Monday, April 06, 2015

Final Four Wrap Up: Kentucky KO’d; Coach K’s Drive for Five Alive

And then there were two, and not necessarily the two most people expected. Sure, many had Duke ending the Cinderella story of Michigan State but how many thought Wisconsin would win their rematch with Kentucky? More than you might think, but with 5:30 left in the game, after coming back from two large deficits (by their standards), Kentucky was up four with the ball, poised to register their 39th win of the season and one away from becoming the eighth team in history to go undefeated. Then something funny happened on the way to coronation – they went cold, going five possessions without a point as Wisconsin’s stuttering offense came back to life. Wisconsin finished the game on a 13 to 4 run, ultimately winning a tight game by an unrepresentative seven points. It was heartbreaking for the Wildcats who sacrificed the NBA draft to return for another chance at the title that eluded them last year by seven points (to a Connecticut team that won two in four years). Now they head to the NBA draft and millions of dollars knowing they were a few made shots, a few questionable calls going the other way and a quality effort against Duke from realizing their dreams.

Let’s start with the first semifinal though, a game that probably should have been much closer than the twenty-point 81-61 Duke victory. In fact, Michigan State started their game against Duke strongly, rolling to an early 14-6 lead. And then they forgot how to shoot the ball, how to make layups or free throws or how to play interior defense. Duke steamrolled them as they failed to convert possession after possession until they found themselves down 11 points at halftime. A couple of second half runs brought them within striking distance, but an efficient Duke offense led by Winslow’s 19 points (together with Okafor’s 18 and Quinn Cook’s 17) was unwilling to let that lead fall back to single digits and the game was soon beyond the Spartan’s reach. It was an impressive display by a Duke team playing its best basketball at the right end of the season, but purely abject from a surprisingly inept Tom Izzo team. The Blue Devils will now seek to build on the dynasty their iconic coach has been building for 30 years now.

They will face a Wisconsin team that came into their game yesterday with the best offense in the nation against Kentucky’s best defense. Kentucky was in their fourth final four in five years, tied for the most wins in NCAA history at 38, had the coach of the year in Calipari and were two games from perfection and matching the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is a team with a coach who is a certainty for the Hall of Fame but who lacks the championship most think one needs to enter the pantheon of “greatness.” Many thought he would have to wait another year for a shot, but the stars seemed to align in just the right way, including a few questionable foul calls against Kentucky, a clear shot clock violation that gave Wisconsin an important two points in the final three minutes and a Kentucky team that suddenly went ice cold, failing to score on six of seven possessions as their lead became a deficit too far. In the end, as the old adage goes, great offense great beat defense down the stretch as Kentucky flailed and Wisconsin did just enough to erase a late first half surge by the Wildcats that tied the game at 36 and a six-minute scoreless patch of their own that gave the Wildcats their slender four-point lead. Yet the statistics tell the real story, as a Wisconsin team that ranked 262nd in the country in offense rebounds outpaced Kentucky 12-6. They shot 47.6 percent from the field, 13 points higher than the Kentucky average this season, and went 10 of 20 from the three-point line. And when it counted most, they made 7 of 8 from the line to ice the game after Dekker came up huge with a bucket to end the scoreless streak, a tip in when the shot clock was clearly at 0 to tie the game and then a three that gave the Badgers a lead at 1:42 they would build on until the final whistle. Kentucky follows the 1991 UNLV team that came into their semifinal game against Duke undefeated as well, only to see their dreams left in tatters. Now Ryan will have a shot against the man who beat that unbeatable Rebel’s team and who many consider the greatest coach in the history of the sport, recognizing the changes in the game since Wooden built his 10-title dynasty. 

A day after the heartbreaking loss, Calipari was ironically elected into the basketball Hall of Fame, but one has to assume it is little solace to a coach that thought this was the year to match Bobby Knight’s improbably run. It is also little solace to merchandisers, who are in line to lose millions with Kentucky ousted a game too soon. Instead we face the prospect of a first title for Bo Ryan or a fifth for the coach many, including me, love to hate. Game on!

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