Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Final Four Semi-Finals: Michigan State vs. Duke; Kentucky vs. Wisconsin Game Analysis

Final Four National Semi-Finals
Game Breakdown and Analysis

March Madness has become Awesome April, with the Final Four ready to rumble on Saturday, April 4 at Lucas Stadium in Indianapolis.

Unsurprisingly, the four finalists are teams with exceptional coaches, three of which have won national championships, all of whom have been to the Final Four, especially Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has taken Duke teams to college hoops' promised land more often than any coach, except UCLA's legendary John Wooden, tying the Wizard of Westwood this season with his 12th Final Four appearance.

Coach K has also notched four NCAA Division I Tournament Championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010), thus, his prowess as a college basketball mastermind is beyond question. He still has a way to go to match Wooden's record of 10 national titles, however, a record that may never be broken, if only because Division I hoops has changed so much over the years. In Wooden's day, one only needed two wins to reach the Final Four and four wins to take it all. Nowadays, it takes four wins just to get into the Final Four and six to win it all. Plus, quality players are leaving college after a year or two, making building a long-lasting program improbable and exceedingly difficult.

But, along with Krzyzewski, the likes of Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and John Calipari (Kentucky) continue to get their teams into the tournament and prepare them for the single-elimination marathon.

For Tom Izzo, this marks the seventh Final Four for his Michigan State Spartans and his first Final Four since 2010. He is seeking a second national championship. He won his first in 2000. John Calipari has been to six Final Fours, four with Kentucky (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) and previously had led UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 to the Final Four, but those appearances were later vacated by the NCAA. He has one national championship to his credit, that one earned in 2012. It was Kentucky's eighth national championship.

67-year-old Bo Ryan has the fewest number of Final Four appearances, making the grade last season and this year, both with the Badgers. He has never won a national championship in Division I, though he did win four Division III championships as head coach of University of Wisconsin-Platteville (1991, 1995, 1998 and 1999), so the competitive fires burn deep in the Badger head coach.

Following is a breakdown/analysis of the two semi-final games:

6:09 pm (7) Michigan State (27-11) vs (1) Duke (33-4) (TBS)

Line: Duke -5

Michigan State Spartans:Points per game: 71.9; Rank: 67
Rebounds per game: 37.7; Rank: 36
Assists per game: 17.1; Rank: 4
Field Goal Pct.: .471; Rank: 32

Duke Blue Devils:Points per game: 80.6; Rank: 4
Rebounds per game: 37.3; Rank: 44
Assists per game: 15.5; Rank: 21
Field Goal Pct.: .502; Rank: 3

Both teams seem cut from roughly the same cloth, that of hard-working, blue-collar determination and team principles, though Duke arguably has more overall talent. Duke and Michigan State both share the ball, as evidenced by their high rankings in the assist column. Other than Duke being the higher-scoring team and having a better shooting percentage, there's little separating these two, but the high level of shooting, especially considering how many three's the Blue Devils take (and make) should be of concern to the Spartans.

Michigan State will have to defend the thee-point line, where Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook predominate, plus be mindful of the inside presence of Jahlil Okafor, possibly the best inside presence in the college ranks this season. The Spartans really don't have the size nor the manpower to put the clamps down on Okafor, so expect them to double-team, even though that's going to free up some three-point shooters. Michigan State will play man-to-man defense, as will the Blue Devils. The premier match-up will be at point guard, where Duke's Jones will have to deal with lightning-quick Travis Trice and diminutive Lourawls Nairn Jr.

Darnell Valentine, Michigan State's leading scorer, will have to provide leadership and hit more than a few contested points. It would be in Michigan State's favor to turn this into a half-court contest, as Duke can and will run and gun. Fast break points may be hard to come by, however, as the well-prepared Spartans play excellent defense.

As for records, Michigan State's 27-11 mark is the worst of all the Final Four contestants, but they knocked off the #2, 3 and 4 seeds in the East region, topping Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville, respectively, after cruising by Georgia, 70-63, in their first game. Michigan State's average margin of victory in tournament games is a mere 5.75, and the 76-70 win over Louisville was in overtime.

Duke's mark of 33-4 is among the best in the nation, and, considering they came out of the rock-solid ACC, is quite an accomplishment. Their tourney wins have been sensational and by large margins. After whipping 16-seed Robert Morris, 85-56, in their opener, the defeated San Diego State, 68-49; Utah, 63-57; and Gonzaga, 66-52, for an average margin of victory of 17.0, an impressive stat.

Neither team is especially deep on the bench, but both coaches will substitute freely, giving their star players needed breaks, though Izzo will be shuffling in more players for the Spartans than does Duke. If the Spartans don't defend well or Duke has open looks from beyond the arc, this could turn into a rout. What will keep it close is solid defense by Michigan State, a bit of luck, and second chance points by the better-rebounding Spartans.

8:49 pm (1) Wisconsin (35-3) vs (1) Kentucky (38-0) (TBS)

Line: Kentucky -5

Wisconsin Badgers:
Points per game: 71.9; Rank: 67
Rebounds per game: 33.7; Rank: 204
Assists per game: 12.7; Rank: 165
Field Goal Pct.: .480; Rank: 21

Kentucky Wildcats:
Points per game: 74.9; Rank: 29
Rebounds per game: 38.2; Rank: 21
Assists per game: 14.7; Rank: 42
Field Goal Pct.: .469; Rank: 40

If there's been any mismatches in this tournament, they've likely featured the Wildcats, who have run their record to 38-0, after sweeping the SEC regular season and tournament, by winning four tournament games by a combined 77 points, for an average margin of 19.25 points per game. Take out the two-point win over Notre Dame (68-66) and their margin improves to 25 points per outing.

The Wildcats have nothing in mind other than to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, coached by Bobby Knight, to win a national championship with an undefeated record. Kentucky is two games from accomplishing the feat, which, somewhat surprisingly, hasn't been done in 39 years, nearly as long as another Kentucky-related record, that being horse racing's triple crown. The last time that happened was 1978, when Affirmed fended off Alydar in three straight close races.

While there may not be a triple crown horse on the racing horizon, these Wildcats are surely basketball thoroughbreds, and this team, despite being mostly freshmen and sophomores, is exceedingly deep, and very tall and long. Wisconsin will find out early on that Kentucky's size can be extremely incapacitating, especially if the Wildcat players are able to set their feet on defense. Since Wisconsin plays a half-court kind of game, the Kentucky players will almost certainly have an edge when the Badgers are trying to score.

A glance at the stats and rankings above reveals even more issues for the Badgers. They are almost certain to be out-rebounded and much of their offense depends on two big men, Frank Kominsky and Sam Dekker, whereas the Wildcats can counter with four or five players of size, starting with 6'11" Karl Anthony Towns, and seven-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, with Trey Lyles (6'10") and Marcus Lee (6'9").

The back court match-ups don't hold much promise for Wisconsin either. Though the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are the starters, their replacements, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker are probably better. Booker is especially deadly from outside. He can rain down threes like the sky is falling.

The Badgers do have Kaminsky, the choice for player of the year, but asking him to do it alone is a task too great. He is crafty and has extreme range, but, unless he gets help from others in the scoring and rebounding department, it's hard to see how Wisconsin can stay with the Wildcats for the entire 40 minutes. Notre Dame nearly pulled off a remarkable upset, and they were one of just a few teams that could possibly defeat Kentucky, as they had been red-hot, proven by winning the ACC tournament and played a nearly flawless game.

Wisconsin is certainly capable of playing with few turnovers - that is their trademark - but they'll really have to clamp down on defense, especially in the paint. What works for Wisconsin is their experience versus Kentucky's youthful talent. The Badgers are cool under pressure and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them with a chance to win late in the game, but, from well before March Madness began, this was always going to be Kentucky's tournament to lose, and if they do lose, it will be by a team with depth and determination, but it remains a long shot.

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