It’s usually at this time of year that the NBA plays second fiddle in the basketball world for the duration of the NCAA tournament. Fans tune in to see the stars of the very imminent future in a tournament which provides the kind of drama that has often dissipated in the later stages of the NBA, where playoff seeding is the only real incentive left.
The NBA has been holding its own this year thanks to one of the most enthralling MVP races in history but be assured – this year’s Final Four will steal the attention right back. We are set up for an incredible 3 games with 3 great teams and, quite frankly, one solid team with a great coach. There are reasons that all 4 could take home the Championship but it seems only fair to start with the team that could well go down as the best college team ever.
Michigan State +800
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
Betting Odds: Kentucky (-238) vs Wisconsin (+200)
At first glance, saying this Kentucky team could be the best college team ever sounds like an exaggeration. Yet the facts are simple: they have a chance of being the first team to ever go undefeated, they are already only the second team ever to go unbeaten through the regular season and they’ve matched the record for most wins in an NCAA tournament already. Not only that, they have most experts’ number 1 pick for the NBA Draft and may have 3 of their players going top 10 and 7 being drafted.
Last year they played Wisconsin at this stage of the tournament and beat them – Wisconsin’s roster has stayed relatively similar whilst Kentucky is much improved. It honestly feels picky to try and give reasons why Kentucky will lose but Notre Dame gave them a hell of a game in the Elite 8 and frankly, had they not abandoned the strategies that got them so close, we may be talking about another famous CBB upset. That’s really all you can aim at Kentucky – they have an experienced roster backing up the Twin Towers of Towns and Cauley-Stein with Aaron Harrison’s clutch play engrained in Wisconsin minds from last year’s encounter. They simply have to be favorites but this is no walkover, far from it.
Wisconsin come into this game with revenge on their minds and boasting the best offense in the country. All the talk is of Kentucky but it cannot be forgotten that Wisconsin have the best college player in the country in their midst. Frank Kaminsky has an NBA-ready body of skills – he can shoot the ball all the way out to three and boss down low. He doesn’t have the ceiling of an Okafor or a Towns but he is the most technically gifted player in the tournament right now. When he goes to the NBA he may struggle with the extended line and most certainly will struggle with the quickness of NBA athletes but those are questions for the future – right now you can guarantee Kentucky are trying to figure out how to stop him.
Just one problem: Sam Dekker. It is true that Wisconsin’s roster has stayed similar to last year but their players are improved with Dekker right at the forefront. He has been one of the best players in the tournament so far, average 21.7 points and 5.5 boards. Dekker has made his name off his smart cutting ability but showcased his range in the Elite 8 against Arizona as he led Wisconsin through a tight game. Much like that game, we know Frank Kaminsky will get his but can Dekker step up as a secondary scorer again? It will be especially important against two great defensive big men who will play Kaminsky as well as anyone.
Betting Odds: Duke (-235) vs Michigan State (+195)
The Blue Devils are back again, led by possibly the best coach in CBB history and an absurdly gifted young big man who, frankly, is becoming more underrated as people see more of him. Jahlil Okafor is suffering from a common problem – as people realise just how good certain players are, they start to try their best to find their flaws and pick holes in their games. It is part of the reason players like Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay have seen their stock remain so high in recent years – we simply don’t see as much of them as others.
The simple facts with Okafor are that he is nearly unstoppable in the post one on one. He hasn’t had a great tournament and yet has been vital to Duke’s success, he cannot be left on his own, commanding a nearly automatic double team. His post game is superb, his footwork incredibly clean for such a young player and he rebounds well. Of course he has his faults but they tend to be focused on by the same people who decided Blake Griffin could only dunk.
Besides, Okafor’s relatively mediocre tournament has merely allowed another superb prospect to shine through. The lack of Winslow talk has been a little bizarre – his NBA comparison is perhaps Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but he is much more polished offensively than MKG and brings the quality defence. He has put up some great lines in the tournament including possibly the best stat-sheet stuffer of a performance so far with 13 points, 12 boards, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. He brings absolutely everything. Between these two great prospects (and Tyus Jones, who on another team would shine a lot more) and Coach K, it’s hard to see past another Championship game for Duke.
When compared to the other 3 rosters in the tournament, Michigan State looks incredibly average. It is nearly unanimous on all Big Boards that they won’t have a single first round pick in the upcoming Draft. This is not to say that Michigan don’t have any good players. Travis Trice has scored well throughout the tournament and in Denzel Valentine they have a player who will fill up the stat sheet – an efficient scorer who will get boards and assists. However, they don’t come close to the gifts of an Okafor, Towns or Kaminsky. They have taken out the 2, 3 and 4 seed in their own Conference to get here so they haven’t been lucky with their draws. Yet they went an unremarkable 24-11 in the regular season and are the only non-1 seed in the Final Four. So how have they managed to get here? It all comes down to one man – Mr March, Tom Izzo.
Izzo is one of the finest coaches in CBB, wanted by the Cavs during LeBron’s first stint, and earned his nickname for good reason – his teams always come alive in the tournament. He has been to the Final Four 7 times – and though he only has one national Championship, he has rarely had the riches of a Duke or Kentucky. When looking at the rosters, it is nearly impossible to bet against Duke. Yet, Izzo has proved time and time again he thrives upon the underdog status.
This promises to be one heck of a Final Four. Strap in, it’s going to be a fun ride.
DIARMAID HILL (@dhillmu7) is a basketball and football fan who plays both even worse than he writes about them. He supports the LA Clippers and Manchester United and yes, he’s heard every joke about both. Follow him on Twitter.