Friday, April 3, 2015

Your 2015 Final Four Preview

Can lovable goofball Frank Kaminsky and his Badgers knock off undefeated Kentucky?
By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

No. 1 Duke faces No. 7 Michigan State. No. 1 Kentucky takes on No. 1 Wisconsin.

Saturday’s Final Four should be one of the best in years. For only the fifth time in history, 3 of the Final Four teams are No. 1 seeds. Combined, the four teams have won 15 national championships and made 46 Final Fours, so they are all accustomed to the big stage. The Michigan State Spartans are the only surprise team remaining, but honestly, it’s more surprising to see them as a No. 7 seed than it is to see them in the Final Four, where they’ve been in 7 of the last 17 seasons.

Let's break down both of the national semifinals.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 7 Michigan State

Saturday’s first game matches up two of the best coaches in college basketball history. Both Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo have won this tournament, and both have been named National Coach of the Year. Coach K has assembled an elite team, as he seemingly always does. The Blue Devils were ranked 4th in the AP preseason poll. They finished the regular season ranked 4th. Now they’re in the Final Four.

Meanwhile, Izzo has scrapped together an unexpectedly deep tournament run, as he often does. He now has coached Michigan State to 13 upset victories against higher seeds in the NCAA tournament, an all-time record. This year’s Spartans were ranked 18th in the AP preseason poll and actually underperformed to finish the regular season outside of the top 20. But Michigan State has stepped up for the tournament once again.

Still, Izzo has a 1-8 career head-to-head record vs. Krzyzewski. Duke boasts a first-team All-American in 6’11” center Jahlil Okafor, who will be a tough matchup for anyone on Michigan State’s roster. Travis Trice, a 6’0” guard, leads the Spartans with 15.3 points per game, but he can’t quite take over a game the way Okafor can. Duke is a heavy favorite on paper, though anything is possible at this time of year, especially with Izzo at the helm.

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Wisconsin

Kentucky has assembled one of the greatest teams in the history of college sports this season. The Wildcats are already the first Division-I men’s basketball team to start 35-0, and if they win their next two games, will finish with an unprecedented 40-0 record. Out of everyone who filled out an ESPN bracket, 49% picked Kentucky to win the tournament while no more than 10% picked any other team. Led by 7’0” All-American Willie Cauley-Stein and 6’11” Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wildcats have stifled teams defensively all season. No one has been able to match up with their skilled big men in the paint.

The Wildcats are still huge favorites, but in the Elite Eight Notre Dame showed that they are not invincible. The Irish led for much of the game, and had a chance to win until they missed their final shot at the buzzer. Notre Dame had the most efficient offense Kentucky had faced all season, and it was almost good enough to break through the Wildcat defense.
The only team in the country with a better offense is Wisconsin. The Badgers also have a 7’0” All-American in Frank Kaminsky, who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. His multifaceted skillset might be the biggest challenge Kentucky’s defense has faced this season.

Wisconsin has the best chance of any team this season to finally end Kentucky’s run, but it’s hard to pick against an undefeated powerhouse. As much as Kentucky coach John Calipari says he doesn’t care about his team’s record, his players must be thinking about it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this point in the season.

They want to be the greatest college team of all time, and they know this weekend will determine whether or not they’ll be in that discussion for decades to come. They’ve risen to every challenge so far, and this one should be no different.

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