How do the frontcourts and backcourts of Michigan State and Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky match up with each other?
The 2015 Final Four is defined by powerhouse programs, Hall of Fame coaches and future NBA talent. But how do the teams match up on the court? Below is a breakdown of each squad’s frontcourt and perimeter group. There were no firm lines drawn between the two categories. You may see players from the same team mentioned in both the frontcourt and perimeter sections.
The Wildcats have leaned on 6'11" forward Karl-Anthony Towns for offense during their four tournament games, but they may need more production from their guards and wings depending on the Badgers’ defensive approach. Kentucky’s cast of perimeter threats includes Aaron Harrison, a 6’6’’ sophomore with a propensity for knocking down clutch threes late, the most recent of which came against Notre Dame in last Saturday's Midwest Regional final.
One concern for the Wildcats, should they be forced to shift their offensive focus away from Towns, is Devin Booker’s three-point shooting dip. Over seven games since the start of the SEC tournament, Booker has connected on only 29.2% of his long-range attempts. If Booker—who did make two of his three deep tries against the Fighting Irish—can regain his regular-season three-point form (41.1%), it would further stress Wisconsin’s defense.
There is no manual on how to defend what Sam Dekker did against Arizona in the Elite Eight. The junior forward beat defenders off the dribble, attacked the basket and drained contested perimeter shots in tallying a career-high 27 points and a 173 offensive rating, according to kenpom.com. Dekker is unlikely to replicate that performance, but he can cause issues for Kentucky with his combination of size, shooting and ability to penetrate into the lane. It will be interesting to see who Kentucky coach John Calipari tasks with guarding Dekker.
To unhinge the nation’s best defense, the Badgers will also need production from backcourt starters Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser as well as Traevon Jackson, who was the team's starting point guard until breaking his foot in January. Gasser deserves extra attention, as the senior has knocked down four of his six three-point attempts over the last two games while delivering his usual share of “glue guy” plays and upholding his reputation as Wisconsin's top defender.
Towns and 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein form the best frontcourt tandem in the country. The former is a skilled post scorer who provides rim protection and crashes the offensive and defensive glass, while Cauley-Stein is athletic enough to guard virtually every position, ranks among the nation’s top 100 in block percentage and leads Kentucky with a 2.9 steal percentage. Kentucky will continue to feed Towns offensively on post-ups, but a more important aspect of the game is whether he and Cauley-Stein can shut down Wisconsin’s big men.
The Badgers, who lead the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, have allotted 28.1% of their possessions to national player of the year front runner Frank Kaminsky, with 21.2% going to fellow forward Nigel Hayes. If Cauley-Stein, Towns and reserves Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee can slow Kaminsky and Hayes, Wisconsin may need Sam Dekker to channel his performance from last Saturday night in Los Angeles, which is unlikely.
As daunting as Kentucky’s frontline is for most opponents, the Badgers may possess the requisite size and skill to challenge it on both ends of the floor. The 7-foot Kaminsky has increased his scoring efficiency as a senior despite using a larger slice of Wisconsin’s possessions, the 6'8" Hayes is adept at scoring in the post and spotting up for jump shots and the latest reports out of Indianapolis indicate the 6'9" Dekker still has flames emanating from his fingertips.
While those players won’t find nearly as many clean looks around the basket as they did against Big Ten competition, don’t expect the Badgers’ offense to completely stall out. For one, Wisconsin is scoring at a historic rate; no team has averaged more points per possession, adjusted for competition, since at least the 2001-02 season, per kenpom.com. For another, the Wildcats yielded a season-high 1.16 points per possession against an Irish team that used only one player taller than 6’5’’ for more than three minutes.
Senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones have grown into one of the best offensive backcourt pairings in the country. Jones is a savvy floor general who initiates the Blue Devils’ offense, excels at distributing to teammates and rarely gets rattled, while Cook has become a more efficient scorer and slashed his turnover rate during his senior season.
For as well as Jones and Cook fared together during the regular season, however, they’ve ceded the spotlight during the postseason, as a different Duke player has turned the tournament into his personal showcase. In the Blue Devils’ last three games, Justise Winslow has averaged 16.7 points, canned 60% of his three-point attempts, corralled 27 rebounds and served as a disruptive defensive presence, helping the Blue Devils limit opponents to only 0.86 points per possession.
Among the most popular theories used to explain Michigan State’s unexpected run to the national semifinals are that 1) the Spartans have a mix of grittiness and toughness that makes them better suited for the tourney's high-pressure, single-elimination format and 2) Tom Izzo is Tom Izzo. While allowing for the possibility that Michigan State had an intangible edge that helped it tear through the East Regional, and with all due respect to Izzo, a future Hall of Famer who will go down as one of the best tournament coaches of all time, let's not forget that the Spartans have a pretty good backcourt, too.
Upperclassmen Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes and freshman Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn offer the Spartans a potent mix of long-range shooting proficiency and perimeter defense that should test Duke’s trio of Cook, Tyus Jones and Matt Jones. Trice could be the key to breaking down the Blue Devils’ suddenly-stingy defense. The senior scored a combined 47 points in tournament wins over Virginia and Oklahoma, both of whom rank among the nation’s top eight in points allowed per possession, adjusted for competition, per kenpom.com, and has averaged almost 20 points per game in the tournament overall.
Edge: Michigan State
Jahlil Okafor stirred the debate over his viability as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft by scoring only 15 points combined in wins over Utah in the Sweet 16 and Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. It’s possible the 6’11”, 270-pound freshman center will turn in another less-than-vintage performance against the Spartans, but there is a much larger body of work suggesting he is still the top offensive post player in the country. What’s more, when Duke faced Michigan State as part of the Champions Classic tournament in November, Okafor easily imposed himself against the Spartans frontline, scoring 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbing five rebounds and knocking down eight of his 10 free throw attempts.
During tournament play, Michigan State has allowed opponents to shoot only 37.6% inside the arc and held all but one (Oklahoma, at 1.05) below one point per possession. Expect Okafor to push Duke over both of those numbers with ease by either scoring on post-ups or passing out of double teams to open shooters.
Branden Dawson never developed the offensive game some envisioned when he arrived at Michigan State as a top-30 recruit in the class 2011, but he’s a tenacious defender who can guard a wide range of opponents because of his athleticism and length. How will the Spartans deploy him against Duke? It’s reasonable to assume he’ll spend part of the game on Winslow while also serving as a deterrent against drives to the rim. Dawson's 6.3 block percentage ranks second on the team behind only junior forward Matt Costello—who is three inches taller—and he swatted four shots against Virginia and Louisville in the Round of 32 and Elite Eight, respectively.
While the Spartans need the 6'6" Dawson to contest shots and prevent second-chance opportunities by clearing the defensive glass, a more important matter when it comes to Michigan State’s chances of slowing the nation’s third most efficient offense, per kenpom.com, is whether big men Costello and Gavin Schilling can deal with Okafor in the post. If Okafor can establish position and convert with ease around the basket, Michigan State could be forced to make concessions in its perimeter coverage.