Hoop Thoughts: Recent matchups offer clues to Final Four clashes
As a jumping off point in previewing this powerhouse of a Final Four, I’d like to pose a question:
When is the last time you heard anyone use the word platoon?
Been a long time, right? When the season began, it seemed like every conversation about Kentucky featured that word. John Calipari told us ad nauseum that he was committed to platooning five guys at a time. He warned that minutes would still be awarded on merit—“This isn’t communism,” he said over and over again—but the system was unique and, for a while, effective. Even after 6’8” junior forward Alex Poythress suffered a season-ending ACL injury in mid-December, Calipari still deployed a quasi-platoon, often shuttling in his subs four at a time.
When that started to go by the wayside midway through the SEC season, it yielded remarkably little comment. During last Saturday's riveting Midwest Regional final against Notre Dame, Calipari used a more traditional seven-man rotation. Only two reserves played double-digit minutes, with junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, the nation’s best defender, topping the chart at 33. Nor was there anything socialist about the shot distribution. Freshmen forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles combined to take almost half (23) of the Wildcats' 47 field goal attempts. Sophomore point guard Andrew Harrison took just two.
This is only one example of how profoundly all four of these teams have changed since opening day. For all the idolatry cast on these players, it helps to remember that they are still college kids. They grow and change not just month to month, but week to week. That’s what makes watching this sport so fun.
So if you want to look ahead to see what’s going to happen this weekend, it helps to look back and see what happened the last time these teams played each other—not to see how they might be the same, but how they became different. As it happened, these teams have crossed paths quite a bit the past two years. So before we preview, let's review, just for fun, starting with the most recent showdowns between 2015 Final Four entrants:
March 1, 2015: Wisconsin 68, Michigan State 61
March 15, 2015: Wisconsin 80, Michigan State 69 (OT)
It would be a stellar night for the Big Ten if these two teams met for the national championship. Even though the Badgers won both games during the regular season, both were competitive. The first took place in Madison, and the second was in the Big Ten tournament final in Chicago. College basketball coaches have always said it’s really hard to beat a team three times in one season, but I don’t buy that. If you beat them twice, it means you’re probably better.
The scarier prospect for Wisconsin would be just how close the latter meeting was. The Spartans led by 11 points with under eight minutes to play. The Badgers’ front line spurred the comeback as usual, but in this case, it wasn’t Kaminsky or Dekker who did most of the damage but Nigel Hayes. The 6'7" linguist repeatedly got to the foul line, where he sank all 12 of his attempts en route to a career-high 25 points. This was especially important because Dekker was a no-show, scoring just four points. Josh Gasser, meanwhile, did a solid job defensively on Travis Trice, who scored just six points in 42 minutes.
In the first meeting, Kaminsky had arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 31 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals. Contrast that with the three Michigan State big men, who combined to score eight points. Were it not for Forbes’ five three-pointers off the bench, the game would have been a blowout, but the bigger concern for the Spartans was the disparity at the free throw line. In their two meetings, the Badgers outscored Michigan State by a combined 29-13 from the stripe.
What does this tell us? The Spartans have a helpful familiarity with Wisconsin, but the Badgers are the better team. The things that Wisconsin did well—stop dribble penetration, get to the free throw line, score in the paint—are the type of things that can be counted on to be repeated, unlike, say, three-point shooting. That could spell doom if they meet on the game’s ultimate stage.
Dec. 3, 2014: Duke 80, Wisconsin 70, December 3, 2014
This game, from the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, will generate a lot of discussion if the Badgers and Blue Devils meet on Monday night. Both teams were ranked in the top five at the time, and we all know how hard it is to beat Wisconsin in Madison. Yet, that’s exactly what Duke did behind some “lights out” shooting, as Badgers coach Bo Ryan put it. The Blue Devils shot 7-for-12 from behind the three-point line and made 65.2% of their field goals. That was the highest percentage Wisconsin had allowed in four years. Thus was Duke able to control the game while getting a pedestrian 13 points and six rebounds from Okafor.
Keep in mind, however, that a big reason Duke prevailed was the 14 points it got off the bench from junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who has since been dismissed from the program. That leaves the Blue Devils with just eight scholarship players. Also, Dekker was badly hobbled by a lingering ankle sprain and scored only had five points. Both developments favor the Badgers, although the one player who was boosted most by Sulaimon’s dismissal, sophomore Matt Jones, rescued Duke in the Elite Eight on Sunday by scoring 16 points. It's also clear that the Blue Devils' chemistry has improved without Sulaimon.
What does this tell us? Any team can beat a good team if it shoots lights out. Wisconsin proved that against Arizona. Assuming Dekker would play at a higher level than he did this first meeting, Duke would be operating on a much smaller margin for error should it meet the Badgers on Monday night.
Did this game really happen only four and a half months ago? It feels like four years.
At the time, this meeting, which took place at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, was hailed as Jahlil Okafor’s coming out party. Duke’s 6’11” freshman center pounded the Spartans for 17 points (on 8-for-10 shooting) and five rebounds. As it turned out, those numbers were actually a little below what he would average for the season. Have the Spartans' trio of front line defenders—Branden Dawson, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling—gotten better since then? Of course. But so has Okafor.
Still, while the Blue Devils have been starting three freshmen all season, there is no question that Michigan State is the team that has made greater strides since this first matchup. Duke freshman forward Justise Winslow has surged in March, but he did have 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. The Spartans, however, have since made a fundamental change in the backcourt, bringing freshman point guard Tum Tum Nairn into the lineup to replace junior guard Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State. This has improved Michigan State significantly on the defensive end while speeding up its running game. Also, it allows the team to get better offensively when Tom Izzo brings Forbes off the bench. The Spartans would not have beaten Louisville in the Elite Eight were it not for Forbes’ four made three-pointers, but they also would not have gotten by Virginia in the Round of 32 if they weren’t vastly improved defensively across the board.
What does this tell us? The Blue Devils need to be ready to face a more cohesive, physical defense than the one they played in November. To the degree that the interior is the soft spot in Michigan State's D, that means Okafor is going to have to be at least as much of a factor as he was the first time—and certainly a lot more than he was last week in Houston, when his combined points over two games (15) failed to match what he scored in just his third college game.
April 5, 2014: Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73
Isn’t it rich? Arizona spent all year stewing over its loss to Wisconsin in last season's Elite Eight. The Wildcats got back to the Elite Eight this season … and lost to Wisconsin. Now, it's the Badgers' turn to play the role of The Avenger one year after their Final Four loss to Kentucky.
You’ll recall that this game ended with two iconic shots. The first was Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison’s made three-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining to put Kentucky on top. The second was Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson’s missed bank attempt at the buzzer. Until last week, Jackson has not played for the Badgers because of a broken foot he sustained on Jan. 11. I was skeptical of the decision to re-insert him into their Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, but he was more effective than I would have anticipated while playing 16 minutes combined in the two games last weekend. With another week of practice, I presume Jackson will be more of a factor.
Kentucky and Wisconsin have different personnel, of course, than they had at last year’s Final Four, but the changes are much more pronounced on the Wildcats' side, where the Harrison twins are the only returning starters. Julius Randle and James Young, who left for the NBA, combined for 33 points and 10 rebounds last year. Dakari Johnson was in the starting lineup, but that was only because Cauley-Stein was sidelined by an ankle injury. But while the Badgers have only had to replace senior shooting guard Ben Brust, who scored a team-high 15 points in that game, Wisconsin will have a very different Frank Kaminsky in this game. He only had eight points on seven shots in last year's loss. Forward Nigel Hayes played just seven minutes off the bench, and wing Sam Dekker was good (15 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes), but he was nowhere near the video-game dart thrower he was last week in Los Angeles.
What does this tell us? Just because a team returns the same players doesn’t mean it’s the same team. Kentucky’s roster turnover resulted in a talent upgrade, but the Badgers have the benefit of continuity. This game was extremely close. We should expect nothing less the second time around.
Nov. 12, 2013: Michigan State 78, Kentucky 74
This would the least relevant of these rematches. Yes, the Spartans won the game, but they have since lost three starters (Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne) who scored 57 of their 78 points. Kentucky has lost Randle and Young and also got a solid 27 minutes off the bench from Poythress (seven points, 12 rebounds, three blocks). Cauley-Stein started at forward and played 27 minutes, but he was a shadow of the defensive whiz that he is today.
The Wildcats came into the game ranked No. 1 in the country, and by the end of the regular season they were out of the polls entirely—that is, until they rallied from a No. 8 seed and almost knocked off Connecticut in the championship game. But back then, this was only the third college game for the Harrison twins, so they can be forgiven for playing as if they were in over their heads. (Aaron was especially bad, missing all five of his three-point attempts and finishing with three points.) On the Spartans’ side, their current Big Three was a Medium-Sized Two that night. Branden Dawson had eight points, nine rebounds and four steals in 34 minutes. Trice had two points in 14 minutes off the bench. Bryn Forbes was a sophomore at Cleveland State.
What does this tell us? College basketball teams change an awful lot in just 18 months. And yet, when the programs and coaches are this good, the wins keep coming.
Now, on to my picks.....
Duke vs. Michigan State
It may appear that the Spartans are a late-surging quasi-Cinderella, but in truth this cake has been baking for a while. Since losing at home to Illinois on Feb. 7, Michigan State has been playing inspired defense. Aside from an overtime hiccup at home to Minnesota, the only team the Spartans have lost to in this stretch is Wisconsin. That includes the overtime loss in the Big Ten tournament final, during which the Spartans led by 11 points with under eight minutes to play. They did this, by the way, despite only getting six points from Trice, who has been their best player in the NCAA tournament.
That is almost as remarkable as Duke winning two straight regional games with Okafor scoring in single digits. Until last week, Okafor had failed to score 10 or more points just once all season. That the Blue Devils still managed to advance to the Final Four is attributable partly to the emergence of Winslow as the team’s most valuable player, but mostly because Duke, like Michigan State, has come a long, long way on defense. To wit, Gonzaga led the country in field goal percentage and three-point percentage this season, but the Blue Devils held the Zags to just four points over the final seven minutes in the Elite Eight. You’ll also notice that Mike Krzyzewski is playing very little zone these days.
This is not a good defensive team, it’s a great one—otherwise, it would not be playing in the Final Four.
With the defenses a wash, this game will be determined by which team is more efficient on offense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become a fast-paced affair, but if it’s close, it will grind into a possession-by-possession contest. That will favor Duke because of Okafor. Unlike Gonzaga, the Spartans don’t have a trio of quality bigs to rotate on him. If anything, Michigan State’s best option would be to play Hack-a-for and send him to the free throw line, where the 51.1% foul shooter is so bad he actually shot an airball on Sunday. I expect Okafor to be much more assertive as a scorer, and when (not if) the Spartans double team him, they will be vulnerable to his ability to find Duke’s spot-up shooters or the slashing Winslow. Michigan State has had a great ride, but it is coming to an end on Saturday.
Duke 72, Michigan State 67
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
If I had told Arizona coach Sean Miller on Saturday morning that his team would shoot 56% from the floor against the Badgers, sink 28 of its 30 free throw attempts and score 78 points, he would have thought the Cats would win by 10 that night. Instead, they lost by seven, largely because Dekker single-handedly torched one of the toughest defensive teams in America by making 8-of-11 from the floor and 5-of-6 from three en route to a career-high 27 points.
If Kentucky is the best team at the Final Four, then Wisconsin is the second best. Yes, Kentucky is better defensively than Arizona, but is it really that much better? Assuming Cauley-Stein is assigned to guard Dekker, that will leave Karl-Anthony Towns to deal with 7-foot All-America Frank Kaminsky. Towns is not used to guarding a player with this kind of size and skill (of course, neither is anyone else). The race to get each other in foul trouble will be a huge early indicator. Given that the Badgers lead the country in defensive free throw rate, and given that Kaminsky averages just 1.6 fouls per game, there’s a far better chance that Kaminsky can get Towns into foul trouble than the other way around. (Here’s hoping, by the way, that Final Four refs are not so easily fooled by Kaminsky’s flops.) As we’ve seen in recent weeks, when Calipari goes to frontcourt reserves Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, there is a significant dropoff in production at both ends of the floor.
And yet, and yet ... college basketball games are usually decided by the guards. In this case, that would favor the Wildcats, who can deploy not only the oversized Harrison twins, both of whom are 6'6", but also freshmen Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. I know Wisconsin senior guard Josh Gasser is a defensive dynamo, but I still think Kentucky’s guards will be able to get some dribble penetration. And when they do, the Wildcats’ prowess on the offensive glass will be hard to prevent.
Kentucky is the better team, but the Badgers are playing better. Will the Wildcats rebound from their great escape against Notre Dame and perform with a free spirit again? Can Dekker continue his precision from the perimeter? What happens when a Towns collides with a Tank? We will get these answers in a few days. I started saying last summer that I thought Kentucky could go undefeated, so there’s no sense backing away now. But make no mistake: These Cats are in for their toughest test of the season. It will take every bit of their Big Blue magic to pass it.
Kentucky 71, Wisconsin 70 (overtime)