The Final Four is here at last, the culmination of the 2015 NCAA Tournament very near now with the national semifinals tonight and the championship game coming Monday night.
We’ve been waiting for six days now. The weeklong break in the NCAA Tournament before the Final Four provides sufficient time for every type of analysis one can imagine. Such is the depth of scrutiny this week, if one looks hard enough they probably can find something on all 59 players on the four rosters for Saturday’s games-including the redshirts. There’s only four teams remaining, and there’s only so much that can be said at some point.
The marquee matchup of the night is Kentucky against Wisconsin, a pairing of what may well be the top two teams in the country. From this view, don’t believe what you may be hearing: despite the Wildcats’ 38-0 record, on paper this one is pretty close to a toss-up.
Notre Dame showed last week that spreading Kentucky out on the perimeter, pulling its big guys out from the basket and then slicing up the Wildcats with cuts is an effective way to score. Wisconsin is quite capable of doing that as one of the most skilled offensive teams in the country, and even if the Badgers don’t vacate the middle quite as much with their offense, they have been even better shooting in the NCAA Tournament than the Fighting Irish were.
Wisconsin has shown it can shoot a high percentage even against an excellent team last week in Arizona. If the Badgers are shooting above 50% from the field again, the Wildcats are going to be in chase mode again and will need to be at the top of their game offensively. Which UK very well could be. But the pressure will be there to do more than just win the game defensively.
Also: keep an eye on the secondary players in this game. Much of the talk coming in will be about guys like Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns. For Wisconsin, though, it’s going to be the guys like Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig or maybe Traevon Jackson hitting shots who will help loosen the load on those others, while Kentucky’s perimeter players also will bear watching, and we should know dating to last year’s NCAA Tournament by now that the Harrison twins are always ready to hit a big shot.
Is Kentucky a favorite coming in? Of course. But it would not be a surprise one bit if Wisconsin wins this game.
Fair or not, the second game has a significant undercard feel to it. Duke is the favorite over Michigan State, but it felt like the Blue Devils were a little shaky in the South Region final.
All things equal, Duke is the better team, which makes the Blue Devils a fairly easy pick. Before dismissing Michigan State, though, one might want to review a tape of the Big Ten Tournament final. It’s almost been forgotten, but the Spartans all but had Wisconsin beat in that game, leading by 11 points midway through the second half.
Michigan State is going to have to keep the Blue Devils off the foul line. Duke finished with a 26-10 advantage in free throws in the first game this year in November. This one has the feel of being close, with the Dukies making a few more plays late to win.
- Wisconsin’s Kaminsky was named the Associated Press player of the year on Friday, adding to his postseason awards that already included the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Oscar Robertson Award for player of the year. Kentucky coach John Calipari also was named the coach of the year by the AP, countering the USBWA’s selection of Virginia’s Tony Bennett for that award. Something of a fuss was raised when Bennett won that award over Calipari, but there are plenty of different criteria used for coaching awards, so it’s not a surprise when different people see things differently.
- A trio of Rhode Island players are transferring. Juniors Jarelle Reischel and Biggie Minnis are both going to transfer upon their graduation this spring after averaging a combined 6.7 points per game this year. Sophomore guard Matthew Butler also is leaving after averaging 1.7 ppg this year.
- Some transfer news from earlier this week: Cleveland State guard Trey Lewis is another who is going to transfer for his senior year. Lewis averaged better than 16 ppg for the Vikings this year and is graduating, and already has high-profile suitors like Louisville courting him. Like too many of these graduate transfers now, this will be his third school in four years.
Again: this waiver needs to be trashed ASAP. Giving a benefit to student-athletes to transfer for academic reasons is perfectly fine. It doesn’t take a private eye to see that the vast majority of these graduate transfers have zilch to do with academics. The rule is being thoroughly abused, to the point where it’s almost pointless to even give players redshirt years when they’re just likely to jump ship anyway. And if a player transferred before-such as Lewis did-then a school has no choice but to make him redshirt one year. Something needs to be done about it, as any rule encouraging transferring specifically for athletic reasons is bad for the sport and for education. Perhaps it’s eliminating redshirt years, perhaps it’s limiting a student-athlete to one transfer before losing a year of eligiblity. It is becoming an embarrassment to the sport. Undoubtedly, it’s something the schools have brought on themselves to a significant extent, but that doesn’t make the transfer rate right. It’s time it is fixed by and for all sides.
- Finally, VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin talked some to multiple media sources about the school’s coaching search to replace Shaka Smart. Former VCU assistants and current college head coaches Will Wade (Tennessee-Chattanooga), Jamion Christian (Mount St. Mary’s) and Mike Rhoades (Rice) are rumored as candidates, which isn’t too surprising as McLaughlin has talked about trying to maintain the Havoc style of play. More notable from here: McLaughlin will not be using a search firm, which is sadly bigger news than it should be. Good for him. Don’t think it’s too much to ask that an athletic director actually be able to handle hiring by themselves rather than pay someone else to do their job.
Have a terrific Final Four Saturday, as well as a very Happy Easter tomorrow.