Last weekend’s play in the "Sweet 16" and "Elite Eight" rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament reinforced some important factors as to why Wisconsin, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State are the teams headed for the "Final Four" this coming weekend in Indianapolis.
Michigan State (27-11) has now reached its seventh Final Four under head coach Tom Izzo, and ninth appearance overall. Izzo expressed his elation with this team by saying it’s the best one he’s managed to get to the national semifinal round. They got one step closer to what could be their first NCAA championship since 2000 by defeating the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals (27-9) in overtime, 76-70, in their East region final Sunday in Syracuse, N.Y.
The Spartans' victory highlighted three important aspects of their recent success. One was their defense. Trailing by eight points at halftime, 40-32, Michigan State outscored the Cardinals, 44-30 in the second half and overtime frame. Louisville hit 17 of 32 field goal attempts in the first half (53 percent). But the Spartans held them to only 6 made baskets in 32 attempts (18.8 percent) in the remaining 25 minutes.
Secondly, Michigan State finally improved in an area that’s not as glamorous, but no less critical: made free throws. This is personal for coach Tom Izzo. In 1972, playing for his Iron Mountain High School on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Izzo missed a free throw that cost his team a trip to the Michigan state championship. According to his uncle, the high schooler received letters of condolence from all over the Upper Peninsula. It made such an impression on him that to this day, he shoots 100 free throws daily.
During the 2014-2015 season, Michigan State was 264th in the nation in free-throws attempted per game (18.4), and a woeful 307th in free-throws completed, at 11.6 (63 percent), according to the NCAA’s TeamRankings.com site. In interviews, Izzo typically reacts to this reality with nervous laughter. And after three prior tournament games where the Spartans went a total of 40 for 68 from the foul line (59 percent), they hit 75 percent of their charity shots Sunday, compared with Louisville’s 69 percent. This provided a sufficient margin to get Michigan State their hard-fought overtime win. Izzo, speaking of this Final Four run after the game, said “It’ll go down as the best one, just because of all we went through all year.” Improbable, perhaps; but no less satisfying for the Spartans.
And finally, the ascension of guard Travis Trice, who many are calling this year’s Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut guard who led the Huskies to the national title last year. For the tournament, Trice is scoring 19.8 points per game to go with 4 assists. Together with big men Branden Dawson (11 pts./9 rebounds per game) and Denzel Valentine (13.25 points/6 rebounds), solid bench scoring from Bryn Forbes (who had 14 points versus Louisville), Trice is spearheading a formidable Spartan offensive force that continues to gel. Michigan State will now face Duke University Saturday for a chance to face either Kentucky or Wisconsin for the national title.
Last Saturday night, the overall number one seed Kentucky Wildcats had their toughest test to date against a Notre Dame squad that led for much of the second half. The Wildcats (38-0) needed to hit their last nine shots, including two clutch free throws by Andrew Harrison with six seconds remaining in the game to pull out the victory, 68-66.
For the Fighting Irish (32-6), the inspired play of forward Zach Auguste gave the Irish’s loyal fans, who had come out in force at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Center, the hope that maybe this would be their team’s first trip to the Final Four since 1978, and their first since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985. But Kentucky’s play down the stretch – “Desperation,” in the words of guard Andrew Harrison – was what finally got the Wildcats the win, which was preserved only after the Irish’s Jerian Grant barely missed a three-pointer from the corner with time expiring.
Auguste, who scored 20 for the evening, was taken out of the game with several minutes left in the first half due to foul trouble. This haunted the Irish’s star for most of the game, and there were questions raised during the TBS broadcast about whether he had been kept out of action for too long.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 points on the night for Kentucky – 17 in the second half – which was instrumental in keeping the Wildcats close throughout. ESPN columnist Bob Ryan called Towns’s one of the greatest tournament performances since UCLA’s Bill Walton scored 44 points against Memphis State to win the 1973 National Championship.
With only five and a half minutes remaining and down by two possessions, Kentucky’s Harrison brothers took over. The Irish surrendered the lead (64-63) on a three-pointer from Aaron Harrison with just over three minutes left. Grant then hit another three to get Notre Dame the lead, 66-64; but after Towns hit on a layup to tie the score, and with the last ticks of the clock looming, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein slapped away another Grant shot (the Wildcats had nine blocks on the evening to Notre Dame’s one), forcing a 35-second shot clock violation. Andrew Harrison then proceeded to draw a foul and swished both shots from the charity stripe to seal the victory for the Wildcats.
Kentucky now travels to the Final Four in Indianapolis with the hopes of being the first team to go 40-0 for a season, and the first undefeated team since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers ran the table to go 32-0 in 1976. They will play the Wisconsin Badgers in a national semifinal this Saturday evening.
Duke University, playing with a thin bench and a starting team consisting largely of freshmen, met Gonzaga for only the third time in their history on Sunday afternoon at the South regional final in Houston. Big man Jahlil Okafor, most likely the overall No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft, had 9 points and 8 rebounds for the Blue Devils (33-4), and was a disruptive force all game. But a most pleasant surprise for Duke has to be the emergence of forward and Houston native Justise Winslow, who has scored 21 and 16 points respectively against Utah and Gonzaga. He obviously thrives in his backyard, scoring equally at will from the perimeter and down the lane. He also was a perfect 6 for 6 from the free throw line against the Bulldogs (35-3).
But Winslow was only one of four starters who reached double-digit scoring on the afternoon. Sophomore Matt Jones also had 16, followed by freshman guard Tyus Jones with 15, and senior Quinn Cook with 10 points. For Gonzaga, redshirt junior forward and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer scored 16 on the night, and was particularly menacing in the paint. But when he had a chance to tie the game at 53 with an open layup with five minutes to play – after receiving a pass down low from teammate Przemek Karnowski – he was apparently distracted by the oncoming steam engine Okafor and missed. “He would make that [shot] 499 times out of 500,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, “It’s just a fluke, and there’s nobody on the team we’d rather have taking it.”
As much as scoring, defense played a critical role in this game. Duke’s sure-handed and unrelenting backcourt was instrumental in forcing 13 turnovers (to the Blue Devils’ two), and stealing the ball eight times (to Gonzaga’s one). The Bulldogs, ordinarily a proficient three-point shooting team, hit only two out of ten attempts, while Duke hit 42 percent of theirs (8 of 19). But arguably the most glaring difference was in free throws. Duke got to the line 19 times (to Gonzaga’s nine) and made all but three (84 percent). Little things mean a lot, and that’s the mantra of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. He’s always stressed fundamentals, and at this time of year, that can pay off big, just as it did on Sunday. Duke now faces Michigan State next Saturday in a heavyweight match between two of the greatest college basketball coaches of the last thirty years – Krzyzewski and Izzo.
Wisconsin’s matchup with Arizona was a replay of last year’s riveting elite eight pairing, where the Badgers won in overtime, 64-63. This year, Wisconsin’s seven-footer Frank Kaminsky nearly mirrored his 28-point performance in their last meeting, with 29 on the night – both in the paint and on the perimeter – in addition to six rebounds, in helping Wisconsin defeat the Wildcats, 85-78, Saturday in their West regional final in Los Angeles.
Kaminsky was joined in double-digits by guards Sam Dekker, who had a career-high 27 points (20 in the second half), including five three-pointers, and Josh Gasser, who added 10. In a game where the box score was essentially even, reflecting just how well-matched these teams are, the most glaring statistic was three-pointers. Wisconsin made 12 of 18 shots from behind the arc, to Arizona’s two in six attempts. Kaminsky’s ability to hit equally well from outside as well as in the paint kept the Wildcats’ tandem of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (17 points/8 rebounds) and Brandon Ashley (17 points/4 rebounds) off-balance all night. And Wisconsin’s perimeter defense also forced six turnovers – three apiece by senior guard T.J. McConnell (14 points and 5 assists for the evening), and freshman and McDonald’s All-American guard Stanley Johnson.
For the Arizona Wildcats (34-4), this was the second time in as many years coach Sean Miller has been denied his first trip to the Final Four. For coach Bo Ryan and the Badgers (35-3), this means a rematch next Saturday in Indianapolis with Kentucky, who beat Wisconsin by one point in last year’s national semifinal, 74-73. It will be a clash of the tallest NCAA team (Kentucky) and their runner-up in that category.