For all of our aches and pain this tournament, we’ve finally arrived in Indianapolis for the final three games in the NCAA basketball season. I am thrilled. For all my frustration with Buffalo and Stephen F. Austin and every single Louisville opponent, I now sit atop my 29-person bracket pool for the first time in my life. I feel accomplished. Okay, bragging over, I swear (at least until we get to Michigan State).
Elite Eight Recap
1. Kentucky vs. 3. Notre Dame
Kentucky W 68-66
I, like many, thought Notre Dame was going to pull out the upset and defeat the unbeaten Wildcats when they were leading through most of the final ten minutes. Notre Dame was spectacular. They outplayed Kentucky in the second half and attacked them in a way few have: they tore Kentucky apart in the paint. Most experts and fans (myself included) thought Notre Dame would win if and only if they shot the ball extremely well from three. They shot 4-14 (28%) on the game and still nearly pulled the upset. The Irish’s tallest starter is 6-9 Zach Auguste, who ended up having a fantastic game against Kentucky’s tandem of trees, scoring 20 on 77% shooting and grabbing nine boards. The Irish would have Auguste drift towards the perimeter, drawing out his defender (usually Towns or Cauley-Stein) and opening up the lane for crafty guards such as Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia. Kentucky finished with nine blocks, but allowed over 40 points in the paint to the undersized Fighting Irish, a very favorable trade for Notre Dame.
Kentucky’s interior defense was exposed against the Irish. They also have not played a team of Wisconsin’s caliber yet this season (you’ll get my opinions on that match-up later).
1. Wisconsin vs. 2. Arizona
Wisconsin W 85-78
Wow. Wisconsin shot the lights out. Arizona stood no chance in the second half, and there really wasn’t much they could do about it when Sam Dekker is hitting shots like this to ice the game:
Dekker finished with 27 points (5-6 on threes) and Kaminsky added 29 of his own. When it was all said and done, the Badgers dropped 55 points in just the second half against a team that allows only 59 per game (18th best in the nation). If I weren’t a Wisconsin fan, I could bring myself to feel bad for Arizona. They got caught in one of the best single-half shooting performances I’ve ever seen. Instead, I feel more like Frank Kaminsky in this interpretive dance:
It would be unrealistic to expect Wisconsin to shoot nearly as well as they did against Arizona, but they are a fantastic shooting team and could be a threat to Kentucky.
7. Michigan State vs. 4. Louisville
Michigan State W 76-70 (OT)
To be honest, Michigan State should have won in regulation. They were up as many as six in the closing minutes after trailing eight at the half and then could not hit their free throws (their handicap all season) which allowed the Cardinals back into the game. In overtime, Louisville looked tired while the Spartans looked energized, contributing to an easy overtime period. Michigan State was a relatively popular Final Four choice (12th-most selections of any team on ESPN) including by myself, but I am still impressed with the way the team has blazed through their region, albeit an easy one. As for their turnaround this season, it can be easily explained here, hearkening back to my Space Jam reference in my last article:
Michigan State now faces the undesirable task of facing a Duke team in full swing in the Final Four, by far their toughest test of the tournament.
1. Duke vs. 2. Gonzaga
Duke W 66-52
This game was much closer than the final score would indicate. Duke pulled away due to a very late momentum swing and pointless fouls by Gonzaga in the final thirty seconds. The Zags definitely had their chances to win the game. However, they were lacking in execution. Kevin Pangos had a poor game (offensively, at least; he did a very good job guarding Quinn Cook on the opposite end), scoring four points on 2-8 shooting. Kyle Wiltjer had a good game overall, but missed a wide open layup to tie the game in the last five minutes that swung the momentum for good. And when I say wide open, I mean wide open.
Gonzaga played well enough to beat any of their other opponents in this tournament, but you can’t miss key opportunities like that against Duke. Their bigs did a good job against Jahlil Okafor as I thought they would, but the Bulldogs’ guards (25 combined points between the four that get regular minutes) and especially senior Pangos didn’t contribute enough to lead the team to head coach Mark Few’s first Final Four (Coach K is going to his 12th, T-1 ever with John Wooden).
BONUS: The Refs Are Competent!!!
The NCAA must have listened to the public’s general outcry, because the referees did a much, much better job in this round than they have in any other. Although there were still 134 total fouls called in the Elite Eight, there seemed to be far fewer calls that were mere brushes of contact. There were several plays on which I was ready for the whistle – it would have been called in every other round – but the zebras let it slide. Still too many fouls, but I am happier with the officials than last week.
FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS
1. Kentucky vs. 1. Wisconsin
All I’ve heard this week about this match-up (especially among Wisconsin pickers, and there are a lot) is “Kentucky proved they were vulnerable against Notre Dame.” Well, yes. Very nice observation. But did anyone really think this team was unbeatable? This isn’t the UConn women’s team that beats everyone by 50 and makes the National Championship no question every year. With a few exceptions, Kentucky has not been blowing teams out and plays in an easy conference. Kentucky proved they were vulnerable against Cincinnati too. And LSU. And Georgia. And Texas A&M. Meanwhile, Wisconsin proved they were vulnerable in all three Big Ten Tournament games. They sure looked vulnerable against 8-seed Oregon and #4 UNC. I think the “vulnerable” card is overplayed against Kentucky and primarily used by those who want them to lose. And I do want them to lose, especially against my team. I think this is a toss-up, though not primarily because of Kentucky’s scare on Saturday.
Wisconsin has played far better competition than Kentucky has, especially during conference play. They’ve played every other Final Four team except the Wildcats, beating Michigan State twice and losing to Duke early in the season. Wisconsin lacks a second true big man behind Kaminsky, which doesn’t bother me at all (Notre Dame has zero centers and look what happened there. They were quicker) but have two very long and athletic forwards in Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes to match up with Towns/Trey Lyles. They have one of the best defensive guards in the country with Josh Gasser to match up with one of the larger Harrison twins, while Bronson Koenig and Traevon Jackson run point. Wisconsin has been pointed out since the start of the tournament as the team best-equipped to knock off Kentucky, and we’ll see if they’re up to the task in Indy.
1. Duke vs. 7. Michigan State
The only way for me to win my bracket pool is if Michigan State wins this game. And yes, I am well aware that this will not happen. Good-bye, bracket pool winnings. Maybe next year.
Michigan State’s been great, but I see no reason whatsoever to pick them here. I think Duke is the best team in the nation at the moment. Lately, Justise Winslow has been looking like Russell Westbrook in Jimmy Butler’s body while Duke’s backcourt is looking like the best since Westbrook shared his with Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison at UCLA. Duke’s bench isn’t all that impressive, but they haven’t needed it to be. I think Duke would beat Kentucky right now, so we’ll have to wait and see if that match-up occurs.
Meanwhile, Michigan State came off a loss to Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship by winning the easiest region (by far) of the tournament. They have looked impressive, but won in close games to Oklahoma and Louisville, neither of which have the talent or athleticism of Duke. I don’t think Matt Costello will be able to sufficiently guard Jahlil Okafor, who has been surprisingly quiet since Duke destroyed Robert Morris. Denzel Valentine has also performed well in the tournament, but cannot come close to matching Justise Winslow’s raw speed and athleticism. Travis Trice has been arguably the Spartans top performer so far in March, but I think it will come to a halt against Cook and Jones. Duke wins this one and goes to the championship, where they win. Book it. (I’ll be posting a separate column after the first two Final Four games)
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Sean Gallipo