March Madness heats up, can Kentucky be beat?

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, or “March Madness,” is a single-elimination tournament that has become hugely popular in large part due to annual upsets and underdog runs that dominate the early weekends of the bracket. Last year, a seventh seed (UConn) played an eight-seed (Kentucky) for the championship. This year looked to be no exception, with two 14th seeds reaching the second round and five games being decided by one point on the first day of the tournament.

But, since day one, this season has been different. Preseason favorite Kentucky remains unblemished, with 38 wins and no losses but Wisconsin and Duke have looked potentially dominant, impressively dismantling Arizona and Gonzaga in their respective Elite Eight matchups. Two weeks after 64 hopeful teams took the field, we’re left with Michigan State against Duke and Wisconsin versus Kentucky. The Final Four has everything you need — start power, history, a David, and a Goliath — and it’s bound to be thrilling.

The primary headline of this year’s Final Four is the success and prestige these four programs and their coaches have. Their combined 133-18 winning percentage is the fifth highest ever in the Final Four. All these schools have made the Final Four at least once since 2010, MSU and Duke in 2010 and UK and UW most recently last year — these teams are good. For the second time since the year 2000, there are three #1 seeds in the Final Four and these have been the top three teams in most peoples’ minds from the get go. The odd one out? A Michigan State team that, while an underdog seed at #7, has been a power program for a very long time and whose coach, Tom Izzo, holds the record for most tournament wins as the lower seed. Let us also not forget that last year’s champion, UConn, was also a seventh seed and was led by a scoring guard against Kentucky.

If the familiarity and dominance of these teams wasn’t enough, this year’s UK squad has a chance to be arguably the greatest team of all time by going 40-0. The last two teams to enter this stage of the tournament undefeated? Both eventually lost. UNLV lost in the 1991 semifinals to Duke and Larry Bird’s Indiana State lost in the championship game in 1979 to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. Curious. Head coach John Calipari will have to overcome them as well as UW to become the first undefeated champion since 1976.

One thing that makes it all so fun is the matchup itself. Not only will Kentucky take the court with a chance of ending their winning streak, but they could lose to a veteran Wisconsin team seeking revenge for last year’s Final Four matchup between the same two teams. The game ended as a UK victory on a shot with under six seconds left. These teams have been absolutely dominant all season long, they know and dislike each other and their history adds to the intrigue. They also exemplify the difference between old school college hoops and new school as Kentucky’s rotation is five-eighths players who didn’t play in last year’s final while Wisconsin never played a freshman in the Elite Eight.

The other semifinal matchup isn’t too shabby either. Duke boasts two projected lottery picks, with Jahlil Okafor looking a potential number one overall and Justice Winslow a future two-way force at the sport’s highest level. Beyond that, point guard Tyus Jones looks to be a mid-first round selection if he declares for the draft this year and has been a stud all around. Surround that trio of freshmen with veteran captain sniper Quinn Cook and big man Amile Jefferson and the overall talent on this squad is superlative.

Michigan State had a less-than-impressive regular season, with four more losses than the other three Final Four teams combined, and finished as the 23rd ranked team (the other three were all top four). That said, Travis Trice was just named the Most Outstanding Player in the East region of this year’s tournament and made the all-region team (top five players in the bracket), helping MSU beat Louisville to the tune of 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. However, it is the other Michigan State player Denzel Valentine to make the All-East Regional team who has been the key cog in their offense, and whose all-around game makes this team go. He finished with 15, 7, and 6 against Louisville and looks to have another big game this weekend.

In an American sports culture that is so based around star players, this slate of games is surprisingly headlined by the head coaches despite the obvious plethora of potential NBA lottery talent. Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), has led Duke to a record 12 Final Fours — tied with John Wooden for the most all time —  is tied for second in titles with four and is the winningest coach in men’s Division I basketball. He is indisputably one of the top basketball coaches of all time.
John Calipari is doing his best to put himself in position to assume the same title at the end of his career, winning a title in 2012, getting back to the championship round last year, and  now one win away from the same point again. He is a recruiting machine, routinely attracting top five-star recruits, and has actually coached three top overall picks in the NBA since 2010 with a high likelihood of adding another this season. While Bo Ryan of Wisconsin has never won March Madness, he knows how to win, having won the Big Ten conference four times, Big Ten tournament three times, even the NCAA Division III tournament four times and is a four time Big Ten Coach of the Year. Tom Izzo of Michigan State has been coaching at MSU in some regard since 1983, making seven Final Fours (winning one title), winning four Big Ten tournaments and seven Big Ten regular seasons as a three-time Big Ten coach of the year and a one-time national coach of the year. These coaches have systems in place; they know how to adapt, recruit star players, and put them in the best possible position to win. None of these squads will beat themselves.

Expect fireworks when these teams take the court in Indianapolis, as any of them have a legitimate claim to the title and none of them plan on watching anyone else raise it. There is too much talent, too much coaching pedigree, too much desire for these matchups not to be historic. Will Bo Ryan win his first title? Will Kentucky become the first team to go 40-0? Will MSU become the second consecutive seventh seed to win the tournament? Or will Coach K add to his already existing hall of fame career with a fifth win? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.

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