Sports Illustrated experts make their picks for Final Four games between Kentucky-Wisconsin and Michigan State-Duke
The Final Four begins on Saturday in Indianapolis, with Michigan State tipping off against Duke at 6:09 p.m. and Wisconsin taking on Kentucky at approximately 8:49 p.m. Both games will be broadcast on TBS. Below, our experts offer their picks for each game national semifinal. Check back on Sunday for championship game picks.
Duke over Michigan State: 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 foul line, where he 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 has had a great ride, but it is coming to an end on Saturday.
Kentucky over Wisconsin: 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.
Duke: Now that the Blue Devils are a legitimately tough defensive team—and that's a very recent development—they're the most likely champ not named Kentucky. Duke won in the regionals without huge scoring efforts from Jahlil Okafor, but if the Spartans single-cover him the way they did back in November, look for Jah to carry the Devils to the title game.
Kentucky: The Badgers should have some success spreading the floor like Notre Dame did in the Elite Eight, but Frank Kaminsky's drive-and-spin game—the core of his offense—may not work all that well against Willie Cauley-Stein or Karl-Anthony Towns. I expect this to be a close game, decided by 1-2 possessions, with a few clutch threes by Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison being the difference.
Duke: The Blue Devils are playing as well as any team in the country. Since Jan. 31, their only loss came to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. The only way Duke loses this game is if it gets completely out-toughed, and it's hard to imagine Quinn Cook letting that happen. Justise Winslow's emergence as a three-point threat in Houston makes it that much harder for Michigan State to double Jahlil Okafor in the post. Look for Michigan State's bull rush through the NCAAs to end quietly. A win would move Mike Krzyzewski to 9-1 against Tom Izzo.
Wisconsin: I picked Wisconsin before the season and again before the tournament began. So why stop now? Can the Badgers pattern a patient attack and follow the blueprint of Notre Dame? The Irish lured Willie Cauley-Stein away from the basket on defense and ran their other four players through a series of screens to create mismatches. If Kentucky is finally going to lose after 38 games, patience on offense will be the key for the Badgers. As will guarding Aaron Harrison from eight feet behind the 3-point line in the waning seconds.
Duke: The Blue Devils haven’t been great defensively most of the season, but in the East Regional final they held Gonzaga, one of the best offensive teams in the country, to 52 points and limited point guard Kevin Pangos to four points and zero assists. They appear to have discovered a higher defensive level, and if they contain the Spartans’ Travis Trice anywhere near as well as they did Pangos, Michigan State will be in trouble. Spartans coach Tom Izzo will no doubt find a way to keep Duke’s Jahlil Okafor from dominating in the low post, but the Blue Devils have a wider variety of offensive weapons, including Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, than the Spartans do. This is where Izzo’s magic finally runs out.
Kentucky: The Badgers won’t go quietly, but the only way they win is if they have an incredibly hot shooting night, and Kentucky defends too well on the perimeter—not to mention at the rim—for that to happen. The Wildcats will throw multiple defensive looks at Frank Kaminsky in an attempt to keep him off-balance, and with their multitude of big men, they have the personnel to make that work. Wisconsin will have a hard time defending Kentucky’s bigs, especially Karl-Anthony Towns, and maybe an even harder time keeping them off the boards. The Badgers will probably keep it close until some point in the second half, but the Wildcats have too much firepower. They’ll eventually pull away.
Duke: The Spartans are playing incredibly well, but they don't have an answer for Jahlil Okafor. When these teams played in November in Indy, Okafor scored 17 points on 10 field-goal attempts. Duke also has a senior guard, Quinn Cook, to help offset Travis Trice, and enough overall talent to end MSU's run.
Kentucky: Entering the tournament, I thought there were two teams that could realistically beat Kentucky without a miracle: Duke and Wisconsin. I guess I should have included Notre Dame. Wisconsin's patience and skill will test the Wildcats, but Kentucky's defense will come through at the end again.
Duke: In February, the Spartans didn't look like a team that would be playing in April. So those who would dismiss them, beware. The issue in the national semifinal is that there is arguably not one position on the floor in which Michigan State has a better player than Duke. And for those assuming the Blue Devils can be dragged down into a slog and then defeated, Mike Krzyzewski's crew won its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games by holding well-regarded opponents Utah and Gonzaga, respectively, to fewer than 60 points. Justise Winslow's spike in clutch play on the offensive and defensive ends should negate any production from Michigan State's Branden Dawson, who is usually the X-factor that gives the Spartans an edge. There aren't too many edges to be found anywhere here for Tom Izzo and Co.
Kentucky: The Badgers are equipped to win this game. They cannot compete with Kentucky's depth, but they're playing this game after a week-long break. Not only do Bo Ryan and his staff have that extended time to devise a game plan, but the university also is on spring break as the Final Four approaches, meaning the players have unlimited time to digest it. And Notre Dame demonstrated that a patient offense, with shooters spread around the perimeter to draw big men away from the rim, can score somewhat easily on Kentucky. Wisconsin, with the most efficient offense in the country, can pull that off, too, with bigger and arguably better players. And yet Kentucky has tiptoed along the abyss multiple times this season only to pull back without harm. Aaron Harrison's shooting prowess has swelled in the postseason (12-for-26 from three-point range) and Andrew Harrison has 17 assists against just six turnovers in the SEC and NCAA tournaments combined. Bigs like Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns should be able to make it very difficult on Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky. The Badgers are by far the best, most dangerous team the Wildcats have faced. It should be an absolute classic. But previous tests have soldered Kentucky's resolve for this task.
Duke: The Spartans’ tightened defense has helped fuel their run thus far, but there are few tests as daunting as the Blue Devils. If big men Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello get into foul trouble, as they did against Louisville on Sunday, Jahlil Okafor could abuse Michigan State on the blocks (and frankly, he might do that anyway). Expect ample three-pointers from each side, but the difference will be the post play of Okafor—who shot 8-for-10 against the Spartans in November—and the all-around contributions of Justise Winslow, who is following a strong season with a breakout March.
Kentucky: This should be a treat. I love the Badgers’ ability to spread the floor and invert their offense with Frank Kaminsky and the emergent Sam Dekker able to play both inside and out. I also think that—like Notre Dame on Saturday—Wisconsin will have the Wildcats on the ropes very, very late. But Kentucky has shown the mettle to match its talent, and has enough long, versatile defenders to handle the matchup issues the Badgers can create. Like last year's 74-73 Wildcats win on this same stage, look for a thriller that lives up to the hype and, once again, Kentucky getting a big bucket late to advance to the title game.