An epic Final Four awaits in Indianapolis this weekend
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
The 2015 NCAA Tournament has not failed at all to bring college basketball fans the madness of March once again, as we have seen our fair share of upsets, buzzer beaters, and busted brackets. As a result of that, the Final Four this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis should be the ultimate culmination of what has been an awesome tournament and even better college basketball season.
It's common for many college basketball fans to root for Cinderellas to make deep tournament runs each year in order to see someone different contend for the title. While it's always cool to see an underdog or two knock off some of the best teams in the tournament, the problem it often times brings about is unattractive matchups in the later rounds (i.e. Final Four) where people want to see the best teams, players, and coaches go at it for the national championship. David and Goliath showdowns are enjoyable to watch, but a prize fight between two heavyweights is even better. Not to mention, a matchup between big time programs brings in much better viewer ratings and very happy smiles for our friends over at CBS and Turner Sports.
Fortunately, every team left standing heading into the Final Four this weekend is a heavyweight in the college basketball world. Each of the four teams left have incredible fans, outstanding players, rich championship history, and most notably, top-notch coaching. All four coaches are some of the best in the business and have already earned or most certainly deserve to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In many respects, the four teams remaining are here in large part due to terrific coaching.
(7) Michigan State Spartans (27-11) vs. (1) Duke Blue Devils (33-4), 6:09 PM TBS
The first national semifinal on Saturday night features two programs and coaches that are all too familiar with each other. The Blue Devils and Spartans squared off earlier this season in Indianapolis (what a coincidence!), with Duke coming away with a 81-71 victory. This will be the fourth time that head coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Tom Izzo of Michigan State will face off in the NCAA Tournament, and the second time it will happen in the Final Four. Coach K has won two of the previous three matchups, including their most recent matchup in 2013 when the Blue Devils took down the Spartans in the Sweet 16. The only other Final Four showdown between these two powerhouses came back in 1999, when Duke rolled past Michigan State on its way to the national title game.
This year's Final Four will be the 12th all-time for Coach K, which is tied with Hall of Fame coach John Wooden for the most all-time, and 7th all-time for Izzo. While Coach K is already in the Hall of Fame, Izzo is one of the first coaches who comes to mind that deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and has yet to be nominated.
However, both teams have had very different paths to Indianapolis. Coach K's Duke squad was expected to contend for a national championship from the start of the season due to its NBA-caliber talent, most notably All-American big man Jahlil Okafor. Duke did not win the ACC regular season or tournament title for the fourth straight year, but still earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and rolled through the South Region. Duke is looking for its fifth national championship, all while under the leadership of Coach K, and its first title since 2010. In 2010, Duke was a No. 1 seed, won the South Region, and won the national championship in what city? Indianapolis. Blue Devil fans are hoping history repeats itself this year.
On the other hand, it's fair to say that Izzo's Michigan State team just doesn't belong in the Final Four. After graduating a strong senior class from last season, the Spartans chances of contending for a Big Ten championship and national championship were slim to none this season. At points during the year, Michigan State did not even look like a tournament team. Unlike Duke, the Spartans do not have a plethora of NBA-potential talent. Rather, Michigan State does it better than anyone else at getting blue chip recruits who fit their system and molding them into college basketball warriors. That's why this might be the best coaching job of Izzo's entire career because this is far from the best team he's ever had.
Despite finishing the season strongly, many folks had the Spartans not making it out of the first weekend of the tournament as a No. 7 seed. But once again, Michigan State proved why you never pick against them in the month of March. With upset victories in the East Region over No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Oklahoma, and No. 4 Louisville, the Spartans find themselves two wins away from their second national championship under Izzo and third title overall in program history. Likewise to Duke, the Spartans last found themselves in the Final Four back in 2010 in Indianapolis. And even more intriguing, Izzo's first national title back in 2000 came in what city? Indianapolis. You just can't get enough of these storylines.
Since their matchup back in November, both teams have gotten a lot better. Duke's trio of freshmen studs Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones, and forward Justise Winslow have all grown up into strong NBA prospects, while senior guard Quinn Cook and junior forward Amile Jefferson have provided the veteran leadership this team has needed all season. On the other hand, Izzo's group of blue collar players, including senior guard Travis Trice, senior forward Branden Dawson, and junior guard Denzel Valentine, has evolved into a crew of proven March Madness warriors who embody the toughness that exemplifies Michigan State basketball.
Offensively, the advantage in this matchup goes to Duke. The Blue Devils have one of the highest scoring and most efficient offenses in the nation this season, so slowing down Duke's offensive attack will be key for Michigan State. Otherwise, both teams move the basketball very well and square up pretty evenly in the rebounding department. A slower pace will favor Michigan State, while a faster pace should favor Duke.
These two teams also stack up very similarly statistically on the defensive end, yet play two different styles. Michigan State will want to control the paint and grind it out, while Duke will be looking to force steals and speed up the game in transition. While neither team is known for its defense, both have been winning games in the tournament because of defense. It just goes to show how important defense is to winning a championship.
The x-factor in this game could be Okafor. If the big fella is able to control the paint and do what he does best down low against Michigan State, Duke will be feeling very good. Michigan State must try to neutralize him offensively and force Duke to beat the Spartans with the three, while also exposing Okafor's weaknesses on the defensive end.
Offensively, Michigan State will need to shoot the three ball well against a Duke defense that has done a good job at keeping opponents in check from long range. In addition, the Spartans will need to move the ball well, spread out the Blue Devil defense, and of course, win the battle down low in the trenches. Along with controlling the glass, Duke will need to force a very disciplined Michigan State team into turnovers. Not to mention, Michigan State's struggles at the free throw line could be a huge factor if the game is close late.
Both teams are extremely well-coached and matchup well together on paper. The tempo and pace of the game could play a huge role in the outcome: Michigan State will be looking to play a more halfcourt style while Duke will be looking to get up and down the floor. The team that can win the battle in the paint and on the glass, along with no turning the ball over, should come out on top. Both teams have played very well defensively, but I think Duke's strong blend of young talent and veteran experience could ultimately be the difference.
(1) Wisconsin Badgers (35-3) vs. (1) Kentucky Wildcats (38-0), 8:49 PM TBS
It's not often that fans get to see a Final Four rematch from the year before. Luckily, the college basketball world will get that in the second national semifinal on Saturday night when the Wisconsin Badgers face off against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. In last year's Final Four showdown in Dallas, the Wildcats squeezed out a 74-73 win on their way to the national title game.
Likewise to the first game, the matchup features two spectacular coaches in John Calipari of Kentucky and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin. As a matter of fact, both happen to be finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame this year and could very well go in together. The announcement is this Monday, the same day one of these teams will play for the national championship.
For Ryan, this is his second Final Four (second in as many years) and the fourth overall for Wisconsin. The first time the Badgers made the Final Four was in 1941, the lone championship season for Wisconsin. As for Calipari, it's his fourth Final Four in six years with Kentucky and sixth Final Four overall. Well, that's if you ignore the expunging from the records of the 1996 UMass Minutemen and 2008 Memphis Tigers seasons. For this article, we're going to ignore what the NCAA did. For Kentucky, it's the program's 17th Final Four appearance in hopes of capturing their first national championship since 2012 and ninth overall.
Of course, the big story coming into this matchup (and honestly throughout the entire tournament) has been if Wisconsin can be the lucky contestant who finally finds a way to beat Kentucky and prevent the Wildcats from completing the undefeated season for the first time since Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers team. After last year's loss to Kentucky, the Badgers knew they were a championship-caliber team that could return to the Final Four and proved that by winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles this season. Like Michigan State, Wisconsin is a program that prides itself on bringing in blue-collar players and sculpting them into college basketball stars.
As a result, Wisconsin earned a No. 1 seed in the West Region and rolled through to set up a rematch with Kentucky in Indianapolis. Without question, Wisconsin has been one of the four most consistent and best teams in college basketball this season. Despite losing some important pieces from last year's team, the dynamic duo of senior All-American big fella Frank Kaminsky and junior swingman Sam Dekker have propelled this team all season.
On the other side of the coin, the Kentucky Wildcats came into this season with expectations of nothing less than going undefeated and winning a national championship. Behind their infamous Blue and White platoons, which features potentially five NBA lottery picks, Kentucky is two wins away from accomplishing that goal. The Wildcats rolled through the SEC by capturing the regular season and tournament titles, as well as earning the No. 1 overall seed in this year's tournament and cruising (outside of their Elite Eight game vs. Notre Dame) through the Midwest Region to reach the Final Four for a fourth time in five years. Like Duke, Kentucky has a perfect composition of veteran experience (the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein) with young NBA-potential talent (Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker).
If Wisconsin is looking to be the team that upsets Kentucky, it should look no further than what Notre Dame did against the Wildcats. The Fighting Irish spread out Kentucky's vaunted defense across the floor, forcing the Wildcats to cover the three and leave the paint wide open for easy drives, pick-and-rolls, and Notre Dame completely commandeering the paint all night. Fortunately for Kentucky, the Irish did not have the depth to match Kentucky. Unfortunately for Kentucky, Wisconsin matches up very well and has the skill and shooting ability to beat the Wildcats.
Kentucky will have no choice but to double-team Kaminsky from the start and force the Badgers to beat the Wildcats with the three. Based on how Dekker and the Badgers shoot the three, the Wildcats are running a huge risk. If Cauley-Stein and Towns can neutralize Kaminsky offensively and force Wisconsin to take threes against their will, Kentucky will be all smiles. But if Kaminsky is having his way on the boards and in the paint, forcing the Wildcats to collapse even more on him and opening up more opportunities on the perimeter for Wisconsin, Kentucky could go down in defeat. Wisconsin will also need to control the paint and glass, as well as continue taking good care of the basketball, if the Badgers want to pull off the upset. However, Kentucky has done a great job at keeping opponents in check from three-point land and forcing opponents into turnovers.
But as we saw in their last game, Kentucky played poorly and still found a way to win when their opponent (the toughest the Wildcats have played all season so far) played probably their best game of the season. Overall, Kentucky's athleticism and size could be a huge problem for Wisconsin. Kentucky also holds a huge advantage in the rebounding department over Wisconsin. In addition, the Badgers will need to keep the game in the halfcourt rather than letting the Wildcats control the pace and tempo in transition all night. Not to mention, Kentucky's depth is second to none in the nation.
Both teams can score in bunches and are two of the best on defense in the country, but I'm taking the Wildcats to move one game closer to perfection and a battle for the ages against Duke for the national championship on Monday night in Indy. Coach K vs. Calipari, Okafor vs. Towns (for the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft this summer): no doubt it would be a classic.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He covers Villanova Athletics for his school newspaper The Villanovan and school TV station VillanovaTV. He also has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph