On Saturday, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State will take the court in Indianapolis to compete for the right to play in the championship game of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Each team has taken a unique path to get here, with different players stepping into the limelight and hoisting their respective teams on their backs. Here’s how this year’s final four teams have made their mark on March Madness.
Though they experienced a scare against a Notre Dame team that moves the ball on offense like the San Antonio Spurs, Kentucky marches in to the Final Four with a shiny record of 38-0. After trailing for most of their game against the Irish, the Wildcats turned up the heat at the 12-minute mark of the second half, shooting 9-for-9 from the field the rest of the way.
The Harrison twins have played huge roles in keeping Kentucky steady, and on a team full of freshmen, their leadership and experience have been invaluable.
“Given that they [the Harrison twins] were in last year’s national championship game gives Kentucky a nice mix of unbelievably talented freshmen with some great veteran leadership,” says Alan Stein, owner of Stronger Team, who has attended many Kentucky practices over the years.
We’ve already shown you the work Kentucky puts in behind the scenes to keep their players fresh and strong for the grind of the tournament. But when it came time to step up against Notre Dame, it was the Harrison twins—Aaron draining a deep 3 and Andrew hitting two clutch free throws—who sealed the victory.
It seems a little unfair for a team to have both a big man scoring at will in the post and a long-range marksman knocking down triples, but that’s what Wisconsin has used to reach the Final Four. Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky uses his size and athleticism on the block not only to get buckets but demand a double team. When that happens, he can kick the ball out to Sam Dekker to drain a 3, as Dekker did in the waning moments of Wisconsin’s win over Arizona.
“Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are arguably the nation’s best front court,” Stein says. “Wisconsin is a big strong team that can play both inside and out.”
Inside and out will be the way the Badgers have a shot at taking down Kentucky. Since the Wildcats have the size to match Kamisnky down low, Dekker’s shooting will become the key to Wisconsin’s bid for an upset.
Duke Blue Devils
In Jahlil Okafor, Duke has the best freshman in the country and one of the best low-post threats as well. But it was the other Blue Devils who got it done against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Okafor was able to muster up just nine points, but fellow freshman Justise Winslow put on a clinic. He poured in 16 points, and another newbie, Tyus Jones, helped out with 15.
“Jones and Winslow have matured greatly over the course of the season,” Stein says. “They play very up-tempo, are fourth in the country in scoring and are third in the country in field goal percentage. Duke is so successful because they play unselfishly and take very high percentage shots.”
Duke hasn’t scored fewer than 60 points in a tournament game yet, and we don’t think that will change against Michigan State. Okafor will no doubt get back to scoring in double digits, but if he struggles again, his fast maturing freshman teammates aren’t afraid to take big shots.
Michigan State Spartans
Even a seventh seed couldn’t stop the master of March, Tom Izzo, from guiding his Michigan State Spartans to the Final Four. Point guard Travis Trice has become a star, as shown by his 25-point performance against Oklahoma to reach Indianapolis. Denzel Valentine has been a perfect second banana to Trice, scoring when needed and taking a backseat when Trice pulls up from deep, making Izzo pull his hair out until the shot drops through the net.
With Izzo at the helm, the Spartans appearing in the championship game is not a stretch.
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