By Michael Samaha, columnist
The entire basketball season comes down to three games in a three-day period. We started with 351 Division I schools, cut down to 68 on Selection Sunday, and over the last two weeks, 60 games have cut the field down to the Final Four teams. We’re left with four of the marquee college basketball programs in the country: University of Wisconsin, University of Kentucky, Duke University and Michigan State University (MSU). These teams will play Saturday night in Indianapolis and the winners will play for the National Championship on Monday night.
The Kentucky Wildcats, the favorite to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championship since day one of the season and the No. 1 overall seed, beat Notre Dame in what was possibly the best game this season to win the Midwest Region on Saturday night. Kentucky is trying to be the first college basketball team to finish a season at a perfect 40-0. The Wildcats are full of high school All-Americans and are one of the best defensive teams in history.
Kentucky will play another No. 1 seed and the West Regional champions, the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are coming off of a win against the University of Arizona in which they caught fire offensively in the second half. Wisconsin was also the champion of the Big Ten, but its ultimate goal is to win it all with its upperclassmen-packed roster.
The third team is the No. 1 seed and champions of the South Region, the Blue Devils from Duke University. Duke reached its first Final Four since 2010 by defeating Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Duke has had to deal with some roster turnover this season, but they may be playing their best defense all season right now and can be dangerous against any team.
The last Final Four team is the only non-No. 1 seed. The MSU Spartans won the East Regional against Louisville and were also a No. 7 seed entering the tournament, but anybody would agree that nobody will think of them as a seven seed entering the Final Four. This team may not be as talented on paper as the other three, but they are peaking together at the perfect time.
Not only is this Final Four comprised of top basketball schools, but the head coaches are also four of the best in the country: MSU’s Tom Izzo, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or “Coach K.” These four coaches have been to a whopping 25 Final Fours (27, if you count Calipari’s two vacated Final Fours from his years at University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Memphis). Coach K has the most appearances, 12, which ties him with UCLA legend John Wooden for most appearances ever.
The Kentucky – Wisconsin matchup is a rematch of a Final Four game from last season that Kentucky won. Kentucky is trying to finish off an undefeated season and Wisconsin wants to be the only team to beat them while also trying to exact revenge, since Kentucky ended their season last year. Wisconsin was also one of the favorites coming into this season with All-American forward senior Frank Kaminsky and All-Big Ten forward junior Sam Dekker. Wisconsin isn’t as athletic as Kentucky, but is very skilled and disciplined in the way it plays. The Badgers foul less than any team in the country, so they will make the Wildcats need to hit shots in order to come out on top, which can be the team’s weakness. Kentucky is lead defensively by All-American junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein and offensively by potential No. 1 NBA draft pick freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns.
In the other game, look to see very different play styles and leadership from Duke and MSU. Duke is led by its three outstanding freshmen: All-American center Jahlil Okafor, forward Justise Winslow and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils surround these three with great shooting, most notably senior guard Quinn Cook. The Spartans are led by senior guards Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, and junior guard Denzel Valentine. MSU struggled for most of the year and it seemed like a lost season. Despite losing in the Big Ten Championship game to Wisconsin, the Spartans have fought their way to the Final Four. They play good team defense, but sometimes struggle to score in the half-court, so they need to get out on the break to score.
My Championship prediction: Kentucky over Duke.
-Michael Samaha can be reached at Sports@HuntNewsNU.com.