By now, having watched each Final Four participant survive four games in this NCAA Tournament, you know the deal in terms of why these teams excel.
Duke beat Gonzaga in spite of an off night from Jahlil Okafor, locking up defensively and limiting mistakes to the tune of three turnovers. Despite shooting 37.5 percent, the Blue Devils won comfortably.
Kentucky is probably the best defensive team ever. Willie Cauley-Stein is an athletic marvel whose ability to lock up an opponent’s top scorer and alter shots at the rim is the No. 1 reason the Wildcats are two wins from immortality. His defense on Jerian Grant on Notre Dame’s final possession ensured there would be no Christian Laettner-type moment in Cleveland.
Michigan State is mentally tougher than guys their age should be. The Spartans can overcome Denzel Valentine’s errors or Travis Trice suffering through a cold streak by simply moving on to the next play. That type of resiliency, fostered in part by 11 losses they’ve overcome to get to this point, has proven invaluable.
We know why these Final Four participants are great, but only one team won’t taste defeat. The following is why they may lose. Here’s what can trip them up:
Duke: The Blue Devils are really at their best when both Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook are on the floor. It’s no surprise Coach K had them on the floor all 40 minutes against Gonzaga and 38 minutes apiece against Utah. The offense is more effective with twin point guards in part because the team’s wings and big men are all so young. Okafor, Justise Winslow and Matt Jones are all freshmen. Krzyzewski’s youngest team ever has reached this point because they’ve got two facilitators, one a freshman himself in Jones, who can set the table and handle pressure.
Remove one from the equation, which Michigan State can do by isolating them against their bigger guards, and Krzyzewski would have a huge issue on his hands. It’s worth noting that although both played nearly every second of their most recent loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, Jones and Cook combined to shoot 6-for-25, including 2-for-13 from 3-point range. Although Okafor gets most of the national attention as the most prized prospect in college hoops, the secret is out now that Duke won in spite of him scoring in single-digits the past two games.
The Blue Devils backcourt is this team’s driving force and there’s no safety net in place behind them.
Kentucky: For whatever reason, Notre Dame didn’t double Karl-Anthony Towns in the post. As a result, the ‘Cats went 10-for-12 from the field over the final 13 minutes of their 68-66 win, including hitting their last nine shots. Towns made five of the 10 baskets, imposing his will on the smaller Zach Auguste in a series of short hooks and layups. As great as the Fighting Irish played, they showed everyone how not to defend Kentucky, since you have to collapse on the post and dare the team’s shooters to make open 3-pointers.
Both Aaron Harrison and Tyler Ulis hit huge shots from beyond the arc, but you simply have to take your chances that they’ll miss those shots. So long as Cauley-Stein stays out of foul trouble, putting together consistent offense against UK is going to be a chore.
An off-shooting night must be part of the equation if you’re going to pull the upset, and outside of Devin Booker and Ulis, no one shoots over 40 percent from 3-point range. Aaron Harrison, the team’s leader in makes, has made less than 32 percent, although you can’t argue that he’s clutch.
On a team with few weaknesses, consistency from the perimeter may be the most glaring, so look for Ryan’s game plan to involve giving up the open look if it means shutting down the post.
Michigan State: Izzo knows his team has warts. He’s well aware t his trio of Valentine, Trice and Branden Dawson have their flaws, but also have a fighting spirit that permeates through the group and lifts up the role players. Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, Marvin Clark, Tum-Tum Nairn and Bryn Forbes all had their moments against Louisville, so they’ll be confident entering this matchup with Duke.
That makes depth a significant advantage, but also means the Spartans will again be relying on a number of players who can blow up at the free-throw line.
Although the struggles of Duke’s Okafor are magnified since he’s a 51 percent shooter and air-balled one against Gonzaga, Michigan State is actually much worse from the charity stripe.
Wisconsin: Center Frank Kaminsky and forward Sam Dekker have played like guys that made every preseason All-American list are expected to, but the Badgers guards are certainly where you can attack Ryan’s team. Sixth man Traevon Jackson is still working off the rust after being sidelined for months, while sophomore Bronson Koenig and senior Josh Gasser certainly make up the least heralded starting backcourt left in the field. Kentucky’s Harrison twins and Ulis are a far more dynamic group, so if they can impose their will, Wisconsin will fall short in a second consecutive national semifinal.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Contact Tony at [email protected].