This year’s Final Four in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. Saturday evening’s games feature four powerful teams that have long and storied histories, and whose coaches are among the most accomplished in the sport today. One can safely expect close – and likely low – scores in each of these grinding contests.
The seventh-seeded Michigan State Spartans (27-11) face off against the No. 1 seed Duke Blue Devils (33-4) in the 6:09 p.m. pairing at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Spartans, winners of eight of their last nine games, have built up a head of steam as they’ve proceeded through the tournament rounds. They are skillfully led by their charismatic guard, senior Travis Trice who, in 33.5 minutes per game, has averaged 15.3 points and a team-leading five assists. Collectively, Michigan State is highly unselfish with the ball, averaging 16.7 assists per game (4th in the NCAA).
For the Spartans, Trice’s double-digit scoring is complemented by the tandem of fellow guards Denzel Valentine (14.34 point per game) and Branden Dawson (11.85). But even considering their recent offensive success, as a team, Michigan State’s scoring is only average compared to Duke. According to teamrankings.com, the Spartans rank 53rd in three-pointers made per game (7.6), and 30th in field goals made (26.1).
The statistics for the Blue Devils, on the other hand, paint a starkly different picture. Duke is third in NCAA basketball in scoring per game (79.5 points), field goals made (28.4), and shooting percentage (50.2 percent); and they ranked fourth in field goal completions (56 percent). Lastly, they are fifth in the country in scoring margin – they beat their opponents by an average of 15 points a game – and are another unselfish club, averaging better than 11 assists (fifth in the NCAA, according to teamrankings.com).
But one area that Michigan State must improve in to compete – particularly in the closing minutes – is free-throw percentage. They rank 337th in the nation in that category (62.2 percent), though they only get to the line 18.4 times per game (264th in the NCAA). Duke’s made free throw rate, though not outstanding, is decidedly better at 69.5 percent. The Blue Devils also get to the line roughly four times as much as the Spartans, so this is a considerable hurdle for Michigan State to conquer.
Defensively, Duke does not commit a lot of fouls. In allowing their opponents only 14.1 free-throw attempts per game, they are in the top ten teams in that category. And the Blue Devils hold their competitors to only five 3-pointers per contest.
On offense, the Blue Devils are a diverse and disciplined, squad. They have four starters who have averaged over ten points per game on the season: senior Quinn Cook (15.4), and three freshmen: guard Tyus Jones (11.6 points to go with 5.7 assists); center Jahlil Okafor (17.5 points along with 8.7 rebounds), and forward Justise Winslow (12.5 points together with 6.3 rebounds).
Winslow, for his part, has really come on offensively in the tournament, scoring an average of nearly 17 points over his past three games. His performance could be the key to Duke’s fortunes – if he can stay out of foul trouble. Looking at their respective records and seedings, one might be lulled into thinking Duke has a considerable advantage. But Tom Izzo’s Spartans are in the Final Four for the seventh time in his career, and they’ve proven themselves tournament worthy time and time again. This will go to the wire, if not overtime.
Immediately following the Duke/Michigan State matchup, the West top seed Wisconsin Badgers (35-3) clash against the top overall seed Kentucky Wildcats (38-0) at 8:49 p.m. This will be the second consecutive Final Four meeting between these two teams – Kentucky won last year, 74-73, on a late three-pointer by the Wildcats’ Aaron Harrison, and by limiting Badgers big man Frank Kaminsky to only eight points on the evening.
Kentucky’s leading scorer this season, Aaron Harrison, averages only 11 points a game; none of the previous fifteen Wildcat Final Four teams had a leading scorer with such a low offensive output. But in reality, that’s one of the main secrets of the Wildcats’ success. They have an unselfish nine-man rotation (eight of them McDonald’s All-Americans), and so individual statistics typically take a back seat to the team’s overall accomplishments. Head coach John Calipari can replenish his “blue tidal wave” at regular intervals, and though personal statistics are not exemplary, the end result consistently has been.
Kentucky possesses a punishing defense that causes squads lesser both in stature and talent to routinely wilt. Kentucky is the tallest team in college basketball, and their average of 6.9 blocks per game is No. 2 in the NCAA. Their defense also ranks highly in several other key categories: No. 2 in opponents’ field goals made percentage (38.8 percent); No. 2 in opponents’ three-point completion percentage (26.7 percent); No. 4 in opponents’ field goals made per game (19.1), and fifth in the NCAA in their opponents’ made three-point shots (4.4). But hardly any of the Wildcats’ roster breaks into the top 50 in any defensive or offensive categories. However, this team, consisting chiefly of freshmen and sophomores, has fully bought into Calipari’s team dynamic, which is led by sophomore guard Andrew Harrison, who distributes the ball expertly, evenly, and keeps the squad’s chemistry and enthusiasm flowing.
The Wildcats’ big men, seven-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein will continue to be powerfully effective in the post, and should give Wisconsin’s big men like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker a hard time in the paint. And if Johnson, Cauley-Stein and fellow “redwood tree” Karl-Anthony Towns get into foul trouble, which can happen on occasion, the Harrison twins, along with fellow guards Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, and forward Trey Lyles have enough scoring efficiency to pick up where the three big men leave off.
The Badgers, for their part, have benefited from the experience and increased output of two of its main starters, senior Frank Kaminsky (18.68 points per game) and junior Sam Dekker (13.89). Each of them can regularly hit from the perimeter – Kaminsky is a prolific three-point shooter who hits nearly 42 percent of his shots, and Dekker hit over 52 percent of his field goals on the season. Forward Nigel Hayes rounds out Wisconsin’s trident of shooters (12.4 points per game), who for the year hit just over 50 percent of his field goals. It will make for an intriguing matchup with Kentucky’s hyper-efficient defense around the arc. Wisconsin is very protective of the ball, and they will have to be almost perfect in preventing turnovers against Kentucky, ranked second in the NCAA in steals per game (6.9).
The personnel from last year’s meeting have changed somewhat. But a critical development for the Badgers over the past year has been the increased offensive diversity of Kaminsky and Dekker. That tandem can drive the lane and draw defensive fouls as well as hit the outside shot. And Dekker, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds against North Carolina, can battle effectively in the paint as well. Add timely scoring from starters Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig, as well as reserve specialists Zak Showalter and recovering guard Traevon Jackson, and Wisconsin just might make it to the championship this year.