By Brennan Trimble
We started with 68 teams two weeks ago, and through all the excitement, buzzer-beaters, tears, triumphs, slam dunks, and clutch shots, the NCAA Tournament field has been narrowed down to only four: The undefeated (38-0) Kentucky Wildcats, the ever-consistent Duke Blue Devils (33-4), the “underdog” Michigan State Spartans (27-11), and our super-efficient Wisconsin Badgers (35-3). Kentucky, Duke, and Wisconsin all come into the weekend as number one seeds, while the Spartans struggled through their regular season and were given a number 7 seed.
The four teams will meet in Indianapolis on Saturday, beginning with Michigan State vs. Duke who tip at 5:09 PM (Central) followed by Wisconsin vs. Kentucky at 7:49 PM.
Michigan State vs. Duke
Taking a look at the first game, it is a rematch of the Champions Classic showdown from November for these two teams, in which Duke won by 10, 81-71. While Duke is clearly the more talented team, with Player of the Year candidate Jahlil Okafor, along with Minnesota-native Tyus Jones, and shot maker Quinn Cook and all-around player Justice Winslow, do not expect this game to be a cake-walk for the Blue Devils. Both teams have improved mightily since their November matchup, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Spartans have locked down during the tournament, much credit to their mastermind coach, Tom Izzo. They only allowed Louisville to hit a total of six field goals in the second half and overtime, and that includes three fast break layups off of steals. The Spartans defense also only allowed number 2 seed Virginia to shoot 29% for the entire game. On the other side of the ball, Travis Trice, a senior guard, has stepped up his offense and hit multiple big shots and averaging almost 20 points per game throughout the tournament.
Keys to the Game:
This game is a matchup of two superstar coaches in Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo. For Duke, they need to stay out of foul trouble and let Okafor go to work in the paint. The Spartans don’t have a lot of big bodies to defend him with, and if he is able to stay on the court and be effective, Duke should be able to control the paint and the game. For the Spartans, they need to hit 3s (they shot only 25% from behind the arc in the last matchup, though average 39% on the year), limit turnovers, and do their best to get Duke in foul trouble. Duke doesn’t have a very deep bench, especially in the front court, so getting Okafor in foul trouble could turn out to be huge for MSU.
Look for the game to be close throughout, but I think Duke pulls away at the end to win it 75-67.
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
Unlike the first game, these two teams have not met this season – however, this is a rematch from last year’s Final Four, a game in which Kentucky, an 8 seed, won 74-73 on a clutch three pointer from Aaron Harrison. This time around, however, Kentucky is not the underdog. The Wildcats come into this game 38-0, on a quest to finish the season undefeated – and as champions. They are a team of future NBA players, with a record 9 McDonald’s All-Americans and a mix of phenomenal freshman, highlighted by Karl-Anthony Towns, and experienced veterans like the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein. This team is well coached behind the leadership of John Calipari, and is going to make things very difficult – although not impossible – for the Badgers. Kentucky is a huge team, both in size and numbers. At the beginning of the season, Calipari had a plan to run a 2-platoon system because he has the talent and depth at each position. As far as size goes, Kentucky has only one rotation player under 6’6″ in backup guard Tyler Ulis. Though tested a few times this season, Kentucky has yet to fall to an opponent.
Luckily for the Badgers, their style of play is seemingly one that has a chance to knock the Wildcats out of the tournament. Wisconsin has the highest offensive efficiency rating since the statistic was kept, according to Ken Pomeroy. They are meticulous, do not take bad shots, and run their game through the likely Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky is a versatile center who can pass, score in the paint, and step outside and knock down the three. Next to Frank the Tank is Sam Dekker, a junior forward who is coming off of back-to-back career highs in the tournament. He is playing the best basketball of his career, and doing so at the perfect time. Surrounding those two are players who fit Bo Ryan’s system to a T, and I think the most import of those is Nigel Hayes. A sophomore forward who was known for his energy and rebounding last year, but has developed a reliable jump shot that forces the defense to step out on him and know where he is on the court at all times.
Keys to the Game:
For Kentucky, it will be the ability to make shots that decide if they can make it into the title game. They have dominating size down low with Cauley-Stein, Towns, amongst others, but what they need is to be able to hit shots and extend the Wisconsin defense. The Harrison brothers, the starting back court, need to be able to control the tempo and flow of the game while hitting, but not forcing, their shots. As for the Badgers, they need to be able to rebound the ball and slow the pace down. When people talk about Wisconsin basketball, words like “boring,” and “slow” are often thrown around, but that sells Bo Ryan’s system far too short. The Badgers are disciplined and unflappable. They know their roles, their strengths, and their limits. They look to take good shots and make the game a low-possession affair. That cannot change if the Badgers want to knock off the title-favorite Wildcats. Wisconsin, in order to win, has to take and make good shots and not try and run with UK. Kaminsky and Dekker must lead the team and both have to bring their A games, which I think they will.
Wisconsin is going to come out with a plan and Bo Ryan’s troops will execute, keeping the game in the 60s. It will be a dog fight, but I think the Badgers get their revenge from last season and advance to Monday’s title game, winning 68-65.
Wisconsin vs. Duke
If my predictions are correct, Wisconsin will meet the Blue Devils on Monday night for the NCAA Championship. Duke went into Madison in December and beat the Badgers by 10, and I expect a similar result. I think Wisconsin’s game against Kentucky will have taken its toll on the team, and Coach K will have his guys ready to go. Duke cuts down the nets in Indianapolis, winning 74-66, and Coach K gets his 5th championship banner to hang in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Folks, start your engines. We’re in for one heck of a weekend.
About the Author:
My name is Brennan Trimble, and I am junior at Winona State University in Winona, MN. I am majoring in Marketing with a minor in International Business. I am a passionate basketball fan, a Seinfeld connoisseur, and I sometimes wish I had the opportunity to be a pirate. In my spare time I can usually be found on a beach or spending time with my roommates – that is, when I’m not exploring.