For what more could we possibly ask? Over two days, eight teams exuded personality, created palpable drama, and competed for regional championships. Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Duke advanced but Arizona, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Gonzaga deserve admiration for their efforts in a memorable weekend of high quality college basketball. Making a Final Four is no easy feat. In a “championship or bust” sports culture, it becomes easier and easier to overlook the fact that 4 teams, 1.14% of the 351 Division I schools, qualified for and survived a single elimination tournament with insane variation in seeding, matchups, and location. Each team brings a unique story and set of qualities that make this one of the most anticipated Final Fours of recent memory.
Kentucky’s Legendary Quest
The fashionable stance for most college basketball fans to take is, “John Calipari cheats. Kentucky doesn’t deserve their glory, and this façade will crumble.” It sure is easy to hate dominant champions that Twitter, ESPN, and CBS all fawn over. This year, though, is different. I can’t speak to whether or not Coach Cal cheated any more or less than any other coach in America, but I do recognize how truly special this team and this season are. Kentucky faced all comers early in the season, the players stayed humble after blowouts and wins on rivals’ home courts. They kept composure when challenged in the regular season and when pushed to the brink in Cleveland last weekend. They celebrate accomplishments with unbridled joy, and they seem to sense just how impossible 40-0 sounded before this season.
Kentucky brings to the Final Four the best kenpom rating any team has ever achieved. Karl Anthony Towns looks like the best player on the floor every night, even in limited minutes, and Aaron Harrison is back to hitting incredible, late game, three point shots in the tournament. Willie Cauley-Stein anchors a defense that allows only 85 points per 100 possessions, best in the country, and John Calipari has this team ready to win. Size and three point shooting, in combination, bother Kentucky. Wisconsin has both, but the Wildcats still enter the game as heavy favorites to reach Monday night’s final. Win or lose, there is no doubt that the most talented and best team in college basketball all year was Kentucky. But the best team doesn’t always win the tournament.
Wisconsin’s Chance for Redemption
Bo Ryan brought his best Wisconsin team to Dallas last season. The Badgers easily handled early round games then upset a top-flight Arizona team to reach their first Final Four since 2000. With 7th seeded UConn already in the tournament final and 8th seeded Kentucky standing in their way, Wisconsin looked poised to cut down the nets. The Wildcats and Badgers played a masterpiece of a game before Aaron Harrison sealed a win with a late 35-foot three point shot. Kentucky would lose the national final, then return with the most decorated roster in the country. Four Wisconsin starters returned and the Badgers had a mission statement: spoil Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection.
The 2015 version of Bo Ryan’s squad features the nation’s best college basketball player. Seven-footer Frank Kaminsky does everything well. He can post, he can shot, and he can guard big men without fouling. Wisconsin runs their entire offense through Kaminsky, and they rely on him to create space for their other talented big men, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker. This system and these players produced the most efficient offense in the country this season. The Badgers played near-flawless basketball in the 2nd half against Arizona last Saturday night. If they fire on all cylinders and shoot 12-18 from behind the arc again, Kentucky will struggle to keep pace. Bo Ryan may also have some tricks up his sleeve against fellow Hall of Famer, John Calipari. Coach Cal openly said that his time watches very little tape of opponents. Many consider Ryan an elite in-game coach. After-time-out efficiency numbers bear that out. If the ‘Cats underprepare and shoot poorly, Wisconsin might succeed where Notre Dame fell just short.
Duke Protecting a Legacy
With four championships since 1991, Duke stands above all other Division I basketball programs. For all the success, for all the wins, the Blue Devils have never posted a perfect record. In a micro sense, none of these players, and probably not even the coaches, think much about other teams’ or programs’ historical standing. But what a compelling story two blue-bloods battling on Monday night for National Championship with an undefeated season on the line would make. Particularly this season, when Duke, not Kentucky, boasted the number one overall recruiting class and the top NBA prospect in Jahlil Okafor. With a tournament title, Coach K would move into sole possession for 2nd most national championships ahead of Adolph Rupp – the legendary coach from Kentucky. He certainly doesn’t need a win to cement his legacy of solidify his program, but he may have only a few opportunities left to bring home a fifth title before retirement.
By seeding, Duke has the easiest Final Four game of any remaining team. Michigan State played poorly in the non-conference relative to expectations, and the Devils own a double digit, neutral floor win over Sparty from November. Stud freshman Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justice Winslow pace the Blue Devils while Ameile Jefferson and Quinn Cook provide enough support to make Duke dangerous at all five positions. Duke’s defense played surprisingly well through the first four games of the tournament and held each opponent under one point per possession. The way Coach K’s team played against Gonzaga on Sunday evening, they can beat anyone.
Michigan State’s Impossible Run
Tom Izzo has two tournament habits: making the final four, and losing to teams of destiny. Michigan State earned its seventh Final Four berth in Izzo’s twentieth season, but they face a seemingly impossible task in the weekend ahead. Should they beat a Duke team to whom they’ve already lost, Sparty would face a Wisconsin team who took them down in the Big Ten Conference Tournament finals, or the juggernaut Wildcats. The story sounds familiar to State fans. In 2005 and 2009, the Spartans made improbable Final Four runs only to lose to eventual champion North Carolina teams. In 2010, Michigan State fell in the Final Four to Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs. Even in 2006, when Michigan State make an unusual early exit, they dropped a contest to the ultimate Cinderella, George Mason. The detail of Tom Izzo’s success that continuously astounds fans and analysts is that he rarely fields the most talented team in the field. Since 2001, Michigan State earned a 3-seed or better only three times. Izzo recruits as well as just about any coach in the world, but more importantly, his teams crescendo at exactly the right time.
Michigan State has the perimeter talent and overall versatility to create matchup problems at all five positions. Defensively, though, the Spartans struggle inside. Their tallest players, 6’9” Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling, defend well, but commit too many fouls to stay on the floor. Louisville exploited this last weekend with Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear, who combined to shoot 21 free throws. Duke, Wisconsin, and Kentucky all have overwhelming size and interior talent. To win, Sparty will need to pressure opponents and keep them uncomfortable in the half court. They also need to shoot threes successfully and at a higher volume than normal. The road to a championship seems impossible, but that hardly ever deters Izzo and his team.
The combined star power of the coaches and players in this Final Four boggles the mind. Together, Coach Cal, Coach Ryan, Coach K, and Coach Izzo account for 27 Final Four appearances, over 2,000 wins and six national championships. Cauley-Stein, Kaminsky, and Okafor received Wooden All-American honors and all three are finalists for the Wooden Player of the Year award. With Kentucky’s undefeated season on the line and the perfect set of opponents standing in their way this weekend promises to deliver.