If college basketball is taking a backseat in the sports world, no one told this year’s Final Four participants.
The final weekend of college basketball promises to be one of the most important Final Fours in terms of history for the sport.
In one bracket, there’s a 38-0 Kentucky team vying to become the first 40-0 team in college basketball history. The Wildcats will face a veteran Wisconsin team that it defeated in last year’s Final Four. On the other side, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who already crossed the 1,000-win threshold this season, is making his 12th Final Four appearance to tie him with John Wooden.
And you know the Final Four is special when the lone underdog — the only team that was not a No. 1 seed — is Michigan State, a team making its seventh Final Four appearance under Tom Izzo.
Kentucky Wildcats (38-0, 18-0 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (fifth Final Four)
Projected Starters: G Andrew Harrison, G Aaron Harrison, F Trey Lyles, F Karl-Anthony Towns, C Willie Cauley-Stein
Best Player: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
This is the kind of team Kentucky has: The guy who had one point against West Virginia — a game UK won by nearly 40 points — was unstoppable in the next game. Towns finished 10-of-13 for 25 points with five rebounds and four assists against Notre Dame in the regional final, and Kentucky needed every bit of it in a 68-66 win.
Will win the national title if... Kentucky keeps being Kentucky.
The Wildcats have are the first 38-0 team in Final Four history, so what more could be said about what makes Kentucky great? The next two games will probably be more like the win over Notre Dame (a two-point nailbiter) than the rout of West Virginia (a 39-point win). Kentucky responded to the pressure by playing flawless basketball in the final 12 minutes against the Irish.
Will lose to Wisconsin on Saturday if... Notre Dame gave teams a blueprint to beat the Wildcats.
The threat of Notre Dame’s outside shooters were able to open up the lane for Zach Auguste to score 20 points. Wisconsin had the long-range shooters, and, instead of Auguste, the Badgers have the All-American Frank Kaminsky.
Wisconsin Badgers (35-3, 16-2 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Bo Ryan (second Final Four)
Projected Starters: G Bronson Koenig, G Josh Gasser, F Nigel Hayes, F Sam Dekker, C Frank Kaminsky
Best Player: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin. Dekker had hardly been an overwhelming player for the Badgers even if he was a pro prospect. That changed in this Tournament. Dekker had six career 20-point games in his entire career two weeks ago. He had three in four Tournament games, including 20 in the second half against Arizona alone.
Will win the national title if... Dekker continues to play out of his mind. Wisconsin’s offense was already the most efficient in the country, and junior Sam Dekker was already a mighty talented player. He’s taken his play to a new level in the NCAA Tournament. He’s averaging 21.8 points per game and shooting 60.4 percent from the field in the last four games.
Will lose to Kentucky on Saturday if... the Wildcats’ defense stymies Wisconsin. This will be the nation’s most efficient offense against the nation’s most efficient defense. Moreover, Kentucky’s bigs have the versatility defensively to guard Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Wisconsin’s duo hasn’t faced a big defender all year who can guard the perimeter like Willie Cauley-Stein.
Michigan State Spartans (27-11, 12-6 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Tom Izzo (seventh Final Four)
Projected Starters: G Travis Trice, G Lourawls Nairn Jr., G — Denzel Valentine, F Branden Dawson, F Matt Costello
Best Player: Travis Trice, Michigan State
Just about everyone from Michigan State is peaking at this point of the season, but especially Trice. In the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Trice had six points and went 0-for-4 from 3-point range. In the Tournament, he’s averaging 19.8 points and four assists per game. He’s also been a clutch free throw shooter (16-of-18) on a team that sorely needs it.
Will win the national title if... Michigan State continues to have the magic touch.
The Spartans won’t be the most talented team in Indianapolis, far from it. Trice has made huge shots throughout the Tournament, and the free throw woes that plagued the Spartans during the regular season haven’t hurt Michigan State yet.
Will lose to Duke on Saturday if... Duke overwhelms Michigan State.
Feel free to argue that the Spartans were under-seeded as a No. 7, but Michigan State was 19-10 a month ago. This is a team that plays well as a group but matching up with any of Duke’s top three will be a challenge.
Duke Blue Devils (33-4, 15-3 ACC)
Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (12th Final Four)
Projected Starters: G Tyus Jones, G Quinn Cook, G Matt Jones, F Justise Winslow, C Jahlil Okafor
Best Player: Justise Winslow, Duke
Okafor and Jones entered the Tournament with more fanfare, and the leadership of senior Cook has been a feel-good story. No one in the Tournament, though, was more valuable than Winslow. In four Tournament games, Winslow has averaged 14 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and better than one block and one steal per game.
Will win the national title if... The Blue Devils turn out to be the best offensive team in the Final Four. That’s a big ask, considering that Kentucky and Wisconsin — potential matchups in the championship game — are in the top five in offensive efficiency on KenPom. Duke, though, is the most up-tempo of the 3. If Okafor, Jones, Cook and Winslow can go head to head with the best Kentucky and Wisconsin have to offer, the Blue Devils could give Krzyzewski his fifth title in an already momentous year.
Will lose to Michigan State on Saturday if... Michigan State’s guards rule the day. The Spartans rank seventh in the country in assists per field goal made, and Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine can get hot from 3-point range.