The Division I quarterfinals are taking place in Indianapolis this weekend, after which this year’s nail-biting, bracket-busting tournament will finally reach its climax. There has been a lot of speculation regarding which two teams of this year’s Final Four will make it to the championship, and it’s definitely a fair toss-up between them.
Many are handing it to either the Kentucky Wildcats or the Duke Blue Devils. It would definitely be astounding to see Kentucky finish off their undefeated regular season with a straight run to the championship, but Duke has been one of the top contenders this year as well. Of course, we’ve previously discussed the fact that Wisconsin might pose a major roadblock to Kentucky’s championship, so Kentucky might not make it through this weekend if they aren’t careful. Then there’s MSU, the only team in the Final Four that wasn’t a top seed in the tournament. The Eastern bracket’s seventh seed already surprised us once, so they might be able to do it again.
This year’s Final Four are notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that both Duke and Kentucky have won the title in recent years (2010 and 2012, respectively). In fact, since 2010, each of these four teams has made it to the Final Four at least once. Wisconsin even made it into the Final Four last year by beating Arizona. Each of this year’s final contenders have overcome similar obstacles in previous years to get where they are now, but that doesn’t mean this season hasn’t been unique for each of them in one way or another.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at each of this weekend’s games and assess each team’s chances of making it through to the championship.
Michigan State Spartans v. Duke Blue Devils
Michigan State is responsible for a lot of ruined brackets this year. While slightly over one fifth of brackets filled out on ESPN correctly guessed three teams on the Final Four, only about 1.6% managed to guess all of them. Interestingly enough, however, MSU has made it to the Final Four when the odds were against them in the past. When they reached the quarterfinals in 2010, they were only seeded two spots higher than they are this year. It doesn’t appear as if seeding counts for as much as some might think. In fact, the Connecticut Huskies were seeded seventh last year, and they managed to take home the title.
The Spartans weren’t having the best season earlier in the year, but they’ve managed to turn things around in a big way. MSU was ranked eighteenth in the preseason, finishing the regular season as the third-ranked team in their conference. As the season progressed, the team began to show off their shooting abilities, shooting just under 40% from the outside. They also began to demonstrate their offensive capabilities, especially those of centers Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. For their last couple of games in the NCAA Tournament, Costello and Schilling began guarding opposing teams’ power forwards. This was especially effective during the Spartans’ game against the Louisville Cardinals in the Elite Eight.
This spike in performance can be at least partially attributed to the efforts of senior guard Travis Trice. While he only has an overall average of fifteen points per game, that average is raised by five points when only looking at his performance in the Division I tournament. And he isn’t alone. Michigan’s starters are almost all juniors or seniors, so they’ve got the experience behind them that they need to make a winning team.
If there’s one thing standing in the Spartans’ way of a victory in their game against Duke, it’s the fact that most of their real athletic ability seems to shine through outside the arc. They aren’t as great about shooting from the inside, and they don’t have a great interior defender. Schilling and Costello are decent, and Branden Dawson is a talented guard and forward whose offense was vital during MSU’s win against Louisville, but none of these players really has the height to stand against Duke center Jahlil Okafor.
Duke actually hasn’t been to the Final Four in a while. To be more specific, they haven’t made it to the Final Four since they won the championship in 2010. They have, however, made it to the Sweet Sixteen most years in the past decade and a half. They’ve also made the Final Four a dozen times since Mike Krzyzewski took over as head coach in 1980. Krzyzewski knows how to get the Blue Devils through this leg of the tournament, having won over a thousand games with them (making him the first coach ever to net that many Division I games, let alone with the same team). Going into the Final Four with a coach of his standing is going to benefit the team quite a bit.
The team’s performance this year has been respectable, especially considering that the players aren’t anywhere near as experienced as their coach. In fact, three players on their starting team are in their first year of college basketball. Most people still expected Duke to make the quarterfinals this year, but that doesn’t mean much considering how many expected the same of Villanova, Virginia, Gonzaga, Arizona…you get the point. The fact that Duke has gotten this far with what Krzyzewski has called “the youngest team [he’s] ever had” is impressive.
A big part of Duke’s success has been the team’s ability to patch up some former issues with their defensive game. The team’s only senior, guard Quinn Cook, has re-prioritized his strategies and started focusing more on blocking his opponents than on trying to outscore them. Starting freshman small forward Justise Winslow has also been showing his colors as a defensive player. He’s got the size and speed to defend just about anyone, and he’s got offensive capabilities to boot. He maintained an average of over 18 points and over 7 rebounds during the Blue Devils’ last couple of games, with a three-pointer percentage of just over fifty percent in those same match-ups. Since March Madness began, he’s managed to record three double-doubles. Going against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, he scored seven unanswered points while the Blue Devils were behind, helping them to cement their victory.
Believe it or not, the biggest roadblock to Duke’s shot at making it through the Final Four might actually be freshman center Jahlil Okafor. While Okafor often gets credited for his offensive abilities inside the paint, he lacks intensity in his drives and he isn’t as well-conditioned as some other players. As of late, he has particularly been lacking in assists, yet he’s been racking up turnovers. His numbers aren’t as bad as they could be, and they almost definitely won’t make an impact on his draft prospects once he’s ready to join the NBA, but a sketchy performance like the one he gave in the recent game against Gonzaga could spell danger for Duke when going against Michigan State.
Both teams in this game have a lot going for them, but some fans are stuck on their history. More specifically, the fact that Duke already beat MSU back in November, with a lead of ten points. If Okafor continues to falter, then the Spartans will have a slightly better chance. But Winslow’s increased performance will help the Blue Devils out quite a bit, even if his scoring average for the tourney is technically just under that of MSU senior Travis Trice.
In the end, it might be a showdown between the offense offered by centers Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling of the Michigan State Spartans, versus the defensive capabilities of the Duke Blue Devils Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook. It’s a hard one to call. The odds are in Duke’s favor, but MSU might be able to give them a solid run. If the Spartans don’t manage to pull off a dark horse win on this one, they should at least be able to keep the score relatively close for a decent portion of the game.
Kentucky Wildcats v. Wisconsin Badgers
Kentucky has performed pretty well in recent years, winning the title as a top seed in 2012 and making it to the championship last year as an eighth-seeded team. They also made it to the Final Four as a fourth-seeded team in 2011, a year in which no top seeds made it past the Elite Eight. In short, they’ve got experience in making it this far. Last year’s run to the championship was especially notable when guard Aaron Harrison helped them win their game against Wisconsin by a single point after netting a three-pointer in the last few seconds of the game.
The Wildcats are almost certainly hoping for another stellar Final Four game this year, with Harrison still on the team along with a number of supporting players who all have the size and speed to put up a solid defense and a respectable offense. They’ve got three seven-footers, including freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns, sophomore center Dakari Johnson, and junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein. The fact that they’ve gone undefeated all season is certainly a major motivational boost for them as well. With one of the best defensive games in the NCAA and a drive to maintain their undefeated season, Kentucky’s going to be a hard team to slow down.
The team’s major defensive capabilities can largely be attributed to the Harrison twins, Aaron and his brother Andrew. They’re both major perimeter defenders, and they also know how to show off their offensive skills under pressure. Not only did Aaron score the winning three-pointer against Wisconsin in last year’s Final Four, but Andrew made two baskets from the charity stripe in Kentucky’s Elite Eight match-up against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to get them where they are now. With other key paint defenders like Cauley-Stein and Towns backing them up on defense, the Harrisons might be able to make some major plays to boost Kentucky’s score in this game. Especially if they start feeling the heat that seems to drive them when their skills are most needed.
Unfortunately, one of Kentucky’s biggest roadblocks might be the sheer fact that their strategy is so well-known. One of the team’s better offensive players at the front of the court is freshman forward Trey Lyles, but he isn’t much from behind the paint. That means the Badgers are almost certain to try and keep him back as much as possible. Kentucky’s defenders tend to perform better on the paint as well, even players as adept as Towns, Johnson and Cauley-Stein. There’s little chance that Wisconsin won’t try to exploit this. If Wisconsin can shoot past these defenders and keep the Wildcats’ less-than-phenomenal offense at bay, then even the most inspired last-second plays by the Harrison twins won’t be enough to cement Kentucky’s victory.
Wisconsin must be suffering from a mild bout of déjà vu right about now, having not only gone against Kentucky in the Final Four last year, but having also had to beat the Arizona Wildcats in order to get there. Their remembrance of Harrison’s last-minute three-pointer in last year’s Final Four has to taste especially bitter, considering it was followed by a failed attempt by the Badgers to net a buzzer-beater that just didn’t quite make the grade.
The Badgers have demonstrated a very specific playing style this year, one that is going to be difficult for Kentucky to defend against. Wisconsin is currently ranked as one of the slowest teams in the NCAA, spacing their opponents throughout the court while they pass the ball and run out the shot clock. Of course, once they finally shoot the ball, they have a tendency to make it in. They’re also known for their defensive rebounds. They’ve got an experienced team, led by seven-foot senior forward Frank Kaminsky, who has developed a reputation for drawing fouls. He has the free throw percentage to make this strategy work for him, and he’s got the height to rival Kentucky’s major frontline defenders.
While Kaminsky is one of the most notable players on the team, Wisconsin also has an ace up their sleeve in the form of junior forward Sam Dekker. He’s been hovering around an average of 21 points throughout the tournament, besting his career high on two occasions (first at 23 points against UNC, then at 27 against Arizona). He’s been blasting through some of the best defenders on each opposing team, showing a penchant for aggressive drives and shots that highlight his finesse and overall prowess for the technical side of the game. Between Dekker and Kaminsky, Wisconsin has one of the few offenses that can rival the astounding defense posed by Kentucky.
The problem that the Badgers are currently facing is that, aside from Dekker and Kaminsky, their lineup isn’t quite as elite as that of Kentucky’s. They may have the Wildcats beaten in terms of experience, but they’ve got a lot lacking in terms of size. None of their players, not even Dekker, come close to Kaminsky’s height, which is going to pose a problem given the general size of Kentucky’s defenders. In fact, after Kaminsky and Dekker, the two of their forwards with the most height are senior Duje Dukan at 6’9 (the same height as Dekker) and sophomore Nigel Hayes at 6’7. Interestingly enough, Dekker was originally listed at the same height as Hayes, but grew two inches since he first started playing for Wisconsin. Even so, they still doesn’t put him where he needs to be in terms of size if he’s going to get around players like Dakari Johnson and Karl-Anthony Towns without a struggle.
For this game, it’s best for both fans and teams to forget about last year. Players like Kaminsky, Dekker, Hayes, and sophomore guard Bronson Koenig all have some decent stats. While Koenig is one of the less impressive (and shortest) of the four, his three-point percentage of approximately 41% is enough to help him add some points to the scoreboard. If Wisconsin can make their three-point attempts count, they can forgo dealing with Kentucky’s defense at the rim and make an impressive push for the championship.
Granted, Wisconsin’s shot at pushing past the Final Four is dependent on their star players’ abilities to perform at the peak of their offensive prowess while still giving it everything they can in terms of defense. This is by no means impossible, but it doesn’t really indicate a stark likelihood of Wisconsin winning this game. Kentucky could easily continue their undefeated run, possibly even taking home the title this year. Wisconsin’s got a shot, but only if Kentucky suffers some major missteps this weekend.