Four of the best, most tradition rich programs in the history of college basketball make up the field in this year’s NCAA Men’s Final Four to take place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this Saturday. The first game will match Michigan State, in their 7th Final Four in 12 years, against Duke, here for the 12th time under Mike Krzyzewski. The nightcap features a rematch of a classic Final Four game from a year ago as Wisconsin takes on Kentucky.
Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection has only two games left, but it very nearly got derailed in the regional final. After a scary 78-39 destruction of West Virginia on Thursday, the ‘Cats got everything it wanted and more from ACC champion Notre Dame. In a game never separated by more than six points at any time, it was the best game of this year’s tournament and will go down as one of the great games ever in the tournament.
How great did Kentucky need to be? They did not miss a single shot from the floor in the final 12:05, or a free throw in the final 8:43. Add to that the benefit of a regrettable blocking foul call at the end leading to the winning free throws from Andrew Harrison, and the Wildcats had sidestepped one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, 68-66. Karl-Anthony Towns led
Kentucky with 25 points.
Wisconsin stared down a similar challenge in their regional final victory over Arizona. The Badgers may be proving they are completely up to the Kentucky task showing an unexpected ability to prosper in a fast tempo game. North Carolina pushed them on Thursday, and they responded with a 48-point second half in the 79-72 win. Saturday they erupted for 55 in the second 20 minutes, defeating Arizona for the second straight year in the West Regional Final 85-78. The difference was the 12 threes hit by Wisconsin, to two for Arizona.
Duke returns to the Final Four for the first time in five years after a 66-52 win over Gonzaga. Exhibiting a brand of defense rarely seen all season, the Blue Devils shut down the ‘Zags outscoring them 13-1 down the stretch. In the last three games, Duke has allowed an average of just less than 53 points per game, an ability that could prove them ready for what awaits them. They defeated a scrappy Utah team, 63-57, on Friday.
Michigan State becomes the second #7-seed to make the Final Four in as many years. They only hope they are as successful as Connecticut was last year, upending the Spartans in route to the national championship. But as with UConn a year ago, there is far too much tradition to call them a Cinderella. They fought past Oklahoma 62-58 on Friday before finding a way to get past Louisville 76-70 in OT on Sunday. This team is never rattled by anything, and the leadership from the sidelines makes anything possible.
Kentucky is the favorite, but any of the other three are capable of beating them. Wisconsin is not intimidated, rarely make any mistakes, and plays as a cohesive unit. Duke has the closest match in terms of size and athleticism. Michigan State just has the look and will not be intimidated, either. Most want to see another Kentucky/Duke battle, that matchup having so much history. I do believe that is what we will get. After the close call, it seems even more impossible Kentucky will lose, and I cannot pick against them.