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Sunday, October 24, 2021

4 teams enter, 1 team leaves

The final weekend of the NCAA Tournament is upon us

With four teams remaining in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, viewers have been treated to a battle of heavyweights. Three of the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament remain while the No. 7 seeded Michigan State, a stalwart in the final weekend, battled its way through several upsets to claim its place.

Duke (1) vs. Michigan State (7)

Duke and Michigan State will play just after 3 p.m. on Saturday for the first game of the Final Four. Duke has ridden outstanding play from three freshmen, including ACC Player of the Year and likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft Jahlil Okafor. The 6-foot-11 freshman has averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds this game, while shooting an outstanding 66.8 percent from the field. Fellow freshman Justice Winslow, however, has perhaps the best player for Duke throughout the tournament. The guard/forward has played his usual brand of stingy defense, but has added an all-around game unrivaled by the rest of the field.

The real story of the postseason for Duke, however, has been the turnaround of its much-maligned defense. After a tough regular season in which they were often exposed by opponents attacking the rim, the Blue Devils have held each team that they have faced to under 60 points.

The Michigan State Spartans are alive and kicking in the tournament after defeating No. 2 University of Virginia and No. 4 Louisville. The Spartans’ greatest strength, perhaps, is their outstanding coach, Tom Izzo, who has repeatedly taken teams much further than their talent levels. This will be Izzo’s seventh trip to the Final Four.

In the regular season, the Spartans were led by senior guard Travis Trice, who averaged 15.3 points and 5.1 assists per game. Against No. 4 Louisville, Trice had 17 points, five rebounds and five assists while senior forward Branden Dawson added nine points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.

Michigan State and Duke faced off in the second game of the season on a neutral floor, and the Blue Devils came away with a 10-point victory. This seems to indicate that Duke will advance on Saturday, especially since its young roster has likely grown more over the season. Still, it is the Final Four and madness is abound, so expect an extremely competitive game. Look for Duke to attempt to get Okafor rolling early against a squad that has no players above 6-foot-9.

Kentucky (1) vs. Wisconsin (1)

A team versus a collection of talent, one-and-done versus four-year players, perhaps a bit of David versus Goliath — whatever questionable cliche you would like to employ about the second game of the Final Four, it is clear that coverage of the entire tournament has been framed around Kentucky’s run at perfection. When a team even as far away in the bracket as Duke scores a victory, they have only been judged on their ability to eventually defeat the looming Wildcats.

The Wisconsin Badgers will be the next team to challenge the already-crowned Wildcats. The Badgers have been led throughout the season by senior center Kyle Kaminsky and junior forward Sam Dekker, who has been on a tear throughout the tournament. Kaminsky has seemed routine over the last four games, but has actually poured in almost 23 points per game while threatening to score from all over the court. His play will be huge against a Wildcats frontcourt that has several first-round picks in the upcoming draft.

Dekker may end up being the x-factor for the Badgers after upping his scoring average almost eight points from the regular season to the tournament. The junior, who will likely leave for the NBA after this season, has also hit almost 50 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and is coming off a stellar game in the Elite Eight.

Kentucky has a solid set of guards, but their real depth comes in their frontcourt where two likely top-10 picks reside. Willie Cauley-Stein has been outstanding as a defensive threat, blocking 1.7 shots and nabbing 1.2 steals per game while Karl-Anthony Towns has added 2.3 blocks and 6.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Towns had his best game of the season in the Elite Eight, totaling 25 points and five rebounds.

The strength of this Kentucky team is its overwhelming talent, size and depth. No player averaged over 11 points or 26 minutes per game and they have future NBA players throughout the roster. The team did submit to a scare in the Elite Eight against Notre Dame, winning by two points, but that was just a game after a 39-point victory over No. 5 West Virginia.

Wisconsin is certainly talented, despite the implications that come with some popular narratives for this game. They have a legitimate shot at winning this game, but Kentucky is and should be favored. The Badgers’ best shot is if they can run up a lot of points on offense, but the Wildcats have not allowed over 70 points since Feb. 21. This is a can’t-miss match-up that could very well prove to be the Wildcats’ biggest challenge to going 40-0 this season.

Writers Picks:

Duke over Michigan State, 68-63
Kentucky over Wisconsin, 73-70

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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