How the Final Four got there
There was drama galore as Michigan State, Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky won their regional finals.
THE THREE No. 1 seeds in the Final Four are 106-7. And then there is Michigan State (27-11), a team that can't be evaluated off regular-season performance because its coach, Tom Izzo, has developed a formula to get the Spartans to peak in mid-March.
Saturday's second national semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will not only be a rematch of last year's semi (won by Kentucky, 74-73), with many of the same participants, it will match the nation's most efficient offense (Wisconsin's) against the nation's most efficient defense (Kentucky's). The prediction by kempom.com? Kentucky 65, Wisconsin 62.
If UK really is going to get to 40-0 and become the first unbeaten national champion in 39 years, it will have to earn it. If they beat Wisconsin and get Duke in the title game, the Wildcats' last three games would be against the nation's second (Notre Dame), first (Wisconsin) and third (Duke) most efficient offenses.
Wisconsin is vulnerable to postups and drives, exactly what UK does best. UK is vulnerable to skilled inside-outside bigs and Wisconsin has the best in the game. So I think the game may be higher-scoring than kenpom does, but UK's offense is rated sixth and Wisconsin's defense 55th. That could matter.
After a season when offense has been in the witness-protection program, Saturday's regional finals were an offensive show for the ages, culminating with a near-perfect endgame by a team barely alive to become the eighth unbeaten NCAA champion.
Wisconsin could not have shot any better in the second half of its West Region final. The Badgers were so good from the arc they had at least some margin for error down the stretch against Arizona. Kentucky had none against Notre Dame in the Midwest.
Playing against the nation's best defense, the Irish were smart, fearless and daring - until the final 5 minutes. They blinked just enough to give the Wildcats a chance.
Unless you have watched UK in its other close games this season, especially at Georgia and LSU, you probably thought it was over when ND led, 61-56, with 5 minutes left and Kentucky's defense seemingly had no answers for the Irish's spacing, passing, cutting and finishing. Really, to that point in the second half, ND was shooting 50 percent, had zero turnovers and was scoring an incredible 1.6 points per possession. It should have been over.
Only Kentucky never panicked. The Wildcats did not miss a shot in the game's last 10 minutes, going 9-for-9. One miss and they're probably done. Notre Dame missed three of five late free throws and finally got conservative on offense, running down the shot clock on just about every possession.
UK shot 15-for-20 (75 percent) in the final 20 minutes. Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played himself right into the conversation as the No. 1 draft pick, was 8-for-8. Kentucky scored 37 points on 26 second-half possessions, 1.4 points per possession. It needed every one of them to win by a pair. If this was just a team of front-running bullies, it would have caved because Notre Dame was so good for so long. Not only did Kentucky not cave, it got better as the stakes got bigger.
Arizona shot 56 percent, was 28-for-30 from the foul line and still lost to Wisconsin. How is that possible?
It really should not be unless your opponent's first 20 possessions of the second half result in 36 points (1.8 ppp) while shooting 11-for-14, 7-for-8 from the arc and 7-for-7 from the foul line. I have never seen anything like that, especially not against one of the country's three best defensive teams.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan said his team needed to improve its points per possession after a very uncharacteristic .968 first half. He never could have imagined what he was about to see.
Wisconsin junior Sam Dekker became Larry Bird and almost ensured that his last game this season will be his last college game. He should be zooming up draft boards, along with teammate and should-be player of the year Frank Kaminsky. Dekker made all five of his second-half threes, each one with a higher degree of difficulty until the last one, which looked like it went like 30 feet in the air before dropping cleanly though the net. He was 6-for-6, 5-for-5, 3-for-3 in the last 20 minutes.
In the second half, Wisconsin shot 78.9 percent and was 10 of 12 from the arc. Hard to do that in an empty gym. Dekker and Kaminsky combined for 36 in the second, 56 for the game.
Arizona would have beaten just about anybody with its numbers, but 36-6 from the arc is hard to overcome.
Louisville had scored 181 points in 153 possessions over its last five halves, far better than its season offense. Then came the second half and OT against Michigan State. The Cardinals went 6-for-32, but, incredibly, had a chance to win at the end of regulation. But a bad free-throw shooter missed badly.
MSU had total heartbreak when it gave up a late lead in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin before getting shut out in overtime and losing, 80-69. That the Spartans got beyond that, were able to win four games and get to Izzo's seventh Final Four is a tribute to the program the coach has built. Yesterday's was their eighth OT game of the season. They are 3-5.
Duke's defense, which has really cost it in recent NCAAs, has been an absolute revelation in the tournament, holding its four opponents to 214 points on 248 possessions, a sensational .863 points per possession. The Blue Devils' opponents have scored 57, 49, 56 and 52. Gonzaga's 52 was its season low and 27 points below its average.
Seemed to me that the Zags played the uniforms and not the players. Just too nervous. They had 13 turnovers to just three for Duke. The Blue Devils made eight threes, the Zags just two. And Gonzaga settled for too many jumpers when Duke was having trouble defending its basket.
This and that
* John Calipari is now 22-3 in NCAA Tournament games at Kentucky. Three teams have won 38 games in a season. All were coached by Calipari - Memphis (2008), Kentucky (2012), Kentucky (2015).
* Izzo is 13-9 as a lower seed, the best overachieving record relative to seed in tournament history. The second best? Villanova's Rollie Massimino (11-9).
* Louisville's Rick Pitino is a ridiculous 11-1 in Sweet 16 games at three schools.
* Why didn't we all just ignore the season when their teams were a combined 47-19 and move Pitino and Izzo along three spaces in our brackets to the East Regional final?
* Did you notice the coolest guy in Cleveland? That would be Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia. The 6-5 sophomore guard from St. Joseph's Prep had 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting with zero turnovers in 38 minutes. He is an understated star in the making.
* The ACC was essentially four points from getting three teams to Indy. Duke is the first ACC Final Four team since the Blue Devils won it in 2010.
* This is Coach K's 12th Final Four, tying John Wooden for the most.
* Duke beat Michigan State, 81-71, on Nov. 18 in Indy. That game was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers play. The kenpom.com prediction? Duke 73, Michigan State 68.
* Did you notice the officials in the UK-ND game? Me either. It was a wonderfully officiated game.
* Did you notice the worst call of the weekend? Had to be the third foul on Utah's Delon Wright when going for a held ball against Duke, a call that is never made even when there is a foul. It was a very surprising call made by a very good official, Mark Whitehead, one he'd probably like to have back and one that tilted the game hard toward the Blue Devils.
* The three games in Houston mirrored the awful shooting at the 2011 Final Four. The four teams (Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA, Utah) combined to shoot 36.8 percent overall and 26.7 percent from three. The Final Four is there next year.
* TBS's Kentucky-Notre Dame broadcast was the network's highest-rated program ever and the most-watched college basketball game on cable, peaking at nearly 20 million. Imagine what TBS's ratings will be like Monday night if it's Duke-Kentucky for the championship.