Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, April 3, 2015 at 11:24 AM
OUR FINAL FOUR PREVIEWS AHEAD!
Here's the burning question when it comes to the biggest storyline in this year's NCAA Tournament Final Four and - of course - it's asked directly to the Kentucky Wildcats:
When the dust finally settles (and maybe sometime 'round 11:30ish ET on Monday night) will the 'Cats be 40-and-oh ... or will they be 38 or 39 and uh-oh?
Okay, so suddenly there's an air of vulnerability to this here-and-now Kentucky team that last Saturday night needed to score time after time down the stretch just to hold off Notre Dame in an Elite 8 showdown for the ages in Cleveland.
When the UK Wildcats take to the floor this Saturday night in Indianapolis, they won't - for the first time in this NCAA Tourney - be a double-digit betting favorite (see chart below) but keep in mind they still head into the Final Four at 6-to-5 odds to win it all and that's pretty heady stuff.
The rest of this Final Four cast - that's Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State - have worked all sorts of post-season magic in this NCAA Tournament but what you have to love about all of the above is the down-the-stretch grit they've exhibited as the Badgers, Blue Devils and Spartans all answered the bell at crunch times in their respective Elite 8 games last weekend.
NCAA TOURNAMENT - FINAL FOUR GAME PREVIEWS
LUCAS OIL STADIUM - Indianapolis, IN
#7 MICHIGAN STATE (27-11) vs. #1 DUKE (33-4) - 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS
It's hard to believe that the last time these two elite schools made it to a Final Four was back in 2010 - when Duke captured its fourth national title under four-time champion head coach Mike Krzyzewski while Michigan State was getting beaten by Butler in the national semifinal round.
Now, they're back and the Dookies have been installed as a 5-point betting favorite even though their road through this NCAA Tournament features just one win against a power conference (see Sweet 16 triumph over Utah from the Pac-12).
Conversely, Michigan State's beaten four power conference clubs this post-season including a pair of ACC teams (see Virginia and Louisville) and teams from the SEC (Georgia and Big 12 (Oklahoma) and so your knee-jerk reaction might well be the Spartans have faced the stiffer tests overall ... and you'd be right!
Now don't get us wrong as Tom Izzo's seventh Final Four team since 1999 has a handful of "issues" including the fact Sparty remains one of the country's poorest free-throw shooting teams and the rebounding in this tourney has been below-average (at best) but gritty G Travis Trice - one of the three best players overall in this tourney - continues to be a clutch performer and it's vital that he gets off 17-to-23 FG tries here with a special emphasis on nailing the top-of-the-key triple where Duke could well leave him alone at times.
Plus, Michigan State's Denzell Valentine and Branden Dawson - a duo that averages 26 points between 'em this year - must keep M-State afloat offensively when/if Trice is smothered by the likes of Duke G Quinn Cook and mates here.
Consider what Duke's major challenges are for this game: The freshmen-heavy lineup starring C Jahlil Okafor (it's not been a great tourney so far for the supposed Player of the Year candidate), PG Tyus Jones and F Justise Winslow (also one of the top three players in this man's tourney) average 46 ppg but in a contest that figures to be played at a 78 rpm speed we believe Okafor/T. Jones/Winslow must score 55-plus points and there must be an X-factor at work too whether it's the three-ball shooting of Matt Jones - a true savior against Gonzaga last weekend - or prime-time board work from 7-foot reserve Marshall Plumlee.
Here's the road to the NCAA Tournament Final Four for both Michigan State and Duke:
|3-29||Louisville||- 2||76-70 (ot)|
|3-20||Robert Morris||- 23||85-56|
|3-22||San Diego St.||- 9.5||68-49|
#1 WISCONSIN (35-3) vs. #1 KENTUCKY (38-0) - approximately 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS
Here's a stat that may or may not surprise you and that's Kentucky has won 31-of-37 games this year by twin-figure margins but ask around and the consensus is that the Wildcats are up against their toughest 2014-15 foe here in these Wisconsin Badgers.
Still, are the 'Cats "underpriced" here as 5-point betting favorites (down from an opening Las Vegas price tag of 6 points) or is the gap between college basketball's other elite teams and this Kentucky team not nearly as large as one's been led to believe?
Okay, so we'll find out soon enough come Saturday night but let's set the proverbial table for you with some key factors one year after Kentucky downed Wisconsin 74-73 in a national championship semifinal round game:
For starters, Kentucky sports the nation's second-best scoring defense (allowing just 53.9 ppg) and providing John Calipari's team has "figured out" how to defend the pick-and-roll it won't be easy for a veteran Wisconsin bunch to launch up open jumpers here.
Sure, in last weekend's electrifying 85-78 win against Arizona, there was both Frank Kaminsky (29 points) and Sam Dekker (27 points) pouring in big hoops but fully expect the 'Cats to extend their pressure all the way to the parking lot if necessary so that Kaminsky/Dekker don't get open looks here and then common sense dictates that the next-best way for Bo Ryan's guys to win here will be some backdoors, some mid-range screens, etc. to get open for shots because attacking the rim won't be easy with the likes of Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns on the back line.
Meanwhile, Kentucky guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison have not always been sparkplugs in this year's tournament - remember last weekend versus Notre Dame the twins combined for just two made field goals and that's probably not gonna fly here.
Finally, Kentucky goes nine-deep - although clued-in folks saw for themselves that "Coach Cal" cut back minutes for some players last week against Notre Dame - and gotta believe that key reserves G Devin Booker (10 points in 27 minutes played against Notre Dame) and G Tyler Ulis (just one made FG in 24 minutes versus the ND Fighting Irish) must be efficient scorers here and must bag the open three-ball shots ... or else.
Here's the road to the NCAA Tournament Final Four for both Wisconsin and Kentucky:
|3-20||Coastal Carolina||- 20.5||86-72|
|3-26||North Carolina||- 6||79-72|
|3-26||West Virginia||- 13||78-39|
|3-28||Notre Dame||- 11||68-66|
NOTE: Catch our Major-League Baseball 2015 Preview in tomorrow's edition of Jim Sez plus we'll bring you the NCAA Championship Game Preview in Monday's jam-packed column!