For many reasons, this stands to be the most exciting build-up to a Final Four we’ve ever seen. No matter how any of these games play out, no matter the combination that leads to a national champion next Monday night, the outcomes will bring intrigue, big story lines and grand takeaways.
The NCAA Tournament is never a letdown, but when it has a go of it like this, and an ultimate weekend with so many stars — both coaches and players — it’s a dream combination for media and fans alike. You can’t wait for it, can you? Same here.
Let’s give a quick power ranking of the foursome still standing.
Even though Kentucky is obviously the top team entering a fascinating Final Four, the margin between UK and Wisconsin and Duke isn’t so big. For John Calipari’s team, the difference is obviously the defense. At 85.6 points per 100 possessions allowed, the Wildcats are the best team on D in the country. And really one of the best ever. The nine-man deployment is relentless, and when you’ve got length in Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles, it’s a marvel to watch. Not to mention the Harrison twins are well-built guards. Offensively, Cal’s team rates at fifth-best in the nation right now. It’s not a whirl with the ball, but it’s efficient thanks in large part to its clean-up duty on the offensive glass. Kentucky got a scare from Notre Dame. Was that an omen to come or the one close call to ignite Big Blue to two comfortable wins and a place in sports lore?
Wisconsin edges out Duke because they’ve looked better through four games than the Blue Devils, and now Sam Dekker is looking like a top-10 NBA pick. Dekker won the West region’s MOP award after he went 5 for 6 from 3-point range and had 27 points in the Arizona game. So here’s the crazy part: Frank Kaminsky put up 29 in that game. Bucky’s been so good. No matter what UW does on Saturday, we’ll remember this era of Badgers hoops. Big Frank, Dekker, Josh Gasser, and Nigel Hayes have lifted the program to such relevance and prominence. Now, this isn’t a stellar defensive team, but it is the very best offensive group in the nation, putting up a 127.5 offensive rating on KenPom. That’s crazy good. Defensively, the team is slightly better than last season (from 97.6 DRtg to 96.4), but still not elite. Traevon Jackson’s contributions could wind up being X factor-ish if UW is to win it all.
The third-best team in the Final Four has two guys who can be top-five NBA picks. That’s how great this group is. Jahlil Okafor is the most offensively skilled big man in college basketball since Tim Duncan. Justise Winslow has put on a terrific show in March — with a less-than-100-percent ankle. Tyus Jones is the best point guard of any in the Final Four. And Quinn Cook has hit more kill-your-spirit 3-pointers than any player this season, with the possible exception of Aaron Harrison. So … why do I have Duke third? The defense, to an extent, I suppose. But Duke’s gotten better on D as well as of late. No question. So we’re talking centimeters, not feet, of difference between Duke and Wisconsin. The Blue Devils’ offense isn’t that far behind Wisconsin. And Duke didwin at Wisconsin earlier this season. The Blue Devils have a rep for not being that deep, but really, Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee have earned some burn in the NCAA Tournament. Now you’re really seeing why this is such a great quartet.
4. Michigan State
The easy pick for No. 4 is coached by a man now in his seventh Final Four, which ties him for No. 4 on the all-time list. Tom Izzo’s group is getting a little less respect than it deserves, frankly, because it’s Izzo and March and yada, yada. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine could both wind up earning an NBA paycheck. And even if not, they’re really good college players with distinct talents that make them interesting matchups for opposing teams. Plus, Travis Trice has become — to the surprise of many — a high-volume and dangerous shooter. Michigan State ranks No. 15 overall in KenPom right now. Yes, it’s obviously the fourth-best team in Indy, but it’s capable of beating Duke. The Blue Devils beat the Spartans 81-71 back on Nov. 18. If MSU, just a five-point underdog this Saturday, were to get Wisconsin in the title game, you know you can envision Izzo’s guys edging out Bo’s Badgers. MSU lost both its games to Wisconsin this season, but one was at Madison, and the other, the Big Ten title game, went to overtime.