Four teams will gather in Indianapolis this Saturday with the dream of winning a national championship on the line.
But these aren’t just any programs. These are the who’s who of college basketball.
Each team got here a different way. Kentucky is the superpower, the undefeated juggernaut who is chasing history. Duke is built with a pile of freshmen the same as Duke, and they seem destined for a date with UK in the title game. Wisconsin was easily the class of the Big Ten, a team that doesn’t have the sheer talent of some of the others in Indy but has all the tools to win a championship. Then there’s Michigan State, a team that was supposedly suffering through a “down” year but somehow managed to be one of the last four standing.
Indy will be packed with storylines this weekend. Here are ten of the most prominent.
1. Can Kentucky make history?
This will be the biggest question heading into the weekend. Kentucky has managed to reach Indy at 38-0 despite being pushed to the brink on a handful of occasions, and the Wildcats will the Goliath. The pressure will be cranked up to diamond-making level. John Calipari’s team won’t have an easy path with Wisconsin waiting Saturday followed by either Michigan State or Duke, and how UK’s freshmen hold up under the spotlight will make the difference between making history or just being a footnote.
2. Can Mike Krzyzewski win one more big one?
Obviously he can – we see those four national championship banners flapping in the breeze – but when you consider the fact Coach K will be making his 12th appearance in the Final Four, you realize he hasn’t been the most successful coach once he gets to the final weekend. Now, admittedly this is picking a whole lot of nits, but he has just a 4-3 record in title games and is 11-5 in games played during the final two rounds of the tournament. He’s a coaching god, a guy with 1,000 career wins. He’s also 68 years old. How much time does Coach K have left to get banner No. 5? Is this his last chance?
3. Can Tom Izzo pull off the impossible?
Izzo is a fantastic coach in March, and he has Michigan State at heights few expected this year. But Izzo has plenty of work left ahead of him. All he has to do to win another national championship is beat Duke on Saturday and possibly Kentucky on Monday. He will be at a severe talent disadvantage vs. both of those elite squads, and even if he ends up taking on Wisconsin in the title game, he will be playing a Badger squad that has already knocked off Sparty twice this year. This hasn’t been an easy NCAA Tournament by any stretch for MSU, but they’ve found a way to win. Speaking of which…
4. Does Michigan State have more magic left in it (and we ain’t talking about the Johnson kind)?
Twenty-three points. That is the total margin of victory for MSU in its first four wins of the NCAA Tournament, and no game has been won by a larger margin than seven points. Georgia battled every step of the way in the round of 64. Same with Virginia and Oklahoma in the next two rounds, and Louisville pushed MSU to overtime. The trio of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson have played major minutes and have come up big, but can they pull together one or two more times to cut down the nets?
5. Does Wisconsin really have a shot vs. Kentucky?
Wisconsin has been fantastic this season, losing just three times all year, and it features an All-American in the middle in Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky can take over games with his skills, and although he won’t make many highlight reels, he can dominate by taking apart opponents. But there’s no question Kentucky is bigger, stronger, quicker and more athletic, and on paper, it looks like UW shouldn’t bother showing up. Wisconsin has been pushed vs. teams with good size inside – your Georgetowns and Dukes and Purdues and Ohio States of the world, but they’ve also lost just two off those battles. Wisky finds a way to win more often than not, and a Bo Ryan team is never out of a game. Just ask last year’s Kentucky team, which beat the Badgers in a game that wasn’t decided until the closing seconds.
6. Is Aaron Harrison the best clutch player left in the Tournament?
Based on past results, yeah, he is. Everyone knows about his huge shots in last year’s tourney – the three to beat Michigan and the three to beat Wisconsin – and his free throws vs. Notre Dame pushed the Wildcats past the Fighting Irish last weekend. The bottom line on Harrison is when the game is on the line, he needs to be accounted for at all times. He’s the college version of Robert Horry, and his presence on the floor will give UK the edge late in games.
7. Can anyone stop Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns?
Notre Dame sure couldn’t, and when he gets the ball on the low block, he’s nearly impossible to stop. That’s great for Kentucky, but the kid has been crazy inconsistent during the Dance. Yeah, his 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting vs. the Irish were impressive, but West Virginia held him to one point on three shots and got him into foul trouble. The same went for Cincinnati in the round of 32. He had just eight points and four fouls in UK’s win over the Bearcats. Towns is important to the Wildcats and could be the X-factor. He has to stay out of foul trouble.
8. Can MSU’s Travis Trice avoid trying to do too much on the floor vs. Duke?
This is going to be key. Trice is a fantastic talent, someone who can take over games and is wicked quick. But he also can have a tendency to slide into hero mode at times. He was huge vs. Louisville, going 17-5-5, but he also shot just 5-of-15 from the floor and kept chucking from distance when his shot wasn’t falling. When his first couple of shots from distance don’t fall, he can have the mentality of trying to shoot his way out of a slump, which won’t be good for Michigan State.
9. Who will have a bigger presence in Indy – basketball fans or NBA scouts?
This one might be close. There will be an incredible collection of pro-caliber talent on the floor in Indianapolis. We might be talking about this Final Four for decades to come. Kentucky has Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker, Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson on the floor. UK even has a guy who isn’t playing – Alex Poythress, who is out with a torn ACL – listed in some mock drafts. Duke brings Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Michigan State has Travis Trice and maybe Denzel Valentine. Wisconsin has Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. The NBA brass will be at Lucas Oil Stadium in full force to say the least, and it should be a festival of talent for fans to enjoy.
10. Who is the best player in the Final Four?
Good question. This one is open to a lot of debate because each team brings so much talent to the floor. It’s tough to make a call on Kentucky because the Wildcats’ balance keeps one guy from outdistancing the others, and their freshmen can be a bit up and down. The good news for UK fans is there’s always someone to pick up the slack if a freshman struggles. Trice and Valentine are special for Michigan State, but they’re a step below the rest. That leaves Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.
Okafor is the consensus No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick if he decides to leave, and there’s no question he’s a stud inside. He defends, he can score and is unselfish. He’s a rising star, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best college basketball player on the floor at all times. That nod goes to Kaminsky based on his sky-high skill level and the fact that he has more experience than just about anyone else at this high of a level. Kaminsky was critical for the Badgers in their deep run in the tourney last season, and his whole season has been building to this moment. He can get opposing bigs in foul trouble, and his success or failure could be the lynchpin to Wisconsin winning or losing.