2015 NCAA Tournament Final Four Picks
A year later, we are back to a very similar Final Four, though with quite a few different storylines. A year ago, the Kentucky Wildcats continued their reckless run through the NCAA Tournament, taking down the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in a thriller, that included another huge three by Aaron Harrison and plenty of epic moments. This year, the two once more meet in the Final Four but instead of an eight seed who was just playing well at the right time, Kentucky is undefeated; a flawless 38-0, despite getting all they could handle in their Elite Eight duel with Notre Dame. The Badgers, meanwhile, are also a 1 seed and are motivated from last year's loss. Junior forward Sam Dekker, whose great play during the tourney has helped guide the Badgers to the Final Four, has an image of Kentucky celebrating their victory in last year's Final Four as his "header" on Twitter. The two will now prepare for a huge Final Four clash, one that is as evenly matched as they come, and one that should be a game for the ages.
Kentucky is big and they are talented, it's not really a secret. The Wildcats' frontcourt consists of seven-footers such as block machine Willie Cauley-Stein and budding Karl Anthony-Towns (25 points against Notre Dame), along with big, bulky Dakari Johnson along with Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles. Even their backcourt has good size; the Harrison twins, who have been great during this tournament are 6'5" and get to the rim and finish through contact. True freshman Devin Booker has been the real deal all season; the sharpshooter can knock down a contested three one second and than put someone on a poster the next. And, while he isn't the biggest player on the court, steady point guard Tyler Ulis is a quick, deceptive ball handler who has played great in Kentucky's big games all seasons. In all, Kentucky has nine McDonald's All-Americans on their roster, probably a reason why the Wildcats are sitting at 38-0. Scoring against Kentucky is so tricky; if Cauley-Stein or one of the other big men aren't swatting shot after shot, the Harrisons are making plays and creating transition opportunities. The Wildcats feast on teams without good ball-handlers, they make a living off creating turnovers and finishing with easy buckets. By all statistical standards, they are the best college basketball team in the history of the sport, they are the only team ever to go 38-0 on a year and have beaten down any obstacle that stands in their path.
So, how can a team like Wisconsin, a not very athletic team that has zero McDonald's All-Americans have any shot at taking down the 'Cats? By playing a much different brand of basketball, one this particular Kentucky team has not seen all year. Bo Ryan's teams are always great passers, never turn the ball over and are always very versatile. That great passing is huge against Kentucky. If you don't turn the ball over you don't feed their top offense; getting easy buckets off turnovers. And, Wisconsin's great, quick passing won't allow Kentucky to rotate easily and they won't get as many opportunities to block shots or get easy steals. Wisconsin isn't quite as big as Kentucky but they aren't small either. Frank Kaminsky isn't the strongest center but he moves very well and is quick enough that he can get good looks at the rim. Sam Dekker is 6'9" and can be either a small forward or power forward. He spaces the floor extremely well but also can make plays on the glass and will be sure to be a factor after huge performances against Arizona, North Carolina and Oregon. Nigel Hayes also has great size and has really improved from midrange and downtown, while steady veteran Duje Dukan is a good rebounder and solid defender. Sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig has taken over for vet Traevon Jackson and has led the Badgers' offense in impressive fashion. Along with hard-working, gritty Josh Gasser, Wisconsin also has a superb defending backcourt and they could shut down the Harrisons and Ulis.
Kentucky is 38-0 but they are certainly not invincible. They got all they could handle from Notre Dame last week, and relatively average SEC teams LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia all gave them serious troubles. Even though, Kentucky has got all they could handle from those teams they still managed to finish the game. They have players who can hit big shots (Aaron Harrison), astounding size and amazing athleticism. But, Wisconsin has all the tools they need to pull of an "upset" even though this is a battle of No. 1 seeds. Kentucky has never faced a team with such great ball-handlers, great passing and amazing versatility. The Wildcats also don't have the defenders that can guard big men who can shoot on the perimeter and can consistently defend Kaminsky, Hayes and Dekker. Kentucky is amazingly talented but they may face a Wisconsin team that is just better prepared. Either way, this game will go down to the wire and just like last year, could come right down to the wire.
Wisconsin, 72 Kentucky, 70
1 Duke vs. 7 Michigan State
Other than Kentucky, there isn't a more talented team in the nation than the Duke Blue Devils. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor has been the real deal this year. While he isn't as versatile of a scorer as other big men, he is strong on the low block and can score in a variety of different ways. Wing Justise Winslow has had a wonderful tournament and seems to get better every single game. Winslow, also a true freshman, is a wonderful athlete who dominates in transition and has really improved as a shooter. Then there is the Blue Devils' talented backcourt, which includes Minnesota product Tyus Jones along with steady senior Quinn Cook. Both are talented shooters, who should space the Michigan State defense and open up great opportunities underneath for Okafor. While the Spartans do have great size underneath they don't have anyone that can counter Okafor on the low block. If he gets position, he can score every time with one quick post move. If he takes over this game, no matter what Trice or any other Spartan does, Michigan State is going to have a very, very tough time.
Following their Elite Eight victory over Louisville, Tom Izzo affectionately called this year's Michigan State team, the "Team of Destiny". It does make sense, much like Connecticut last year they were a seven seed in the East Region and have used a senior point guard to make pretty miraculous tournament run. But, do they have the defensive answers to stop Okafor, Winslow and the sharpshooting abilities of both Jones and Cook, who are also great in close games? Trice will need to put up insane numbers and hit some big shots. Valentin and Dawson will also have to step up big time and also help contribute in defending Winslow, who is so tough to stop because of his crazy versatility. While the Spartans have had some superb victories, they might have just met their match with Duke. Though, if Michigan State can limit fast break opportunities and contain Okafor underneath, they do have a shot at pushing themselves to their first National Championship appearance since back in 2009-2010.
Duke, 67 Michigan State, 58