Friday, April 3, 2015

2015 Final Four - Indianapolis, Indiana

#7 Michigan State (27-11) vs. #1 Duke (33-4)

The legend of Tom Izzo continues to grow as he has steered another Spartans team to the Final Four. Nevermind that he hasn't won a title in 15 years, the man that can't recruit or beat Coach K or Roy Williams is a genius! Snark aside, the consistent run of success by Michigan State is impressive. They trailed Oklahoma and Louisville for most of their games last week but managed to pull out victories each time.

Senior guard Travis Trice has been the unquestioned leader of this Spartans run. He is averaging almost 20 points per game in the Tournament and has also been careful with the ball, turning it over 2 times or less in the Spartans last three games. Aside from his performance against Virginia, junior Denzel Valentine has been there to complement Trice. G Bryn Forbes played huge minutes coming off the bench against Louisville in the Elite Eight. Branden Dawson cleans up Trice, Forbes and Valentine's messes, averaging 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Other members of the Spartans frequent rotation includes forward Gavin Schilling, guard Lourawls Nairn Jr, also known as Tum Tum, forward Matt Costello, and forward Marvin Clark Jr. Outside of Valentine, the Spartans don't have too many bigs, or guys to clean up down low and that could be a problem against Jahlil Okafor and Duke. However, Sparty shoots the ball so well that it hasn't often been an issue. When these teams met way back when on November 18, an 81-71 Duke victory, Dawson, Valentine and Trice played well but the rest of the Spartans didn't too much. Michigan State did shoot 50% but Duke shot even better at 54%, and the difference was Duke hit 50% of their three pointers while Michigan State hit just 25%.

The Blue Devils outlasted Utah in an ugly game, and then pulled away from Gonzaga in the second half to reach their first Final Four in five years. Most impressive about Duke's wins over Utah and Gonzaga was that Jahlil Okafor didn't contribute very much to either of them. The best player on the floor for Duke in those games was F Justise Winslow. Winslow and Dawson will be a fun matchup to watch on the blocks. G Tyus Jones and Trice will set the pace for each of their teams respectively and attempt to get the upper hand against each other. The Spartans can't overlook Blue Devils sophomore guard Matt Jones, who erupted for 16 points against Gonzaga. The other guard, Quinn Coke had a team high 19 points in the November win against Michigan State, and handed out 6 assists with 0 turnovers. If he plays nearly that well on Saturday, the Spartans magical run is definitely ending. Okafor was quiet last week but with his size advantage against the Spartans, I expect to see a more dominant effort like he put up against them in the first meeting. Duke's limited bench has been an exhausted talking point all season, but it hasn't really hampered them 37 games into the season, so I don't expect it to now. However, if they go on to play Kentucky in Monday's final, they will be tough pressed to beat the Wildcats with their potentially 10 deep rotation.

You can't take too much from November's matchup as where a team is in April compared to then is nothing alike. I expect the Spartans to follow their pattern from last week and get out of the blocks slowly and then crawl back and make a game of it. However, unlike Oklahoma and Louisville, Duke will go into another gear and pull away with the victory and get back to their first NCAA title game since their last championship in 2010.

Prediction: Duke 77, Michigan State 70

#1 Wisconsin (35-3) vs. #1 Kentucky (38-0)

For the second straight season its the Badgers and the Wildcats in the Final Four. Last season, Andrew Harrison hit a three late in the game to propel Kentucky to the upset and the Championship game. The circumstances are quite different this year, as Kentucky enters 38-0 and favorites to finish the season 40-0. The Badgers have lost just three games this season and guys like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker remember last season's excruciating loss. Kaminsky specifically returned for his senior season because he wanted to avenge that loss.

The Badgers run this year has felt like a do over of their 2014 Tournament run. This year and last year they beat Oregon in the Round of 32, and this year and last year they defeated Arizona in the Elite Eight. The star for the Badgers last week wasn't Kaminsky, but Dekker. As the entire Badgers team struggled in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina, Dekker played his heart out, keeping Wisconsin in the game and eventually helping the Badgers pull off the win. Then against Arizona, Dekker hit an incredibly tough three pointer late in the game to ice the win for Wisconsin. He had no problems dealing with Carolina's size so I don't expect the monsters that Kentucky has to faze him too much. Kaminsky really struggled against Carolina the first half, but since that first half, he has played Player of the Year type basketball that people are used to seeing from him. Dekker and Kaminsky did the heavy lifting and it was enough to beat Arizona but guys like Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Josh Gasser will have to do more for the Badgers to pull off the major upset. Traveon Jackson returned after missing 19 games in the Sweet 16 but played less than 10 minutes in both the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, so he can't really be counted on. Wisconsin doesn't have nearly the depth Kentucky has, so fatigue will be something to watch in this game as Kentucky throws their waves of players onto the court.

After obliterating West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Kentucky trailed Notre Dame for most of their Elite 8 encounter, before once again Andrew Harrison hit a clutch three pointer late, and the Wildcats escaped with a two point win. Andrew and his brother Aaron don't score a ton but Andrew especially is a player Kentucky can always count on late in games. The most surprising part of Kentucky's game against Notre Dame was how easily the Irish's big man Zach Auguste dominated the game. August was just one rebound shy of a double double despite battling massive men like Willey Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns and Stein combined for just 9 rebounds in that game, and they need to up the aggressiveness in Indianapolis for Kentucky to reach 40-0. Interestingly, the the game as tight as it was, Kentucky coach John Calipari played only a 7 man rotation. Backup guards Devin Booker Tyler Ullis played a lot of minutes but Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson hardly played. To me even with the game close, it isn't like Lee and Johnson haven't played in big games before, Calipari needs to get them into the action, because no team has a prayer of staying as fresh as Kentucky does.

The game against Notre Dame further reiterated what I already knew, that despite being unbeaten Kentucky isn't some juggernaut that can't be touched. No one can match their talent, but this is a team of a lot of freshman and sophomores. They will be playing a Wisconsin team with tons of veteran leadership and almost as much talent. Like Notre Dame did, I expect Wisconsin to punch Kentucky in the mouth early and quickly let them know they are in for a dogfight. But unlike Notre Dame, Wisconsin won't panic late and get away from their offense, or have one of their players try to play hero ball. I picked Wisconsin to beat Kentucky in this game three weeks ago and I see no reason to change my mind. The undefeated dream will come to an end for Kentucky and Wisconsin will reach their first National Championship game since 1941.

Prediction: Wisconsin 75, Kentucky 72

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