by Chris Carlson: The Final Four is here with some usually suspects left standing from the field of 68. The only real surprise out of Kentucky, Duke, and Wisconsin, is Michigan State advancing as a 7th seed. The fact that teams like the Spartans can make it a step further than last year despite three key players moving on the NBA is the sheer beauty of the tourney. As the saying goes on a Michigan State T-Shirt about their hall of fame caliber head coach January, February, Izzo, and April, couldn’t fit better with his current club.
We get two rematches of sorts with Duke and Michigan State having played early this year and similar teams having met in Wisconsin and Kentucky in last year’s National Semifinal. All 4 units have grown closer and stronger as the season progressed but none of the four have improved as much as Michigan State. Whether Kentucky wins the title or not history will have been made so here’s hoping we get three competitive games!
Duke vs. Michigan State: Besides a stretch in which the Blue Devils lost back to back games, Duke has been on a roll and no team in the nation can match their impressive wins on the road over Wisconsin and Virginia. Duke’s freshman had to grow up fast and did exactly that in an early test at a neutral site against Michigan State. Duke never trailed in the game and dominated in the 81-71 victory. The stats from their first meeting go as follows.
From the free throw line (side note: a major weakness for MSU) Duke went 20 of 26 compared to MSU’s 6 of 10. The Spartans did manage to shoot 50% from the field but struggled from behind the arc going 5 for 20. Duke shot 54% overall and hit 7 of 14 from 3-pt land. The scary thing is Branden Dawson had 18 points and 9 boards combined with a good but not great game from Jahlil Okafur. These stats and overall matchups spell trouble for Tom Izzo’s overachieving bunch.
The one glaring weakness for the Blue Devils is depth having only 8 scholarship players on the roster. Depth for the Spartans has become a major strength after some mid-season lineup tweaks. The lineup changes resulted in deeper bench and fresher players throughout the game. Travis Trice moving to shooting guard put the pieces in place. If the Spartans can get Duke in to foul trouble early and hit their free throws they will win and move on to Monday night’s title game. The pace may take a while to set but once both teams have figured out each other somewhat anyway, we should be in for a back and forth high-intensity flow to this meaningful tilt.
The Pick: Duke wins a highly competitive game on the free throw line in the last 3-4 minutes.
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin: This game is a rematch in a sense from last year’s national semifinal game that went all the way down to the wire. Aaron Harrison’s long range three iced the game and left the Badgers licking their wounds only to see them make it back to the exact stage of heartbreak in search of revenge. What if anything is different about this year’s matchup? For one, Wisconsin returned pretty much all of their team with the exception of Traevon Jackson, who has been struggling to get back to form after breaking his foot in January. For Kentucky and Calipari’s standards the Wildcats retained a large portion of their 2013-14 runner-up group. The biggest difference from Wisconsin is Kentucky added depth with a layer of high school studs.
The Badgers are similar to Notre Dame a team that Kentucky almost got beat by last Saturday night. Like the Irish, everyone on the floor can shoot except the Badgers are a much bigger bunch up front with Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky. Sam Dekker has been on a tear this season and in the tourney since switching back to his more natural position at small forward. With Jackson out Dekker is the only player that can consistently create his own shot off the dribble and is a matchup nightmare for most teams.
As we know Kentucky is not built like most run-of-the-mill college basketball squads. At small forward the Wildcats have true freshman Trey Lyles, who measures in at 6-10 and weighs 235 pounds. Lyles has the size and strength to give Dekker fits and judging by his last second defense on Jerian Grant in the Elite 8, speed may not be an issue when defending Dekker. If the Badger can hit their outside shots that will open the lane to penetrate and score in the paint or dish to an open man.
A major advantage against most teams that Wisconsin has is there canny ability to play quality defense without fouling and that trend will need to continue. However, Kentucky has the depth overall to sustain foul problems but that doesn’t take away from the free points on the line for the Badgers. This game could play out eerily similar to their final four meeting last year. Wisconsin’s best bet will be to pack the paint and force Kentucky to shoot from the outside as much as possible. This game will be won or lost in the closing minutes.
The Pick: Kentucky advances in low scoring affair that will be decided in the closing moments.
Written by Chris Carlson Owner and Host of The College Ball Show blogtalkradio.com/ropeadoperadio