Iconic college basketball brands fill the 2015 Final Four. Duke and Kentucky are as blue blood as college hoops programs get. In the 2000s, Michigan State has won more NCAA tournament games (40) than Duke (38) or Kentucky (36). Wisconsin is making its third trip to the final weekend in the 21st century.
Yet, at least for this year, the popular image of each of the Final Four teams – Duke will play Michigan State, followed by Kentucky vs. Wisconsin – is defied by their reality.
Image: Kentucky wins because of one-and-done players.
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Reality: The main reason the Wildcats (38-0) are two wins from completing a perfect season is their vast depth. “Even if there’s a guy that shoots a bad percentage or has a rough day, look how many other guys can pick them up?” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said during a recent Final Four teleconference.
The surplus of talent that gave Kentucky its nine-man rotation was created when six of the top eight players from last season’s NCAA runner-up team stayed in school. Before UK lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the season to a torn ACL, the Cats were starting one freshman.
Sure, John Calipari has sent 12 players (so far) to the NBA who spent only one season wearing UK blue. He could have three more this year.
But as valuable as Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis have been to the Cats, freshmen have accounted for less than half (44.7 percent) of Kentucky’s points this season.
Image: Duke’s program is the antithesis of Kentucky’s.
Reality: When the starting lineups are announced Saturday in Indianapolis, Mike Krzyzewski will have more freshmen in his starting lineup (three) than Calipari (two).
Freshmen starters Jahlil Okafor (17.5 ppg), Justise Winslow (12.5), Tyus Jones (11.6) and backup Grayson Allen (3.9) are responsible for 56 percent of Duke’s points in 2014-15.
It is expected that Okafor, Winslow and likely Jones will place their names in the 2015 NBA draft. If so, it will give Krzyzewski eight one-and-done players since 1999.
If Calipari and UK’s exploitation of the one-and-done phenomenon are “killing college basketball” – as an article on Rolling Stone’s website claimed earlier this season – then Duke and Coach K are becoming accomplices.
Or maybe, exalted reputation aside, Duke is just doing what it has to do to win big in college basketball as it currently exists.
“I just appreciate the way he’s kind of adapted, changed his style some,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said of Krzyzewski. “For the most part, he’s got some one-and-dones, some two-and-dones, but if you really look at it, he’s won championships with Shane Battiers, people that have stuck around. He’s adapted, he’s adjusted. I think that’s why he’s still deserving of all the accolades he gets.”
Image: The Wisconsin program under Bo Ryan is built on ball-control offense and hard-nosed defense.
Reality: Want to guess which Final Four team allows opponents to shoot the highest percentage (42.6) and convert 3-pointers at the highest rate (37.4)? Conversely, want to speculate on which Final Four team has averaged 80.5 points a game in the NCAA tournament and is ranked first in the nation in Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency ratings?
In both cases: Wisconsin.
“We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame,” Calipari said Monday. “(Wisconsin) rivals and maybe surpasses (them).”
Image: Tom Izzo-coached teams do all the little things it takes to win in March.
Reality: This year, No. 7-seed Michigan State (27-11) defied the oldest rule of March Madness success: Teams must make free throws to survive (and advance).
Michigan State is in the Final Four even though it has missed 33 of the 88 foul shots (a 62.5 percent success rate) it has taken in the NCAA tournament.
Even Izzo seems stunned you can get to the Final Four that way. “That’s what makes me prouder of them,” he said of the Spartans. “They even surprised me a little bit.”
In the sense of defying conventional perceptions, all of this year’s Final Four teams are “surprises.”
By the numbers