Final Four preview: How Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State could beat Kentucky.
Kentucky is two wins away from 40-0, but those two games will no doubt be its most difficult of the season. Notre Dame fell two points shy of Kentucky, and the Irish don’t feature a regular contributor taller than 6’9”. In this Final Four, Wisconsin and Duke have nearly the same level of collegiate talent as the Wildcats, and elite coaches ready to make the most of their matchups. Here’s how each remaining team can ruin Kentucky's perfect season—and as a bonus, they’re listed in order of how likely I think they are to do it:
1. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers boast the nation’s most efficient offense, and they proved again how powerful it is against Arizona in the Elite Eight. Arizona’s defense wasn’t just the third-best defense of this year, it was the fifth-best defense since 2006 in terms of adjusted efficiency. And in the second half, Wisconsin put up 1.62 points per possession. To put that in perspective, Wisconsin’s season-long offensive rating of 127.5 (which equates roughly to 1.275 points per possession) is the highest ever recorded in the kenpom.com era (since 2002). When Wisconsin’s offense is performing at peak levels, even Kentucky may not be able to stop it.
The Badgers rarely make mistakes. They are first in the country in turnover percentage, meaning no team gives up the ball less frequently than they do. They also commit fewer fouls than any team in the country. (Frank Kaminsky hadn’t even committed four fouls in a game before facing Arizona.)
But Wisconsin’s biggest advantage is its ability to create difficult matchups for Kentucky. Not only is Wisconsin the second-tallest team in the country, it has four players who are taller than 6’8” and can shoot the three, beginning with 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who is a 41.5% three-point shooter. Nigel Hayes (6’8”, 38.0%), Sam Dekker (6’9”, 33.8%) and Duje Dukan (6’10”, 31.8%) can space the floor and open up driving lanes for each other or guards Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig.
The most interesting thing to watch in this game will be what Kentucky decides to do with Willie Cauley-Stein. The most obvious matchup is to put him on Kaminsky, since Cauley-Stein excels at defending the three-point line. But the Wildcats could throw a wrinkle in by matching him up with Dekker and leaving Karl-Anthony Towns to defend Kaminsky. Either way, Wisconsin will have advantages it can exploit.
The final factor in this game for Wisconsin is motivation. Every team wants to be the group that ends Kentucky’s perfect season, but Wisconsin doesn’t just want to make history—it wants to avenge it. Last year in the Final Four, the Badgers were the final victim of Aaron Harrison’s string of dagger three-pointers. This rematch is the reason Kaminsky came back to school, and if he and the Badgers can have the kind of offensive performance they did against Arizona, they can accomplish their mission.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Duke’s offense may not be as efficient as Wisconsin’s, but it’s more explosive. Whereas Wisconsin prefers to maximize each possession and dictate tempo, the Blue Devils can push and score quickly in transition. If you’ve watched freshman wing Justise Winslow wrangle a loose ball in transition and take it 90 feet to the rim, you know what I’m talking about. Wisconsin could beat Kentucky methodically, but the Blue Devils may be the only team in the country equipped to make a quick run against the Wildcats at any point in the game.
Freshman point guard Tyus Jones knows when to run and when to rein in the offense and get into halfcourt sets. Kentucky’s halfcourt defense is nearly impossible to penetrate, so a key for Duke will be in getting quick looks. In Jones, senior guard Quinn Cook, sophomore guard Matt Jones and Winslow, Duke has the shooters capable of making Kentucky uncomfortable.
The key for Duke could be Okafor. He struggled in the Houston regional, failing to score in double figures in either game. Utah threw everyone at him defensively, but Gonzaga rarely doubled and still managed to keep him contained. Kentucky’s trio of 7-footers will be Okafor’s biggest challenge of the season on both ends of the floor, as Kentucky would undoubtedly sick Karl-Anthony Towns on him in the post in an effort to put him in foul trouble early on. But for Duke to have a chance, Okafor will have to remain active enough in the paint to collapse Kentucky’s defense and open up shooting windows and driving lanes for Duke’s guards.
This season, Duke beat Michigan State on a neutral court, it beat the Badgers in Wisconsin, defeated the Cavaliers in Virginia, swept North Carolina and took down a legitimate 2-seed in Gonzaga. The Blue Devils have played their best basketball under the spotlight this season. And don’t forget that coach Mike Krzyzewski knows a thing or two about beating undefeated teams in the Final Four.
3. Michigan State Spartans
There should really be a gap between the top two teams on this list and Michigan State. Maybe this column will come back to haunt me if Michigan State manages to get by Duke, a team that beat it by 10 on a neutral court this year, and also pulls off the upset of the century against Kentucky. I’m willing to take that gamble because I don’t think Michigan State has much of a chance in a potential matchup with Kentucky.
For starters, the Spartans’ tallest players are 6’9”—center Matt Costello and forward Gavin Schilling. Branden Dawson, the final member of the frontcourt, is 6’6”, meaning he’d give up as many as five inches in his matchup. So how could Michigan State beat Kentucky? It would have to pull a 1985 Villanova. When Villanova faced Georgetown, a team anchored by center Patrick Ewing that had allowed opponents to shoot just 39% from the floor on the season, the Wildcats managed to shoot a title-game record 78.6% from the field. There may be no other solution for the Spartans.