Final Four 2015: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch
With three No. 1 seeds and a No. 7 seed still standing in the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Final Four couldn't possibly be a more appropriate blend of excellence and chaos.
Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke were three of the best teams in the country all season, ranking No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 in the preseason AP poll and never dropping below No. 7 at any point in the year. You might not have picked all three of them to reach the Final Four, but you certainly can't be surprised they did.
And then we have the Spartans, the 11-loss team that even dropped a home game to Texas Southern back in December—the perfect example of a good team catching fire at the right time.
How did these teams get here? Who are their best players? What is each team's blueprint to a title?
What follows are the stars, stats and storylines to watch when the last three games of the 2014-15 season tip off in Indianapolis Saturday night.
Record: 35-3, No. 1 seed in West Region
Path to Indianapolis: 86-72 over No. 16 Coastal Carolina, 72-65 over No. 8 Oregon, 79-72 over No. 4 North Carolina, 85-78 over No. 2 Arizona
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency
Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 301 in three-point defense at 37.4 percent
How they got here
Wisconsin doesn't just have the most efficient offense in the country. The Badgers have the most efficient offense in the history of KenPom.com—and by a slightly absurd margin.
Michigan held the record, posting an adjusted offensive efficiency of 124.1 during the 2013-14 season. The Wolverines were one of just 20 teams in the past 13 seasons to finish at 120.0 or better.
But thanks to an incredibly efficient tournament, Wisconsin enters the Final Four with a rating of 127.4.
Bo Ryan's offenses have always put on clinics in fundamentals, but this year's Badgers are simply in their own class of historical greatness. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker have been unbelievable, combining to average 44.5 points per game in the tournament.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Traevon Jackson hadn't injured his ankle?
Through 16 healthy contests, the senior point guard was averaging 9.5 points, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He was expected to be a crucial piece of the puzzle for a talented team with a short rotation.
But when he went down, Bronson Koenig came through in a huge way.
Not everyone can make the transition from backup shooting guard to starting point guard overnight, but Koenig made it look easy. After the loss to Rutgers in which Jackson suffered his injury, Koenig averaged 35.3 minutes per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.24. He became an indispensable cog in Wisconsin's efficiency machine, committing just 1.35 turnovers per 40 minutes.
And the good news is that Jackson is now back in the fold. He only played a handful of minutes against North Carolina and Arizona, but those were his first appearances after a 19-game hiatus. Once expected to be one of the reliable leaders, Jackson just might be Wisconsin's X-factor off the bench.
Record: 38-0, No. 1 seed in Midwest Region
Path to Indianapolis: 79-56 over No. 16 Hampton, 64-51 over No. 8 Cincinnati, 78-39 over No. 5 West Virginia, 68-66 over No. 3 Notre Dame
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency
Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 205 in defensive rebounding at 31.6 percent
How they got here
It wasn't always easy, but Kentucky leveraged its height, depth and athleticism to win 38 consecutive games.
The Wildcats do more than one thing well. Here are the categories on KenPom.com in which Kentucky ranks in the top six nationally: adjusted offensive efficiency, adjusted defensive efficiency, offensive rebounding rate, effective field-goal defense, three-point defense, two-point defense, defensive block rate, offensive block rate, defensive assist rate and effective height.
It's simply ridiculous in how many areas of the game the Wildcats are better than their opponents. That's why the blueprint for beating Kentucky effectively boils down to "Be better on every possession on both ends of the court than you have been at any other point in the season."
Different players beat you in different ways on various nights. Karl-Anthony Towns had one point in the blowout win over West Virginia, but he had 25 against Notre Dame and was the most important player on the court. And there are at least seven other players on the roster capable of taking over a game like that.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Kentucky had lost a game?
Whether it's in pro football or college basketball, when a team gets about two-thirds of the way through the season without a loss, an idiotic debate breaks out about if it would help the team to lose a game to remove the pressure of going undefeated. Why would you ever want to bring doubt into the team's head over whether it actually is the best in the country?
So, no, we're not asking if Kentucky would have been better off with one loss. Rather, we're wondering if a regular-season loss would have resulted in a tournament loss to Notre Dame.
Much of the argument behind the "a loss would be good" stance is the need to be tested to learn how to respond in those situations. But the Wildcats were tested several times without suffering a loss, and it seemed to foster a belief that they can win in any situation.
If either Texas A&M or LSU makes its game-winning shots against Kentucky, now it's suddenly in the back of the players' heads that they can be beaten. And instead of deja vu situations inspiring confidence, they result in fear. But Kentucky looked fearless in surviving against the Fighting Irish.
Michigan State Spartans
Record: 27-11, No. 7 seed in East Region
Path to Indianapolis: 70-63 over No. 10 Georgia, 60-54 over No. 2 Virginia, 62-58 over No. 3 Oklahoma, 76-70 (OT) over No. 4 Louisville
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 7 in the country in assist rate at 64.1 percent
Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 338 in free-throw percentage at 63.2 percent
How they got here
Even with Tom Izzo's history of tournament success, the Spartans came out of seemingly nowhere over the past month, embracing the role of underdog just as perfectly as the Connecticut team that beat them in the Elite Eight a season ago.
Prior to the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State's best win of the season came at home against No. 10 seed Ohio State on a last-second three-pointer by Denzel Valentine.
Translation: There was no good reason to see this coming. Even Izzo is shocked, saying after the game on CBS's telecast, "This is an unbelievable experience. Probably my best of the seven (Final Fours)."
But there's certainly nothing cheap about what they have accomplished, going through two of the ACC's best teams and one of the best teams in the Big 12. The Spartans simply saved their best for March.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Kenny Kaminski hadn't been dismissed from the team?
Among players who attempted at least 10 three-pointers, Kaminski led the Big Ten in three-point shooting in 2013-14 at 49.4 percent. He hit 38 of 77 long-range shots and could have been for Michigan State what Kyle Wiltjer has been for Gonzaga as that stretch 4 who causes matchup nightmares for all opponents.
However, Izzo dismissed him from the team in early August, saying in a statement, "Kaminski could not live up to the obligations necessary to be a part of our program."
As a result, though, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling played a ton of minutes that otherwise wouldn't have been available to them, and they gradually developed into a solid tandem at center over the course of the season.
Great of a shooter as Kaminski was, Michigan State probably wouldn't go on this defense-fueled run through the tournament without the play of Costello and Schilling.
Duke Blue Devils
Record: 33-4, No. 1 seed in South Region
Path to Indianapolis: 85-56 over No. 16 Robert Morris, 68-49 over No. 8 San Diego State, 63-57 over No. 5 Utah, 66-52 over No. 2 Gonzaga
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 3 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency
Achilles' heel: Allows opponents to score 61.4 percent of points on two-point field goals, the third-highest ratio in the country
How they got here
Remember all those articles written about Duke's terrible defense? Those were fun, right?
The Blue Devils have held their four tournament opponents to 53.5 points per game. Shutting down Robert Morris and San Diego State is nothing to brag about. But Utah ranks 21st in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, and Gonzaga ranks sixth. And the Blue Devils limited them each to less than 0.9 points per possession.
As has been the case with Kentucky, different players have led the way on various nights for Duke. Jahlil Okafor is the stud everyone has been talking about since long before his arrival on campus, but Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook have each done more than their fair share of carrying this team offensively.
The Blue Devils won neither the regular-season ACC title nor the ACC conference tournament. Nevertheless, they're just two games away from winning the national championship for the fifth time in the last 24 years.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Rasheed Sulaimon hadn't been dismissed?
A very similar "What if?" to the one for Michigan State, except Duke's dismissal of Sulaimon happened in the middle of the season. The Blue Devils also lost Semi Ojeleye early in the year, as the sophomore forward decided to transfer, so they were down to just eight scholarship players after jettisoning Sulaimon.
But by some bizarre twist of fate, Duke seemed to get even better without him.
Maybe they got stronger by virtue of being a smaller team. Maybe his absence merely opened the door for guys like Winslow, Matt Jones and Grayson Allen to play a bigger role. Whatever the reason, the Blue Devils have gradually evolved from a floundering team that lost three of Sulaimon's final six games to a national title contender that has won 16 of the last 17.
Can Kentucky go 40-0?
It has been the most discussed story of the entire season, and that's not about to change now.
At 38-0, Kentucky already has more consecutive wins to open a season than any other team in history—a record Wichita State set last season by starting 35-0. But can the Wildcats finish the job?
There hasn't been an undefeated team in college basketball since Indiana went 32-0 in 1975-76. UNLV was the last team to stay standing this long, going 34-0 in 1990-91 before losing to Duke in the Final Four.
Should the Wildcats and Blue Devils meet in the national championship, get ready for about a billion flashbacks to Duke's win in 1991 and Christian Laettner's shot against Kentucky in 1992.
Will we get the Duke vs. Kentucky game we've been craving for months?
With all due respect to the Big Ten schools who have made it this far, everyone who isn't pulling for either Michigan State or Wisconsin is pulling for a battle between Duke and Kentucky for the national championship.
We've been beaten over the head with Laettner stuff all season long. We always get replays of "the shot" at this time of year, but throw in the "I Hate Christian Laettner" documentaries and his appearance in all the AT&T commercials throughout the tournament, and it almost feels like destiny for these two blue bloods to meet again.
Will John Calipari come back?
Calipari has won 83.7 percent of his games as the head coach of Kentucky. He has been to four Final Fours in five years and is seeking a second national championship in a span of four years.
If he leads this team to 40-0, what more does he have left to accomplish? Consecutive undefeated seasons? UCLA's 88-game winning streak? Nate Scott of USA Today recently laid out eight reasons for why he should make the jump to the NBA and started with saying there's nothing left for Cal to prove.
He wrote, "This Kentucky team is his masterpiece—a group of super talented one-and-dones and upperclassmen leaders he got to buy into the greater team, all of whom sacrificed their own statistics to make a run at a title."
The conversation is silly, though. Calipari is a living legend in Lexington. He has his pick of the litter from the nation's best recruits every season. And at just 56 years of age and 635 career wins, he could easily reach 1,000 wins after another 13 or 14 years at Kentucky. He could stay and retire a very happy and successful man.
But the discussion has already begun among the talking heads, and it will only intensify if the Wildcats win the title.
Can Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker do what they came back to accomplish?
Barely five minutes had passed after Kentucky's win over Wisconsin in the 2014 Final Four before both Kaminsky and Dekker said in the locker room they would be back for another year, per ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman.
A few weeks later, Kaminsky even wrote an essay, explaining the motivation behind his decision:
I haven't won enough in college to call it a career. Yea, we made it to the Final Four, but that doesn't mean we won something. It's a great accomplishment and few get to achieve it, but it isn't winning it all. With the pieces we have returning, I believe we can win the Big Ten, and even win the whole damn thing.
There have already been a ton of similarities on the Badgers' path. They faced Oregon in the round of 32 for a second straight year. They faced Arizona in the West regional final for a second straight year. And now they get the rematch with Kentucky in the Final Four. Can they exorcise the demons from Aaron Harrison's dagger?
Can the Big Ten finally win another title?
It's hard to believe, but the Big Ten hasn't won a national championship since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000.
The conference certainly hasn't had a shortage of representation in the Final Four, though. Including Michigan State and Wisconsin this year, 12 Big Ten teams have advanced to the Final Four in the past 15 tournaments, but the last 10 have come up short of finishing the job.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will both be underdogs on Saturday, but does that even matter at this point? Any one of these four teams could win it all.
Is this the best collection of coaches in Final Four history?
Over the summer, ESPN ranked the 50 best active coaches in the country. John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan ranked No. 2, 3, 4 and 7 respectively.
You can argue with the order they're in, but there's no denying all four belong in the top 10. They have a combined total of 2,532 career wins.
The amount of brain power and leadership in Indianapolis is absolutely phenomenal.
Stars to Watch
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 13.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG
When he can stay out of foul trouble, Karl-Anthony Towns is basically unstoppable. The way he was getting around Zach Auguste and deftly placing the ball in the hoop was a thing of beauty, and it happened multiple times over both his left and right shoulders.
Because of the foul trouble and because of the depth Kentucky has, Towns hasn't exactly been a consistent source of points throughout the season. However, in close games over the past two months, he's proved to be the horse the Wildcats are riding when they need a bucket.
And that only speaks to his impact on offense. Towns has also been one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the country. If you really think Jahlil Okafor is a lock to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this June, do yourself a favor and zero in on Towns Saturday night. He's pretty incredible.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Tournament stats: 22.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.3 APG
Frank Kaminsky got the "Frank the Tank" nickname last season, but he has been especially tank-like over the past seven weeks. Dating back to Valentine's Day, he has scored at least 16 points in 13 of 14 games, averaging 20.9 points per game during that stretch.
And aside from parts of the 20 field-goal-attempt game against Arizona, he has been anything but a ball hog. Kaminsky has averaged 1.47 points per field-goal attempt in those 14 games. To put that number in perspective, Doug McDermott's ratio was 1.49 during his Wooden Award senior season, and he was more than twice as reliant on three-point shots as Kaminsky is.
Kaminsky can beat you inside. He can beat you outside. If his shots aren't falling, he can force you to send him to the free-throw line and/or get his teammates going by doling out a bunch of assists. Basically, there's nothing the guy can't do, and it's why he'll probably win the Wooden Award.
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Tournament stats: 21.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.0 APG
It's not fair that Wisconsin has two big men with three-point range who are averaging better than 21 points per game in the tournament.
Kaminsky we pretty much expected to dominate, but Sam Dekker was the wild card. We've known for years he had the talent to be a 20-per-night type of scorer, but the star forward is finally exploding like a supernova.
Dekker had a career-high 23 against North Carolina in the Sweet 16. He then had a career-high 27 in the Elite Eight against Arizona. What might he have in store for Kentucky in the Final Four?
Travis Trice, Michigan State
Tournament stats: 19.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.3 RPG
Denzel Valentine is the do-it-all star, but Trice is the heart and soul of this Spartans team. He has scored at least 18 points in 16 games. And even though Valentine has been the more accurate shooter, Trice is the one who always seems to drain the backbreaking shots.
What's more, the season-long statistics don't do justice to the swagger that he has been playing with in the tournament. Trice's pull-up and step-back jumpers—both in transition and in the half-court game—have been simply unstoppable.
Trice scored 10 of Michigan State's final 17 points against Virginia, serving as a one-man defensive front, pushing back every time the Cavaliers tried to get back into the game.
Justise Winslow, Duke
Tournament stats: 16.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1.5 SPG
Every year, we seem to be treated to one player who ascends from "very good" in the regular season to "legendary" in the tournament. Justise Winslow isn't quite putting up the numbers of a Shabazz Napier or Kemba Walker, but his evolution into the most important player on a team that already has arguably the best big man in the nation has been incredible to watch.
In both wins over Utah and Gonzaga in his hometown of Houston, Winslow was the driving force of Duke's offense. He averaged 19.5 points per game and came up with the big shots while the rest of the team struggled to find its stroke.
Like Denzel Valentine for Michigan State, he's so difficult to stop because he can kill you from all over the court. And it's not like you can afford to cheat toward him on defense with guys like Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook also on the court.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Tournament stats: 15.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.0 BPG
The main cog of Duke's offensive machine for the entire season, Okafor was surprisingly silent over the last two games. Utah and Gonzaga each held Okafor to less than 10 points—something that had only happened once before the tournament, and that was a 43-point win over Wake Forest in which he only played 19 minutes.
But the presumed No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this June is still a massive star to watch because he impacts so much of the game just by being on the floor.
No, he hasn't scored a ton, but with five sets of defensive eyes on him every time he touches the ball, lanes and shots have been opening up for the rest of the Blue Devils. Okafor's presence makes it impossible to devote proper attention to slowing down Winslow, Cook and Tyus Jones, and it results in guys like Matt Jones getting open looks and exploding for 16 points.
It's one thing to slow down Okafor. It's another thing to slow down Duke. Utah and Gonzaga merely decided they weren't going to let the big man be the one who beat them.
Underrated Players to Watch
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 6.3 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG
The little guy has been huge for the Wildcats.
In a physical battle with Cincinnati, Tyler Ulis was solid, tallying nine points, five assists, three steals and no turnovers in 34 minutes. In fact, the 5'9" point guard hasn't committed a turnover in 84 minutes over the last three games.
And while Aaron Harrison hit the deep three-pointer and Andrew Harrison hit the free throws that we all remember from the end of the Notre Dame game, it was Ulis' corner three-pointer out of a timeout with Kentucky trailing by six that really seemed to turn the tide. It was his only bucket of the game, but it couldn't have come at a more critical juncture.
Josh Gasser, Wisconsin
Tournament stats: 7.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.8 SPG
Josh Gasser is the furthest thing from a volume shooter. The starting shooting guard leads the team in minutes played, but he averages just one field-goal attempt for every 7.3 minutes on the court. For sake of comparison, his counterpart in the Final Four game (Aaron Harrison) averages one shot for every 2.7 minutes of playing time.
Yet, Gasser is incredibly efficient, boasting an O-rating of 135.7 that ranks third in the nation. He has attempted precisely four shots in each of Wisconsin's four tournament games, but he is 9-of-16 from the field and averaging 1.81 points per field-goal attempt.
But during the vast majority of the game when he isn't taking shots, Gasser is Wisconsin's defensive stalwart, regularly matching up with the opposing team's best scorer and giving full effort on every possession to slow him down.
"Josh Gasser is a guy who, whatever the assignment is, he'll take it on," head coach Bo Ryan told Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports after the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina. "And he's never wavered. Never wavered at all."
Bryn Forbes, Michigan State
Tournament stats: 9.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 52.9 3P%
The Cleveland State transfer was shooting 42.4 percent from three-point range during the regular season, but he has been an assassin off the bench for the Spartans over the past two weeks.
Forbes was particularly deadly in the Elite Eight win over Louisville. He had 14 points and shot 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, but scoring the first five points of overtime is what made him so crucial.
Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson are the consistent scorers for the Spartans, but when Forbes is getting on the board, he's the fourth wheel that keeps this vehicle rolling forward.
Matt Jones, Duke
Tournament stats: 6.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.3 APG
It's almost impossible for a Duke starter to be underrated, but Matt Jones fit that description perfectly before his massive 16-point game against Gonzaga on Sunday afternoon.
A 38.7 percent three-point shooter who hasn't shot a ton, Jones has benefited nicely from being the fifth option in Duke's offensive attack. Next season is when we'll likely find out whether he is capable of consistently being an important piece of the puzzle, but he has been a remarkable X-factor at times for the Blue Devils this season.
Honorable mention to Amile Jefferson. He dropped off the face of the Earth in late January when Justise Winslow started taking over games and showed his ability to play the bulk of the minutes as the team's stretch 4, but Jefferson is a critical rebounder off the bench who is more than capable of scoring some big buckets.
Wisconsin's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Wisconsin, the following four things will happen, and the Badgers will win it all.
1. Frank the Tank will continue to trample the opposition.
Captain Obvious here, letting you know one of the best players in the country needs to be the best player in the game for his team to have a better chance of advancing. As already addressed in the "Stars to Watch," Frank Kaminsky has been scoring like a madman since mid-February. That just needs to continue for two more games.
2. Opponents will start missing three-pointers.
Wisconsin's offense has been insanely efficient, but its defense has been quite porous, resulting in several close games. Tournament opponents have averaged 1.16 points per possession against the Badgers—almost impossible to believe, given how much we have talked about Bo Ryan's defense over the past 15 years.
Much of that, however, is due to Wisconsin's defensive luck in the most fickle category in basketball: three-point shooting. Opponents have made 25 of 50 three-point attempts against the Badgers—including North Carolina's extremely uncharacteristic 8-of-13 night from beyond the arc.
It's an Aaron Harrison dagger that has haunted Wisconsin's dreams for the past 12 months, and the Badgers had better improve their perimeter defense if they want to avoid a repeat of that nightmare.
3. Zak Showalter will provide a spark off the bench.
In the wins over Oregon and North Carolina, Zak Showalter played a huge role in limited minutes, putting himself in the position to swing the momentum in Wisconsin's favor in back-to-back games.
Last year in the Final Four against Kentucky, it was Bronson Koenig who went from a backup guard to a trending topic on Twitter by scoring 11 first-half points. We probably shouldn't expect Showalter to score in double figures for the first time in his career, but we also shouldn't be surprised if he hits a shot that gets the whole team fired up for a big run.
4. The Badgers will dominate the defensive glass.
Notre Dame was not a good rebounding team throughout the season, but grabbing more offensive rebounds than Kentucky was a big piece of what gave the Fighting Irish a great chance to win that Elite Eight game.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, ranks fourth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, which should be absolutely critical the rest of the way. The Badgers will face Kentucky (sixth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage) and would likely need to go through Duke (21st) to win it all. Limit the second-chance opportunities for those blue bloods, and Wisconsin's offensive efficiency should prevail.
Kentucky's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Kentucky, the following four things will happen, and the Wildcats will win it all.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns will stay out of early foul trouble.
The only people capable of stifling Kentucky's most efficient scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker are the ones with the striped shirts and whistles.
Far too often this season, we've seen Towns heading to the bench with two fouls in the first few minutes of a game. He is averaging 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes on the season and has committed at least four fouls in five of his last six games.
If that's a problem again Saturday, the Wildcats could have a whale of a time both defending and scoring on Wisconsin's frontcourt.
2. Willie Cauley-Stein will play a bigger role.
Towns is a phenomenally talented big man, but Kentucky needs contributions from both its hyphenated stars. In the closer of Kentucky's two tournament games (against Cincinnati and Notre Dame), Willie Cauley-Stein has averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 0.5 assists and 0.5 steals.
Those aren't terrible numbers, but we all know the 7'0" finalist for the Naismith Award can do so much more—especially in the rebounding and steals departments. He doesn't need to score in double figures to have a huge impact, but the Wildcats certainly wouldn't complain if he decided to score 10 or more.
3. Kentucky will finish defensive possessions with a rebound.
There aren't very many aspects of the game where you can say Kentucky is below average, but defensive rebounding is one of them.
The Wildcats rank 205th in the nation in that category, allowing opponents to grab 31.6 percent of possible rebounds, but they have been even worse in close tournament games. Notre Dame corralled 40.6 percent of available offensive rebounds, and Cincinnati's rate was 44.7 percent. Prolonged possessions can be a serious problem against efficient offenses.
4. The Wildcats will do what they have done all season.
For a team that's 38-0, let's not nitpick or try to reinvent the wheel. Kentucky has been playing outstanding basketball since day one and remains the overwhelming favorite to win it all. As long as the Wildcats believe in themselves and keep doing what they've been doing for the past four-plus months, they'll be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
Michigan State's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Michigan State, the following four things will happen, and the Spartans will win it all.
1. Denzel Valentine will remain an unguardable Swiss army knife.
Valentine was a bit of a non-factor in the big win over Virginia, dealing with foul trouble for most of the afternoon. Outside of that, though, he has been the ultimate X-factor for the Spartans in the month of March.
Taking out the dud against the Cavaliers, in nine March games he has averaged 36.6 minutes, 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. He was everywhere in the wins over Georgia and Louisville, recording at least 15 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals in each of them.
The stat-sheet stuffer is so tough to stop, strong enough to outwork a guard and quick enough to blow by a big man. When he's feeling it, there isn't much the opposition can do.
2. The Spartans will make their free throws.
The Spartans are shooting just 63.2 percent from the charity stripe, easily their biggest problem. Certain individuals—Valentine at 82.9 percent and Bryn Forbes at 80.8 percent—have been quite reliable, but they struggle as a team and have continued to do so for most of the tournament.
However, they shot 75.0 percent against Louisville and sank six in a row at the end of the game against Oklahoma, icing away the win.
With each round that passes, every point seems to be that much harder to come by. Michigan State cannot afford to leave a bunch of them at the free-throw line.
3. The defense will remain impenetrable.
The Spartans were already one of the better defenses during the regular season, holding opponents to 40.0 percent shooting from the field, but they have kicked it up a notch in the tournament. Through four games, Michigan State's opponents are shooting 33.9 percent from the field.
4. Travis Trice will stay hot.
Trice is averaging 19.8 points per game in the tournament and shooting 40.6 percent from three-point range.
It's more than just the averages and percentages, though, because he has been this year's version of Aaron Harrison, seemingly draining three-pointers at the most inconvenient possible times for the opposition. If he can keep delivering, Michigan State just might have two more wins up its sleeve.
Duke's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Duke, the following four things will happen, and the Blue Devils will win it all.
1. Quinn Cook will start hitting shots again.
No one in the country has more swagger than Quinn Cook after a made three-pointer, but he hasn't had many over the past couple of games. Since draining half a dozen in the opener against Robert Morris, Cook has made just four of 14 three-point attempts.
He has still scored in double figures in each of Duke's tournament games, but it just doesn't feel the same without him mean mugging his way down the court after watching a 22-footer tickle the twine.
2. The defense will remain fierce.
Duke wasn't much of a turnover-forcing team during the season, but it forced 15 against Utah and another 13 against Gonzaga, holding each of its four opponents to less than 0.9 points per possession. Quite the far cry from those games against Miami and NC State in January.
3. Jahlil Okafor will dominate in the paint on offense.
As mentioned in the "Stars to Watch," Okafor has been oddly absent over the past couple of games. Justise Winslow has carried the team against Utah and Gonzaga, but one post player isn't going to cut it against either Kentucky or Wisconsin in the championship game. Okafor was Duke's stud for the first 35 games of the season, and the Blue Devils need him back in a big way.
4. Jahlil Okafor will dominate in the paint on defense.
Duke has a strong defense, but two-point defense is still an issue. Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis had no trouble whatsoever getting to the rim in the Elite Eight before dealing with some foul trouble, and Dallin Bachynski came out of basically nowhere to score 11 points for Utah. Okafor isn't a terrible defender by any means, but if he could do more to protect the rim, it'd be a huge help for Duke.
Michigan State vs. Duke
Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET (TBS)
It's been a great run for Michigan State, but it comes to an end here.
Both the Spartans and Blue Devils have played great defense in the tournament, so expect a low-scoring affair. But Duke ranks fourth in the nation in effective field-goal percentage, which is drastically better than any opponent Michigan State has faced to this point in the tournament.
Duke scored 1.25 points per possession when these teams played in the Champions Classic back in November, but it's certainly worth noting that Michigan State shot 62.5 percent inside the arc. The Blue Devils had no answer for Branden Dawson (18 points and nine rebounds).
However, Duke just has too many weapons and did a great job of getting to the line against the undersized Spartans. Unless the Blue Devils have a horrendous three-point shooting effort, they should be advancing.
Prediction: Duke 69-61
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET (TBS)
It's the nation's best offense against the nation's best defense.
It's the unstoppable and unbeatable Wildcats against a very talented Badgers team searching for redemption.
But what will Wisconsin be able to do to slow down Kentucky's offense? The Badgers have allowed the sixth-highest percentage of points on two-point field goals. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are excellent, versatile forwards on offense, but none of them are particularly gifted on defense.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles will each have a monster game, and Devin Booker will hit enough three-pointers for Kentucky to outscore Wisconsin.
Prediction: Kentucky 83-77
Duke vs. Kentucky
Monday at 9:10 p.m. ET (CBS)
The game we've all been waiting for finally comes to fruition!
Big Blue Nation against the Duke Blue Devils. The undefeated favorites against one of the most talented underdog teams ever.
The tale of the tape figures to work in Kentucky's favor. Too many big men and too talented a defense to fall in the most important game in school history.
But if Duke is draining three-pointers, anything is possible.
Quinn Cook was on fire against Robert Morris. Justise Winslow was the savior against Utah. Matt Jones got hot against Gonzaga. But the Blue Devils haven't had multiple guys raining threes in the same game yet in the tournament. Does that mean they're due for an outburst, or does it mean they're getting less consistent as we near the finish line?
In the end, Duke's inability to defend in the paint proves extremely problematic. Jahlil Okafor gets into early foul trouble, and one of the best tournaments in recent history produces the first undefeated team in almost four decades.
Prediction: Kentucky 76-70