwest Region without having to play No. 1 overall seed Kansas, which was shocked in the second round by another mid-major team, Northern Iowa.

West Virginia, Duke's opponent in a game scheduled to tip off at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, was a No. 2 seed and the Big East tournament champion. It upset a talented but inexperienced Kentucky team in the East Regional final. The Mountaineers are making their first Final Four appearance in 51 years.

"There just isn't the difference that there was, especially a decade ago, with some of the top, historic programs ... and the emerging programs," Krzyzewski said Monday during a telephone conference the Final Four coaches held with the media. "Teams from the non-traditional big conferences, I mean, there's just a lot of good basketball teams right now. You can get beat by a lot of people. I guess that's what the tournament has shown."

There is no more compelling story in the Final Four than Butler. The Bulldogs (32-4) are no pushover. They hold the longest winning streak in Division I at 24 games. But their small-conference identity and the fact that their campus is located six miles from the Final Four site, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, will pull at the heartstrings of fans locally and nationally.

Butler coach Brad Stevens is a baby-faced 33-year-old who abandoned a marketing job for Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly 10 years ago to follow his dream of coaching college basketball.

On Monday, Stevens tried to sneak in a back door at Butler's basketball arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse. But he arrived to find a line of fans wrapped all the way around the building, waiting and hoping for the opportunity to buy tickets.

"I think everybody recognizes how big of a deal this is," Stevens said. "And most importantly, it's a big deal for our school. My job is to help Butler, to promote Butler in a positive way. Our guys are doing my job for me."

Although Michigan State (28-8) is a No. 5 seed just like Butler, the two schools' situations couldn't be more different. A year ago, Michigan State won the Midwest Regional at Lucas Oil Stadium to advance to the Final Four in Detroit, where the Spartans lost to North Carolina in the NCAA title game. The Spartans were the hometown favorites in Detroit and embraced a role as a blue-collar team buoyed by the good wishes of workers in a town decimated by the economic downturn and auto industry cutbacks.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, with six Final Four appearances, trails only John Wooden (12), Krzyzewski, Dean Smith (11) and Roy Williams (seven). This season, the Spartans survived the loss of point guard Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles tendon in a second-round game against Maryland to get to Indianapolis.

"That part of it has been a little more unnerving than some Final Four runs," Izzo said. "I think it's made it more satisfying, too. I think it's what I look at it now and say, 'Wow, our guys did what we've asked them to do, they've handled adversity, sucked it up, toughed it out and shazam! We're heading to Indy, and that's awesome.' "

West Virginia (31-6) is the lone survivor from the Big East conference, whose strength was highly touted throughout the season. The Mountaineers have a tie to their past in reserve guard Jonnie West, son of Jerry West, who led West Virginia to the 1959 Final Four.

Bob Huggins, West Virginia's coach, is an alumnus of the school and led Cincinnati to the 1992 Final Four. His return after a fall from grace at Cincinnati following a DUI charge will be an important story line this week.

So will point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant's efforts to return to the court after he supposedly was out for the season after breaking bone in his right foot on Tuesday. School officials have confirmed that Bryant was in Durham getting fitted for a special shoe that could shift weight away from his broken fifth metatarsal.

Whether he was treated at the medical center at Duke - West Virginia's opponent Saturday - wasn't revealed.

"I just know that they said that with this [shoe], there was a chance that he could play," Huggins said. "For Truck's sake, and for the rest of our guys, I think we're going to explore every opportunity."

West Virginia will face a 33-5 Duke team that has re-emerged in the Final Four after a six-year absence that was difficult for its fans to stomach because archrival North Carolina made three Final Four trips and won two NCAA championships during that period.

The Blue Devils are back with a team whose talent Krzyzewski has admitted doesn't match that of their back-to-back NCAA champions in 1991 and 1992 but rates highly in cohesion and chemistry.

By virtue of its No. 1 seed, Duke will arrive in Indianapolis as the favorite to win the Final Four. But as the fates of the rest of the No. 1 seeds in this tournament attest, almost any result seems possible as this diverse group of teams gets ready to travel to Indianapolis.

"As you see it unravel, I think for all of us coaches in college basketball today, no one's surprised that anybody beat another team," Krzyzewski said.

Staff writer Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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