Monday, March 30, 2015

March Madness: And then there were Four

After an excellent first weekend, there was some fear the second couldn’t live up to the excitement the first four days gave us. And some would argue the Thursday and Friday games justified that fear – with Michigan State – Oklahoma the only one to go down to the wire. But then the weekend came around and all four games were still in the balance with less than 8 minutes to play, even as Gonzaga and Arizona faded late. With the 12 games that made up the long weekend, we are down to the Final Four – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State – and have a better idea of who might be playing for that Championship, and arguably winning it.

The first game of the four pitted Arizona versus Wisconsin in a repeat of the Elite 8 matchup from last year. Arizona started slowly and Wisconsin built a big early lead, but then the Wildcats found their game and crawled back to take a three-point halftime lead. Unfortunately, that was the same advantage they had going into the second half last year, before blowing the game late. This year, they were outscored by 10 in the second half (55-45), with Wisconsin hitting three after three (10 in total) to roll past the Wildcats yet again, with Frank Kaminsky’s 29 points the most impressive performance of a team whose offensive prowess (they were the top scoring team last year) sorely underestimated yet again. Arizona will have to wait another year, having lost in their last five trips to the Elite 8, while Wisconsin will hope to pull off the upset of the tournament next Saturday.

Kentucky came into their matchup with the Fighting Irish a mere three games the first perfect season in 39 years, with a team that many assumed would make quick work of the smaller Notre Dame. But something funny happened on the way to their coronation – the underdogs outplayed them for large stretched of the game, tied at halftime and leading for much of the second half. But for a few lucky plays, some clutch free throw and making their last nine shots of the game, the upset would have been completed. Even with that impressive late game display, the Irish will look back at a few missed opportunities that could have secured one of the greatest upsets in recent memory. Instead, Kentucky heads to Indianapolis for a rematch with their Big 10 foe from last year. Given how impressive the Badger’s offense looked against Arizona, they will need to improve to win that game. I still wouldn’t bet against them.

The third game matched two teams with iconic coaches that few expected to be this far in the tournament – Tom Izzo’s Michigan State against Rick Pitino’s Louisville. It was a back-and-forth affair from beginning to end, with Louisville taking the early lead, Michigan responding and then a late run right before halftime giving the Cardinals an 8-point lead. A dramatic offensive collapse by Louisville in the second half, not an uncommon occurrence with this mercurial shooting team, saw a drop in productivity from 40 to 25 points, while Michigan scored 33 (after 32 in the first half). Michigan was playing impressive D, particularly down the stretch and in the OT period, but failed to put the game away, and were actually lucky not to lose, as Louisville missed one of their last two free throws in regulation. But Valentine and Trice stepped up in overtime and Dawson had 11 rebounds, including the critical one, putting in a Forbes’ miss with 31.7 seconds left in the game. The only team not expected to be here, they will certainly make Duke nervous.

And they should be, after a less than impressive display against Gonzaga that could have easily seen this young team (with three freshman starters) out if not for the Zags shooting 37.5 percent from the field and going ice cold after Kyle Wiltjer missed a gimme layup that would have tied the game at 53 with about seven minutes to play. Gonzaga, incredibly, only scored 1 point for the rest of the game, missing shot after shot (when they didn’t turn the ball over) as they fell away and Duke pounced. The final score of 66-52 belies a tight game, which Gonzaga actually led 38-34 less than four minutes into the second half before allowing the Blue Devils to go on a 9-0 run. The young Duke team did show real resolve, but the fall off in form on three separate occasions within the 40 minutes means they will have to improve dramatically on this performance if they are to take down a suddenly hot Michigan State.

Looking at the two match-ups, it is hard to go against Kentucky, though they will have to find a way to stop Kaminsky and get out to defend the deadly Wisconsin three. I see them winning the game though. And with Duke-Michigan State, I am going to go with the upset, with Tom Izzo’s men outplaying Coach K’s first foray into coaching a team of youngsters. Both games should be good, and might well come down to the wire, as half of the quartet from the last two days have. Should be fun to watch!

No comments: