Monday, March 30, 2015

Welcome to Indianapolis!: Previewing the Final Four

No more than two number one seeds has gotten this far since all four one seeds were still dancing in the Final Four of 2008.

This year has three one seeds, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and a well coached underdog, the Michigan State Spartans are a seven seed.

Tom Izzo might have something else to say about that underdog tag.

Here's your guide to this year's Final Four.

No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats
John Calipari
The favorite, as it has been since coming into the tournament are the Kentucky Wildcats. Coming into Saturday, the Wildcats were 37-0, and they nearly escaped a monumental upset from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after guard Jerian Grant hoisted up a prayer that was just too long. It took everything the Wildcats had to hold off the Fighting Irish.

Aaron Harrison
Kentucky's Final Four Route: Defeated No. 16 Hampton 79-56, No. 8 Cincinnati 64-51, No. 5 West Virginia 78-39 and a few post-game remarks aimed at the Mountaineers, No. 3 Notre Dame 68-66 and about a foot away from not being here.

This marks John Calipari's 4th trip to the Final Four as coach of the Wildcats. It's been the same story with Calipari, a very talented, NBA-laden roster that are always a team to watch. The way Calipari coaches this team and substitutes players, there is no "star player".

What he does have is Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns, the guy you'd probably name the star if you had to. Towns is projected to be selected very early in this year's upcoming NBA draft and for good reason. The guy is physically imposing, has a very solid offensive game shown especially when the Wildcats run their offensive sets through him. When the Wildcats aren't getting stops and getting out in transition they look to feed the well. A dominant game on the offensive end from Towns makes Kentucky virtually impossible to stop. Coupled with his wall-like presence on the defensive end with front court mate Willie Cauley-Stein, it is a reason why the Wildcats lead the nation in average scoring margin and still alive to become the first team to reach 40-0.

Karl-Anthony Towns
Defense has been the Wildcats' calling card and Towns' contributions has helped them become one of the best on that side of the ball, ranking third in scoring defense.

But wait, there's more.

They force opponents to take and make tough shots, holding their opponents to a nation's best 35.2 field goal percentage. They looked very vulnerable against a very elite Notre Dame offense. It will be interesting to see what changes Calipari will make to defeat a Wisconsin team that can really shoot it from three and defend just as well as most teams in the nation.

No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers
Bo Ryan
Bo Ryan's Badgers will have something to say about Kentucky's history making plans. This is the second year in a row they Badgers are in the Final Four and yet again they'll have to get through the Wildcats to get to the championship game. Last year, it was Aaron Harrison's heroics that helped Kentucky to a 74-73 win in the National Semifinals.

Wisconsin's Final Four Route: Defeated No. 16 Coastal Carolina 86-72, No. 8 Oregon 72-65, No. 4 North Carolina 79-72, No. 2 Arizona 85-78

Will this be Bo Ryan's year to get over the hump?

The Badgers possess the probable National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky has been the well the Badgers feed on the offensive end and he hasn't disappointed. The senior forward topped the nation as the most efficient player and the only player in a major conference to lead his team in points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals.

Frank Kaminsky
Most good teams have that X-Factor; the guy who picks it up when the star isn't having one of his best nights or the guy that provides just what the team needs on any given night. That guy for the Badgers is Sam Dekker. Dekker has averaged nearly 22 points on almost 61 percent shooting from the field. Dekker has provided that late game scoring punch and closing ability that the Badgers have needed to move past teams and continue dancing. Dekker scored eight of Wisconsin's last nine points, finishing with a career high 27 points en route to a 78-85 win over the Arizona Wildcats.

Sam Dekker
The duo of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker became the third pair of teammates in the past 20 years, first since 2008 to both average 20 points or more in the tournament.

The Badgers were incredibly hot from three against Arizona and it will probably have to stay that way for them to knock off Kentucky. Wisconsin made 12 of their 18 attempted three pointers, including an astounding 10 for 12 in the second half. Most of this team has shown to be deadly from three, including forward Nigel Hayes, who has became a perimeter threat, contradictory to his freshman season. Kentucky, as with Arizona does a great job of making nearly every shot tough for opponents and closing out on shooters. That didn't seem to matter versus Arizona. Sam Dekker's impressive three as the shot clock was running out late in the game to essentially put it away was the perfect example of that, though maybe that shot had a little luck sprinkled on top.

Revenge may be in the air.

No. 1 Duke Blue Devils
Mike Krzyzewski
The last time a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference reached the Final Four, that team went on to win the National Championship. That team? The Duke Blue Devils. Yes, Coach Mike Krzyzewski is back for his record 12th trip to the final weekend of tournament.

Duke's Final Four Route: Defeated No. 16 Robert Morris 85-56, No. 8 San Diego State 68-49, No. 5 Utah 63-57, No. 2 Gonzaga 66-52

Led by ACC Player of the year Jahlil Okafor, the Blue Devils broke a streak of early exits when lead in points by a freshman. Though that may not mean much, nor an extra testament of how good Okafor is, it may just be that this year's Blue Devils team is really good. And good they are.

Jahlil Okafor
An eight-player deep rotation for much of the season hasn't stopped the Blue Devils from becoming the fourth-highest scoring team in the nation.

Okafor is another one projected to go high in the NBA Draft, maybe as early as number one. The attention Okafor commands every single game no matter the opponent has been vital to the success of his teammates, especially the emergence of fellow freshmen Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Constant double teams lead to open threes for Jones and fellow backcourt mate, senior guard Quinn Cook. Okafor's dominance has allowed Cook to shoot at a career best clip from three, making 40 percent of them.

The least talked about freshman on the team, Justise Winslow has been the catalyst for the run Duke has made in the tournament. A dangerous player in transition and another matchup nightmare for Coach K, Winslow has picked up the slack whenever Duke has needed him to in this tournament.

Justise Winslow
When Okafor was held to a season low six points in the Sweet Sixteen against Utah, Winslow lead the charge with 21 points and 10 boards. When Okafor was held below double digits for only the third time this season again in the Elite Eight, Winslow paced the Blue Devils with 16 points and 5 rebounds.

Justise Winslow
Mike Krzyzewski's fifth National Championship rests on the shoulders of his top four scorers and a defense that has became very good as of late. The Blue Devils can score with anyone.

No. 7 Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo
Call this team a surprise if you may, but Coach Tom Izzo's resumé says different. This team is no cinderella. Izzo expects his team to be contenders every year. It seems like Izzo does his best with less and this year is evident of that.

Michigan State's Final Four Route: Defeated No. 10 Georgia 70-63, No. 2 Virginia 60-54, No. 3 Oklahoma 62-58, No. 4 Louisville 76-70

A win over the nation's best scoring defense in Virginia raised eyebrows. A win over one of the more defensively efficient teams in the country in the Sweet Sixteen in Oklahoma had many saying "here goes Tom Izzo again". After needing overtime to take down Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals, Magic Johnson can continue to sit in the stands and watch his alma mater chase its third championship in school history.

The Spartans are a very unselfish team, ranking 4th best in the nation in assists per game. Led by senior guard Travis Trice, backcourt mate Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson, the Spartans seem immune to the fact that their eleven losses are more than the other three Final Four teams combined.

Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine
Guess it helps when one of those teams are undefeated.

The Spartans' hot streak has only been cooled once in its past nine games. Their last loss came to another Final Four team, the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Championship game. In fact, Michigan State hasn't beat a team in the Final Four this season, losing to Wisconsin twice, and Duke early in the season.

None of that matters in the tournament, these wins matter the most. Michigan State has had a knack for doing what it has to do to survive and advance late in games throughout this entire tournament run.