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Kentucky poised to be on right side of history

Four storied programs to take the floor tonight, but Wildcats could rewrite history books with two more victories.

Kentucky coach John Calipari watches practice on the day before the Final Four. (Associated Press)
Kentucky coach John Calipari watches practice on the day before the Final Four. (Associated Press)Read more

INDIANAPOLIS - You know the world is spinning wildly out of control when Duke is on the undercard and Mark Emmert is on the right side of history. That is the backdrop to tonight's Final Four - college basketball's most successful program of the last 30 years relegated to warmup act for college basketball's most successful program ever, and the NCAA president a voice of reason in the debate around Indiana's capital on the now-revised "religious freedom" law that was devised by minds that needed opening.

The good news is that, in time, our history shows we usually get it right, and three basketball games will played over the next 3 nights that will determine a national champion and perhaps some sporting history.

Duke-Michigan State followed by Kentucky-Wisconsin.

Lovers of the sport hope for games close to as good as last Saturday's regional finals. CBS hopes for Duke-Kentucky on Monday. Or least Kentucky.

I like the favorites. I am rooting for the story. I would love to write about history Monday night.

Duke beat Michigan State, 81-71, on Nov. 18 in the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a few blocks and about 50,000 people from Lucas Oil Stadium. There were 19,306 in the gym that night; there will be 70,000 in the dome tonight.

Duke is better than in November and so is Michigan State. The coaches say they glanced at the video, but think it is largely irrelevant.

"I haven't really watched that much of that game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We have different strategies because we have different teams. It's much better to watch them in the NCAA than in some of their Big Ten games."

Nobody is surprised Duke is here. The Blue Devils have a sensational freshman class with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, to go along with steady Quinn Cook (101 threes, serious defender). If you believe in such things, Duke's four titles have come in cities ending with "apolis," Indianapolis (1991, 2010), Minneapolis (1992, 2001).

Unless you have blind faith in Tom Izzo, which might not be misplaced, there was no way Michigan State could have been expected. Unlike Duke, Kentucky and Wisconsin who could have 12 NBA players on their rosters, the Spartans might not have any.

"I think we're both not completely different, but I think we're a lot better than we were back then," Izzo said.

Of course, they are. That is Izzo's genius. He constantly tinkers with lineups and combinations, trying to get it just right for mid-March. This is his seventh Final Four in 17 years, more than any coach in that span. This is the least talented team he has brought, but when you beat seeds 2, 3 and 4 (Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville) after really outplaying Wisconsin, but losing in the Big Ten title game, the moment starts to outweigh the talent.

The other game in Indy that November night? Kentucky 72, Kansas 40. That was the moment 40-0 became a consideration.

It was Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73 in this spot last year. Senior Ben Brust had 15 points for Wisconsin. Traevon Jackson, a bit player now because of injury, had 12. Nigel Hayes played only 7 minutes. Frank Kaminsky had only eight points. These Badgers are better than those Badgers by a significant amount.

Kentucky's leading scorers were James Young (17) and Julius Randle (16), both gone to the NBA. Dakari Johnson started and played 18 minutes. He is the ninth man on this team. Dominique Hawkins played 11 minutes. He never gets in now. Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis were in high school. Willie Cauley-Stein was injured. These Wildcats are so much better than those Wildcats that there is no comparison.

Kaminsky, declared the winner of the USBWA's Oscar Robertson Trophy as Player of the Year yesterday morning, is also the MVP of college hoops. He leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and shooting percentage overall and from the arc. When he was on the floor, the Badgers outscored opponents by 583 points. When was on the bench, the Badgers got outscored by 12 points.

"Not to be overly patriotic, but we're an American story, that you can do that in this kind of a system," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Sometimes where it looks like the privileged, the ones that are identified as being great players and can't-miss-type guys, where there can always come that guy from behind in the race and then cross the tape first."

Wisconsin has a historically great offense in a season in which offense has mostly been awful. Kentucky's defense, also numerically sensational, was sliced up by Notre Dame - until the final 5 minutes.

The Badgers' second-half offense in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina and Arzona in the West region final looked like a video game. They scored 48 points on 32 possessions against North Carolina, 1.5 points per possession. Then, in the first 13 minutes against Arizona, they scored 1.8 PPP.

What has gotten lost in Wisconsin's offensive explosion is how bad its defense has been in this tournament. Their opponents, including Coastal Carolina, have shot 48 percent overall, 50 percent from the arc and committed one fewer turnover against a team that commits the country's fewest.

UNC and Arizona just overwhelmed Wisconsin in the lane, getting the team that fouls the least into very unaccustomed foul trouble. And it should not be lost on anybody that Kentucky's greatest offensive strengths are straight-line drives, post-ups and offensive rebounds.

The key matchup might very well be Kentucky's offense against Wisconsin's defense. And if UK wins it decisively, the Wildcats will be playing for history Monday night.