As much as sports tend to be about the results, with one team winning and the other losing, they're also about the storylines that develop before and after a matchup. The 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament is being defined by the latter more than the former, mostly because there haven't been surprising results for a long time.
The lowest seed still playing as the Elite Eight gets ready to start Saturday evening is the Michigan State Spartans as a No. 7, though the Spartans are hardly anyone's definition of a Cinderella—similar to how no one could honestly define the Connecticut Huskies or Kentucky Wildcats as sleepers last year.
If you are in the tournament and competing for a spot in the Final Four every year, you're not an out-of-the-box team.
In preparation for the Final Four next weekend, here's an early look at the schedule and storylines to watch before things get set after Sunday:
|2015 Final Four Schedule|
|Date||Game||Start Time (ET)||Network||Location|
|Saturday, April 4||Game No. 1 (Matchup TBD)||6:09 p.m.||CBS||Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, Indiana)|
|Saturday, April 4||Game No. 2 (Matchup TBD)||8:49 p.m.||CBS||Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, Indiana)|
The Underdog vs. the Powerhouse
The right side of the bracket is shaping up to be a battle of one team hitting its stride late in the season (Michigan State or Louisville) against one team that's been on the short list of title contenders all year (Duke or Gonzaga).
Even though Michigan State and Louisville don't fall into the surprise category, it has been fun to watch both teams deal with different kinds of adversity during the regular season and find the right mix to be on the verge of a trip to Indianapolis.
It's also nice to see how great coaching by Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino can make a difference for these teams. Given the way rosters turn over so quickly in college basketball, head coaches have to be the stars of their teams.
Nicole Auerbach of USA Today wrote that the thing that makes Izzo and Pitino so special is how they are able to identify their teams' weaknesses without letting them overwhelm the strengths:
The seventh-seeded Spartans lack the kind of "God-given talent" they've had in years past, Izzo admits, underselling it a bit. Pitino's squad understands its offensive inconsistencies, what it lost when it dismissed Chris Jones and that the world wouldn't have been surprised if the Cardinals had been bounced in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
That's not to say Izzo and Pitino are the only coaches capable of doing great things, because Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Few, John Calipari, Bo Ryan, Mike Brey and Sean Miller are terrific at what they do.
Yet the difference between the Izzo-Pitino duo and the other six coaches still in the tournament is, as Auerbach said, that they don't have the top-tier NBA talent the others do. Louisville's Montrezl Harrell is the best pro prospect on either team, but he'll be lucky to go in the lottery.
Of the two powerhouse teams on the right side, both in the South Region, Gonzaga has yet to be tested. The Bulldogs have won their first three games by a combined 41 points, yet they are going against a different animal in Duke.
The Blue Devils are in the unique position of having possibly the top pick in the NBA draft (Jahlil Okafor), but their best player is Justise Winslow.
Eric Prisbell of USA Today went so far as to say Winslow is arguably more important to Duke right now than Okafor is:
Immune to all that — the pressure, the backdrop, the defense — Winslow was the best player on the floor Friday. He had 21 points on 8 of 13 shooting. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, becoming just the third Duke freshman in history to have at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game. He scored 11 of his 21 points outside the paint.
Keep in mind that Winslow's performance against Utah came on a night when Okafor had six points and the three other members of the starting five combined to make six field goals.
Gonzaga also proved against UCLA that it can turn up the volume on defense when its shots aren't falling. Gonzaga held the Bruins to 38.8 percent shooting, while the Bulldogs also got a career night from Przemek Karnowski with 18 points and nine rebounds.
The fascinating aspect of each potential Final Four matchup is the contrast in styles. Duke and Gonzaga want to spread the floor and score a lot of points, forcing the opponent into taking bad shots. Louisville and Michigan State are going to slow the pace, play physical defense and not care if a game ends with both teams scoring less than 60 points.
Duke and Gonzaga are more talented on paper than Louisville and Michigan State are, but the balance comes from the coaching of Pitino and Izzo. They are two of the best in the business, and they both have years' worth of tournament experience.
Being able to adapt is what makes a championship team, so the question will be whether the East or South Regional champion adjusts more quickly.
The Perfect Bracket
The selection committee robbed the world of arguably its best national title game by putting Kentucky, Arizona and Wisconsin on one side of the bracket. I will acknowledge that a potential Kentucky-Duke title game will have better ratings than any other possible outcome, so it's hard to scream at the committee too loudly.
Despite not getting the best possible title game on the actual night of the national championship, everything happening in the Midwest and West Regions worked out perfectly in the nearly two weeks since the brackets were announced.
As soon as everyone saw Kentucky and Notre Dame were in the same region, everyone wanted to see that matchup. It's not to say the Fighting Irish are going to beat the Wildcats, but the intrigue of seeing Brey's shooters against Calipari's defense is hard to top.
Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated did try to deflate some of the air in Notre Dame's bubble leading into Saturday night's game:
Of the 826 jumpers opponents have taken against Kentucky this year, 62.3% have been three-pointers, per Synergy Sports Data. Of all the catch-and-shoot jumpers by opponents in a half-court setting, only 31.8% have been unguarded. A Wildcats backcourt featuring three 6’6” rotation players does a lot to eliminate good looks. But 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6’10” Trey Lyles and 6’9” Marcus Lee often rush out to the line too.
It's going to be difficult for Notre Dame, which relies on shooting—though the defense has stepped up lately against Butler and Wichita State—to overcome what Kentucky offers.
After all, this is a Wildcats team that would have defeated West Virginia even if it stopped scoring at halftime. The Wildcats had 44 points after 20 minutes, while the Mountaineers finished with 39. There's no reason to expect Kentucky to lose, but Notre Dame's ability to hit shots gives it a puncher's chance to reach the Final Four.
Meanwhile, the game between Wisconsin and Arizona could easily be better than any game that happens in the Final Four or the national title game. After Kentucky, there's a fair and real argument that these are the two best teams in the country.
The Wildcats and Badgers played an instant classic in last year's Elite Eight. Wisconsin won that game in what was an exclamation point on Frank Kaminsky's breakout tournament, as he finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
As good as that game was, both Arizona and Wisconsin are better this season. The Wildcats are being badgered—pardon the bad pun—about whether this is a revenge game, per Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Revenge angles in sports often make little sense, especially in a tournament setting, because revenge doesn't change what happened before.
Instead, Arizona should be focused on using its depth and versatility to move forward this season, as Matthew Giles of The Washington Post wrote:
Arizona isn’t the same defensive squad they were in 2014, but in some ways, they are better equipped to handle Wisconsin. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a premier on-ball defender, the rare player who can guard all five positions — against Xavier, he matched up with Myles Davis, and he can guard bigs and wings alike. The 6-foot-7 Hollis-Jefferson also excels at ‘man’ rebounds, that is, rebounds where the forward rises out of a crowd and secures the carom well above all outstretched arms.
The tournament is defined by matchups. Louisville may not be here if it had to play more explosive offensive teams. Notre Dame nearly lost to Northeastern and Butler before hitting its stride against Wichita State.
Arizona matches up well against Wisconsin, though the Badgers are also going to bring the star tandem of Kaminsky and Sam Dekker to the floor. Ryan has never had an offense this efficient, which scored, as Giles noted, 1.25 points per possession in the last two tournament wins over Oregon and North Carolina.
However, the Badgers haven't gone up against a team like Arizona yet. The Ducks and Tar Heels wanted to run up and down the floor with their shooters, giving little thought to what happened on defense.
Because Arizona and Wisconsin are two teams playing at such high levels, there's no reason to think they won't duplicate the effort from last year's classic. Whether that means Wisconsin wins again or not, this is the perfect matchup on a side of the bracket that's worked out just as it was supposed to.