By Michael Woo
Sixty games have been played over the past two weeks and the field has been narrowed down from 64 to four. Like most fans I’m a sucker for a Cinderella story, an underdog to rally behind, a bandwagon to jump on, but this year’s tournament has not provided one: Only one double-digit seeded team, UCLA, reached the Sweet Sixteen. R.J. Hunter’s game winning three over third-seeded Baylor provided the opening day flair the tournament is known for, but Georgia State’s exciting run was short-lived, as they were eliminated in the following game.
This year’s tournament will not be remembered for first round upsets or buzzer beating finishes, but instead for the epic Final Four that will take place this weekend.
The Final Four features Kentucky, the first team to reach the Final Four undefeated since UNLV in 1991; Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), the top collegiate player; Jahlil Okafor (Duke), the projected first overall pick in the NBA draft; and Tom Izzo (Michigan State), arguably the best college tournament coach of all time. Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke all advanced from their regions as one seeds, while Michigan State comes in as a seven seed. The talent that will be displayed in Indianapolis this weekend could be unprecedented, and it will provide a fitting conclusion to a magnificent March.
Kentucky’s frontcourt consists of two seven-footers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, who are guaranteed lottery picks. Wisconsin’s seven-footer, Frank Kaminsky, is no slouch either; he is expected to be this year’s Wooden Award winner. His sidekick, Sam Dekker, deserves just as much praise, and has earned the reputation as the most clutch player in college basketball. Dekker is averaging nearly 22 points per game in the tournament, and drilled three after three in the closing moments of their Elite Eight game vs. Arizona.
Duke features a similar dynamic duo in Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. Okafor has been the face of this Duke squad for the entire season, but Winslow’s strong play in March is the reason the Blue Devils have advanced this far. Winslow is averaging nearly a double-double in tournament play with 14 ppg and 9.5 rpg.
That leaves us with Michigan State, the only non-one seed left, yet the fact that the Spartans are left standing this late in the tournament should surprise no one. Izzo and Final Fours go together like peanut butter and jelly, as evidenced by his seven Final Four appearances since 1999.
On paper, this weekend’s games offer everything a college hoops fan could hope for. The Wisconsin-Kentucky game is a rematch of last year’s dramatic Final Four game, and both teams return many of their key players from last year. The Badgers’ star players, Kaminsky and Dekker, both returned to Wisconsin for the sole purpose of winning a national title. While the Wildcats surprised many last year with their deep tournament run and exceeded expectations, this year’s squad has been playing with a target on its back since day one. Featuring the deepest, most talented roster in recent memory, the Wildcats hope to cap off their undefeated regular season with a national championship (the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to accomplish such a feat).
The Duke-Michigan State game features two of the most successful coaches in college history, and rarely do you get to see such storied coaches face off on such a big stage. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo have combined for five national championships and 19 Final Four appearances.
Krzyzewski will go down as one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. His career wins record, 1,016, will not be broken anytime soon since the only active coach who poses a threat is Jim Boeheim with 966 wins (but he plans on retiring in three years). The next winningest active coach, Roy Williams, only has 750 wins.
Just as remarkable as Krzyzewski’s sustained success is Izzo’s postseason success. Last year’s group of seniors was the only class during Izzo’s entire head coaching career to not reach a Final Four. So how did Izzo respond this year? He led a less talented squad to where last year’s team fell one game short of success.
Regardless of the stats and the storylines, this year’s Final Four is a must-watch for all basketball fans. It features the best players and the best coaches, and it pits the best offenses in the country against the best defenses. It appeals to old school fans who support fundamental, team basketball that teems with upperclassmen, while also appealing to the new school fans who crave a more high-paced, flashy style of play that the NBA-bound freshmen provide. Regardless of the outcome, it will certainly be an entertaining weekend.
If you’d like Mike to throw you a Final Four viewing party, contact him at mtwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.