Back in mid-November, at the prestigious Champions Classic, the McDonald’s All-American-starved Michigan State Spartans looked like the odd team out among themselves, Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky—aka the giants of college basketball. (In all fairness, it was my Jayhawks, thoroughly embarrassed by Kentucky 72−40, who were clearly the odd team out.)
More than four months later the Spartans, who lost to Duke 81−71 at that same star-studded venue (and lost to Kansas 61−56 two weeks later), have proven they belong with the big boys after another vintage Tom Izzo tournament run—his seventh Final Four appearance.
Only Kansas, which lost in the Round of 32 (again), failed to make the Final Four after starring in that early-season matchup of titans. But in their place is 35−3 Wisconsin, which likely poses the biggest threat to topping 38−0 Kentucky in a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s Final Four. The Badgers play tough defense, operate at a deliberately slow pace, and, oh yes, they have the most difficult player to defend in senior forward Frank Kaminsky.
The 7-foot Kaminsky put up 29 points and grabbed six rebounds in Wisconsin’s instant classic win over Arizona in the Elite Eight—also a rematch from last year.
What makes Kaminsky so hard to defend? Like some select other big men around the country, Frank “the Tank” can shoot the three—thus requiring his defender to venture out to the three-point line.
But he’s not just a one-dimensional long-range shooter.
Kaminsky also has a dizzying array of post-moves in the paint that usually result in either a made basket or his going to the line. In that same Elite Eight game against the Wildcats, Kaminsky was the prime reason Arizona’s front line was either in foul trouble or had already fouled. The big man went to the free-throw line 12 times and hit 10 of them. Any attempts to double-team him are usually thwarted by his being able to find the open man. FYI, junior forward Sam Dekkar has been on fire in the tournament, averaging 21.8 points per game off of 48 percent shooting from three-point land.
The job of defending Kaminsky will go to the team with the most talent, most front-line depth, and most aggressive defense in the country—the aforementioned Kentucky Wildcats, who really need no introduction.
Most any other year, Wisconsin’s 35 wins would represent the most—but this isn’t any other year. Kentucky has been playing on another level this season, and their 38 wins are already tied for the most in one season—along with Calipari’s Kentucky squad of three years ago as well as his Memphis team four years before that. No other coach has joined the 38-win club, and Calipari is just two wins from creating another exclusive one: the 40-win fraternity.
The Wildcats’ talent is unequaled. The roster is littered with nine McDonald’s All-Americans, and that doesn’t include first-team AP All-American junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, the 7-footer who is nimble enough to chase down Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant and force an off-balance three-pointer in the final seconds of the Elite Eight matchup.
Center Karl-Anthony Towns may have the most talent on the team and proved to be an impossible guard for those same Irish. Meanwhile, sophomore guard Aaron Harrison made a name for himself in last year’s tournament by hitting several late, game-altering three-pointers as the Wildcats made it all the way to the title game.
Meanwhile, 33−4 Duke is looming as a possible spoiler. That’s right. In a Final Four with Kentucky, the Blue Devils actually take a back seat as far as dangerous teams go. Coach Krzyzewski has now been to an insane 12 Final Fours (tying John Wooden’s record), though they’ve only been there three times since winning it all in 2001—a lull compared to the incredible seven Final Fours in a nine-year period between 1986 and 1994 that once made Duke so feared. Three times is also the number of opening-round upsets they’ve suffered since 2001.
Don’t get me wrong, with Jahlil Okafor anchoring the post, Duke is tough to guard. But in this fearsome foursome, they’re overshadowed a bit—an unusual role that Coach K will likely thrive in after being the hunted for so many years.
His opponent, 27−11 Michigan State, has overachieved in the tournament before—plenty of times. Izzo’s teams have made it to college basketball’s final weekend seven times since 1999—more than Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, or Duke have during the same period. Yet the Spartans have done it with half the NBA talent.
Since 1999, Michigan State has seen 10 players drafted into the NBA—not bad, but not great. North Carolina has seen 19, Kansas has 20, while Duke and Kentucky have each had 25 draftees. In short, Izzo does more with less when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. And while his current squad isn’t beaming with NBA talent, they play well together and should give Duke plenty of fits Saturday night.
After all, any foursome with Michigan State as the underdog must be loaded.