Here we are again. It’s nice, isn’t it? The Final Four. Bask in it for a moment.
Okay, now reel yourself back in. It’s time to figure out who’s going to win.
This year, we are blessed to have four such storied programs vying for the title of NCAA Champions. All four contestants have a potent mix of strong tradition, interesting storylines, immense talent, and legendary coaches.
In terms of storylines, you have to start with Kentucky. Their run at the record books is nearing its boiling point, as the Wildcats sit a mere two wins away from achieving the first 40-0 season in NCAA history. Make no mistake, there is no easy road to that fortieth win, though. Making their 18th Final Four appearance in school history, Kentucky faces perhaps their tallest task in Wisconsin (more on them in a minute). However, John Calipari has put together quite an amazing – maybe perfect – team. From top to bottom, every player in the rotation has and knows his role. They’ve got the big men in Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Trey Lyles, not to mention Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee coming off the bench. They have the dangerous duo of backcourt brothers, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who are spelled by the more-than-capable Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Calipari can play just about any combination of these players with little to no drop-off in performance. The Wildcats have held opponents to the fewest points in the nation this season. Meanwhile, they score about 20 points more than their foes, which means this is not a team built on eking out close victories in the 50s (looking your way, Virginia). Really, we’ve only seen Kentucky truly tested maybe four times all year. During the regular season, they needed some heroics to get past Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and LSU – and they got them. Last weekend, Notre Dame gave it everything they had down the stretch, punching back at Kentucky. When Jerian Grant’s desperation buzzer-beater from the corner missed by thatmuch, the Irish just barely missed their chance to KO the Floyd Mayweather of college basketball. Like they have all season long, Kentucky exhaled and celebrated a hard-fought victory. Now, they face a Badger team that looks like it might be poised to play spoiler to Kentucky’s Hollywood ending.
In any other season, the Badgers’ amazing performance this year would have garnered a lot more attention than it has. But when you’ve got another team going undefeated, you’re going to be overlooked a little more. That’s not to say that the Big Ten champions haven’t gotten their fair share of ink. Wisconsin’s gawky star Frank Kaminsky just won the AP Player of the Year award, for instance. It’s just that this whole tournament has been operating with a Kentucky-against-the-field air to it. Watching the Badgers in their first four games of the Big Dance, however, I believe that they truly might be the only team that could beat the Cats. You want to talk about inside presence? While Kaminsky might have some trouble inside against Cauley-Stein and Towns, there are other options for the Badgers. Sam Dekker, for one, has been on fire lately. He was the spark that ignited Wisconsin’s comeback against North Carolina, and he was one of the key factors in their win over Arizona. He presents a true challenge for the Wildcats, who don’t have a player who directly matches Dekker’s combination of size and quickness. He could be the X-factor in this game as well, especially if he gets hot from beyond the arc. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, and Josh Gasser will have to shut down the Kentucky guards on defense. If the Badgers have a clear disadvantage against the Cats, it lies in its depth. John Calipari has the much deeper bench, but Bo Ryan’s squad has been logging serious minutes. Don’t discount the boost that they get from the return of Traevon Jackson, either. He and Zak Showalter will have to play some big minutes in order to keep Kentucky from tiring the Badgers out. One thing Wisconsin does very well is get to the line, where they shoot 76%. They will need to draw some fouls to make Kentucky go to its bench early and often. Even then, Wisconsin can ill afford to go cold from downtown. To beat a team like the Wildcats, you really need to be hitting on all cylinders. The Badgers have found ways to win in the tournament, and they will need to find more in order to keep Kentucky from their 39th victory.
Before these two titans square off, however, there is another game to be played. Two of the coaches who have defined the last 20 years of college basketball, Mike Krzyzewksi and Tom Izzo, go head-to-head. While John Calipari has often received some flak about the number of one-and-done players he brings into his program, Coach K has started trending this way, as well. He actually starts more freshmen than his Kentucky counterpart does. Led by All-American Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow, Duke has been one of the country’s best teams all year long. They faltered some at the beginning of ACC play, but two of their losses this season came against that Notre Dame team that was inches away from upsetting Kentucky. Like the Wildcats, Duke has a few non-freshmen that are pretty good, too. Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson have also played big roles for this team. While Okafor has been relatively quiet in the last few games, Winslow and Jones have been picking up that slack. Duke looked impressive in its ability to shut down Utah and Gonzaga. They are playing as well as any of the four teams remaining in the tournament. Along with Kentucky and Wisconsin, the Blue Devils are among the top three teams in the country right now. If they can get past the Spartans, the title game is going to be spectacular, regardless of who makes it from the other side of the bracket. Coach K needs his youngsters to play like seniors on Saturday, because they are facing a Michigan State team that far exceeds the experience of Duke.
Before we get into their roster, take a minute to look at what Tom Izzo’s team has done in this tournament. They got past a scrappy Georgia squad in the Round of 64, which set up their monster upset of Virginia. This was the second-straight season in which the Spartans bounced a highly-touted Cavaliers team. Virginia had looked like a one-seed for the entire season, but then they stumbled down the stretch after losing Justin Anderson for a month. They never fully recovered, ultimately falling to Michigan State. Then, the Spartans upset an underrated Oklahoma team, led by standout guard Buddy Hield. This paved the way for their Elite Eight matchup against Louisville, who looked to be regaining their form at just the right time. You just can’t bet against a Tom Izzo team in March, it seems. The Spartans clawed their way through the game, eventually toppling the Cardinals in overtime. The magical run of Michigan State has been championed by senior guard Travis Trice, who has broken out in a big way in the Big Dance. Trice has not been alone, however. Joining him are fellow senior Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine. One of the reasons for the success of the Spartans has been their depth, rotating players like Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Gavin Schilling, Marvin Clark Jr., and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn into the game. These guys might not be as heralded as the other three teams in the Final Four, but the Spartans have the players – not to mention the momentum – to continue their special run of form. Trice and Valentine will need to match, and perhaps outplay, their backcourt counterparts of Jones and Cook. Dawson and Costello have to handle the interior strength of Okafor and Winslow. Michigan State has been able to beat some teams with one or two stars on their squads, but this Duke team has no fewer than four players who are legitimate options to take over a game. If Tom Izzo wants a shot at his second national championship, he must get every one of his players to play at their full potential. This is the seventh time that Izzo has been to the Final Four since 1999, but he has only made the title game twice. He is also 1-for-9 in games against Coach K. But you don’t play these games on paper. With the kind of momentum and experience that Michigan State has, you simply can’t count them out. Keep in mind: the 7-seed from the East won the tournament last year, led by six standout performances from a senior guard. Just saying.
If I had to play it safe, I would predict that Kentucky would beat Wisconsin and Duke would beat Michigan State, with the Wildcats topping the Blue Devils to complete their 40-0 season. But you know what? I don’t have to play it safe. That’s not in my job description. So, sorry Kentucky fans. I am throwing my eggs into the Badgers’ basket. Watching the Badgers in their last two games, I have seen them turn it up to 11 when they have needed to. Maybe I just don’t want to see a 40-0 team. I don’t know. Something in my gut tells me that we’re looking at 38-1 instead. On the other side, I do see Duke winning. I think Duke has been playing at a higher level than any of the teams that Michigan State has beaten. Their performance against Gonzaga sealed that for me. This would set up a Duke-Wisconsin final, in which I have the Badgers cutting down the nets. Bo Ryan has been immensely underrated in his time at Wisconsin, but I feel like this is the year that he makes his indelible mark on college basketball.
FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS
Wisconsin over Kentucky, 67-64
Duke over Michigan State, 80-73
Wisconsin over Duke, 71-67
Well, there you have it, folks. This has been an amazing season so far. No matter how the final three games go, the quality of the matchups will be top-notch. Now, we just have to sit back and watch.