There may have been relatively few upsets this year, but it all sets up for what should be some great showdowns as four Hall of Fame head coaches lead their respective programs to Indianapolis for a shot at the national championship.
#7 Michigan State vs. #1 Duke
This is obviously the less anticipated of the two matchups on Saturday, but should be a great game nonetheless. Interestingly enough, neither of these teams won their respective regular season or conference tournaments, but with Tom Izzo leading the Spartans and Coach K at the helm of the Blue Devils, it’s really not much of a surprise that both of them have played well in the tournament. These teams met way back in November with Duke winning 81-71, but obviously much has changed since then. Michigan State’s defense has greatly improved, as evidenced throughout the Big 10 championship and through holding their opponents to just 34% from the field throughout the tournament. Meanwhile, Duke was third in the country in shooting efficiency at just over 50% for the season.
The main focus in this game is how Michigan State will defend player of the year candidate Jahlil Okafor. With forward Brandon Dawson expected to be matched up against Duke’s other threat down low, Justice Winslow, Okafor could have a big game if the Spartans don’t double him in the paint. Duke may have an advantage in the frontcourt, but so far in this tournament it looks like Michigan State has the advantage in the backcourt. Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine have been huge in key games throughout this tournament. A key matchup to watch will be Duke’s freshman point guard Tyus Jones, who has played great all season, against Michigan State point guard Travis Trice.
A big point of emphasis has been made this week on the comparison between 2015 Michigan State and 2014 UConn. Both teams went 12-6 in conference play, finished third in their conference, lost in the conference tournament, earned 7 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and defeated the 10, 2, and 3 seeds in their region to advance to the Final Four. Although Michigan State has some great players, they don’t have a Shabazz Napier that can single handedly put the team on their back. Duke is the more talented team and Coach K’s 8-1 record all time against Tom Izzo indicates they have an advantage on the bench as well. Duke advances to National Championship game for first time since they won it all in 2010.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #1 Kentucky
Arguably the two best teams in the NCAA this year will clash in a Final Four rematch from a year ago in what could be a game for the ages. Kentucky’s #1 defense faces off against Wisconsin’s #1 offense. Wisconsin is seeking revenge after a heartbreaking defeat last year, while Kentucky is looking for redemption after losing to UConn in the championship game. These teams bring a combined 73-3 record into this game including the tournament, and for Kentucky this will be their biggest obstacle yet to completing an unprecedented 40-0 season. Both these teams and these players have starred on the big stage, and neither will be intimidated when they take the floor in Indianapolis on Saturday night.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan has long been considered one of the best in the game, but has yet to win that elusive national title. On the other side, Calipari won a championship just three years ago and has made the Final Four for the fourth time in five years, but many only see him as an expert recruiter who picks up the best talent rather than a brilliant basketball mind. With such evenly matched teams, coaching could play a critical role in this matchup. Another theme that will come into play is Wisconsin’s upperclassmen against Kentucky’s freshman and sophomores. As I said earlier, Kentucky won’t be intimidated by the stage, but if this game comes down to the final seconds it may very well be decided by the veteran making a great play or the rookie making the mistake. Forwards Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker star for the Badgers, while Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Harrison twins lead the Wildcats.
Kentucky has certainly been tested at times this season, most recently in a narrow victory against Notre Dame in the Elite 8, but a huge advantage that they hold is their depth. Before Alex Poythress got injured they could essentially put out two different starting fives, and even now they are still so well-balanced and talented that anyone can step up and play a huge game. Kaminsky and Dekker are clearly the focus on the Badgers, but everyone is the focus on Kentucky. If you combine that with their length and athleticism, they are simply too good to stop. This will be a close hard-fought game for a while, but like last year Kentucky will once again win to reach the National championship.