Sports Illustrated asked opposing coaches to offer up a game plan for how to beat each of the Final Four teams. There is at least evidence so far that 33-4 Duke, 27-11 Michigan State and 35-3 Wisconsin can be beaten, but the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats arrive in Indianapolis with a 38-0 record. If they are going to lose, here's what it will take:
The biggest problem is their size and length on both ends of the floor. Defensively, they’re as good as anybody about protecting the basket and not letting you get anything easy at the rim. They do a good job of staying home on the shooters. And they’re very versatile. A lot of guys can switch out and guard perimeter guys. Willie Cauley-Stein can guard a point guard.
Transition defense is always key. Make them play against a set defense. Your offense will allow you to do that. If you take quick shots it can lead to bad misses and that will lead to layups and dunks [on the other end].
The most important thing is, can you get control of the game? Can you get the ball in the half-court and let your guards make some plays and take advantage of some mismatches with their size? Can you live with some two-pointers going in and really control their shooters? Or do you want to dig in on the post and let them shoot contested jump shots? That’s a quandary every team faces.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a monster, and as skilled a big guy as there is in the country. He’s really talented and he does a great job of posting deep. They really try to establish him early. And he’s a great offensive rebounder.
Cauley-Stein is not the most skilled of their guys, but he fits in well. He runs the floor and gets stuff on lobs and drop-offs. He’s probably more valuable on the defensive end than he is offensively. He really moves his feet, he uses his length to his advantage and he plays angles really well. He can guard a point guard to a five-man. He’s a versatile defender that can impact the game in so many ways.
Trey Lyles is their X-factor. He was sick for a while and missed a couple of games, but now he’s getting back into form. He can make some shots from inside the arc, he can put it on the floor and they’ll post him a little bit. He’s really a four man playing the three-spot so he’s a mismatch nightmare for teams. When he plays well, they’re really hard to beat.
Devin Booker, when he gets his feet set, can knock down shots with the best of them. Aaron Harrison is a scoring guard, always attacking. Those guys have good size. They can score at the rim, they can score on pull-ups. Harrison's a streaky three-point shooter but he’s made big shots throughout his career. Tyler Ulis is the X-factor on the perimeter for them. He gives them some stability, he can really guard the ball, he’s a spot-up three-point shooter and he's got good quickness.
How to beat Duke
You don’t want to commit turnovers that get them out in fast breaks. You have to have your Jahlil Okafor plans. You guard him one-on-one and take away everybody else’s threes. You bring double-teams to get the ball out of his hands and see if they can make enough threes out of the double-teams. You have to be willing to do both plans. You also have to have your plan for how you attack their pressure-switching defense. With them playing small, you have to be able to exploit it when they switch a smaller guy like Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones and Matt Jones on to your power forward. You can post up the switches and if you have a big guy who can get off scoring shots, Okafor will let you catch the ball. They haven’t shown any double-teaming with him defensively. It’s been all one-on-one. You have to put foul pressure on him.
How to beat Michigan State
The key more than anything is to keep them out of transition. They run and get deep outlets and come at your hard. And you need to keep them off the glass. They’re a great offensive rebounding team. In the halfcourt, they run a ton of sets. They’ll explore their transition, pull it back out, then run their plays. It’s important to take away their pin downs. They’re really, really good with those. They’re also really good at dumping to the big guys.
It’s kind of unusual to be that concerned with screens off the ball these days. It’s generally isos and ball screens and more ball screens. But with them, you need to be really concerned with all their single pindowns and doubles—their two big guys will set a lot of doubles. Their big guys bang people on screens. Some teams run a lot of motion, some run good ball screens. They’re unique in that they run those off-ball screens.
Their guards will shoot threes in transition. Travis Trice is good going to the rim and shooting it. Branden Dawson runs the floor. He gets some opportunities there as well. Those guys should be big priorities. In the halfcourt, Trice and Denzel Valentine are big keys. When they sub in and put Bryn Forbes in there, they’ve got three guys on the perimeter who all shoot the ball very well. Dawson will operate there on a wide post. You’d like to help on him a little bit but with all three of those shooters out there, it’s pretty tough.
Valentine shoots it well, but he's also a big body and really good if he can get to the middle. He’s got a nice floater there. He’s a good passer as well. Try to be there when he catches it so he can’t shoot threes, and keep him out of the middle.
They run so many plays. You watch one game, you might see them run a play five times. You watch ten more games, you might see that same play twice. It’s hard to prepare your guys. Usually you get a handful of plays you really lock in on. With these guys, you just have to look for tendencies.
Their defense is typical Michigan State. They’re gonna be physical, fairly tight. They don’t get real extended. What they do really well is give quick help, a quick hedge and recover. They’re gonna be solid. If it becomes a slugfest, they’re gonna be pretty comfortable. If it gets into a halfcourt fistfight, they’re gonna be tough and physical and hard to score on.
How to beat Wisconsin
They beat you in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock, when you’ve defended for the entire possession and you think you’ve shut them down. Your defense has to be as patient as their offense. Don’t go crazy trying to double or help on Frank Kaminsky, because most of their other guys can’t hurt you if you stay home on them. Make Sam Dekker a jump shooter. If he’s not getting to the basket, sometimes he disappears. Interior D is their biggest weakness because they have no shot-blocker, so attacking the middle is a must. It’s not easy to beat their guards off the dribble because they play great position defense, but if you run some high screens, move the ball and open up driving lanes you can cause them problems.