By: Evan Lachnit, KCOU Sports
As the calendar turns from March to April, the weather gets warmer, flowers begin to bloom, but the madness does not stop. Thus far we have had one of the most compelling tournaments in recent memory. The first full day of action in what is technically the second round was one of the most competitive and entertaining days in tournament history. It set a new record for most one-point games in a single day at five. Also, there were the Cinderellas UAB and Georgia State that captured America’s heart during the first weekend. And of course, the most talked about subject the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats and if they could keep it up. They were tested in the Elite Eight when they took on Notre Dame, but the Wildcats remain undefeated. I believe that game was the best college basketball game since the 2008 Kansas vs. Memphis championship game. And after two weeks of action, we have one weekend left of the madness, and it should not disappoint.
The talent at this year’s Final Four is some of the best we have seen in recent memory. Not to mention the four coaches that will be in Indianapolis are not too bad either. Throw in the fact that we have a rematch of a National Semifinal from last year and it begs the question what could be better.
Here is my breakdown of Saturday’s matchups and who I have cutting down the nets on Monday Night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
National Semifinal #1: (1) Duke Blue Devils vs. (7) Michigan State Spartans
It is quite possible that Michigan State is the loudest “cinderella” (if you can even call them one) in tournament history. Michigan St. was a popular pick to throw a wrench in the East region and make it to the Final Four. Unlike UConn last year who no one gave a shot as a seven seed, Tom Izzo’s Spartans had respect from the beginning. On the other hand, the Duke Blue Devils expected to be here from day one and have had the respect they deserve all season. This is a very interesting matchup for many reasons. These two teams did meet earlier this season at the Champions Classic (though many may forget about it because of the Kentucky dispatching of Kansas in the second game of that Classic) and Duke won 81-71 in a game that did not feel that close. The fact is that both teams are much different from that November 18th matchup and both the Blue Devils and Spartans are much better teams now.
This game should come down to how effective can Michigan St. be in shutting down Justise Winslow, because I believe that Jahlil Okafor will feast on Michigan St. down low. In their matchup early this season, Duke was able to control the pace of the game which is something the Spartans relies on. If that is the case again it will be hard for the Spartans to be effective, but never count them out. At the end of the day I cannot bet against Duke. I look for Winslow to keep playing at the level he has, and along with Okafor, Duke is a hard train to stop. Add in the senior leadership and shooting of Quinn Cook and the aggressive play of Tyus Jones and I do not think that Duke can be stopped.
Duke wins 75-62.
National Semifinal #2: (1) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (1) Wisconsin Badgers
I really hope people appreciate the fact of how lucky we are that we get this rematch from last year’s Final Four. And what a thriller it was, as both teams went back and forth and the game came down to the final possession. Aaron Harrison’s cold blooded three from the corner propelled the Wildcats to the Championship game as an eight seed, where they went on to lose to UConn. An eight seed is far from what Kentucky is this year as everyone knows, and it is even more compelling than when they were an eight seed last year. The Wildcats pursuit of perfection has captured the attention of the country since November. After they beatdown Kansas in the Champions Classic, the question arose, can the Wildcats finish the season 40-0? Test after test after test, the Wildcats have proven that they can not just only blow you out, but they can also win the tight close games.
On the other side, the Badgers return the core nucleus of last year’s Final Four team. Led by Frank Kaminsky, who I believe is the best player in the country, Wisconsin dominated the Big Ten and was poised to be in Indianapolis from the beginning. The big three of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes have led the Badgers all season and they have a lot of experience in the tournament. All three average double digit points, with Kaminsky averaging close to 19 a game. You cannot forget about players like Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig either. They add a toughness to the team that they already have from Hayes and Kaminsky. The wild card is Traevon Jackson, their former starting point guard before he went down earlier this season with an injury. Jackson played for short stints in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but did not show much. If he is able to play at 75 percent of what he way at the beginning of the season, that is a huge positive for Bo Ryan’s team.
I am not sure where to start on the other side of the court with John Calipari’s squad. I mean what they only have six guys that could go in the first round of the NBA Draft. But if I have to choose, Karl-Anthony Towns has been the most impressive WIldcat thus far in the tournament. Towns is showing that he may be Kentucky’s best overall player. After a lackluster performance where he only scored one point in Kentucky’s win over West Virginia, Towns went off on Notre Dame scoring 25 points and having his way with the Irish. What makes him so special is that he not only can score 25 points for you, but he will also be a shut down defender and can guard the perimeter. Just like their other seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who is just as great of a player. Not to mention Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, and the Harrison twins are playing at a high level right now.
If Wisconsin wants to give Kentucky its first loss of the season, they will have to mirror the game that Notre Dame played against the Wildcats in the Elite Eight. The difference is that Wisconsin has the size to guard Towns and Cauley-Stein down low and at the same time spread out the Wildcat defense and effectively shoot the three pointer. Also I believe that Jackson will be healthy enough to be effective and will help the Badgers keep the game close. For some reason, I feel like it is Kentucky’s time, and by that I mean to lose. Wisconsin will be hungry and I like them to beat Kentucky in a thriller.
Wisconsin wins 81-77.
National Championship: 1 Wisconsin Badgers vs. 1 Duke Blue Devils
I will keep this one short and sweet. I love Wisconsin and everything they have done this season. Saying that though, Duke is an amazing program with an amazing coach, and I really like the duo of Okafor and Winslow. I believe that if they are playing at their highest level they cannot be stopped. Not to mention the fact that I originally had Virginia winning the title back in February, so why not keep it in the ACC.
Duke cuts down the nets, winning 75-68.