Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 4/1/15

If the Duke Blue Devils win it all, does Mike Krzyzewski deserve to be considered the all-time greatest college hoops coach? Lance King/Getty Images

By Ken Pomonio

Unblemished Kentucky. Top-seeded Wisconsin and Duke. Tom Izzo’s upstart Michigan State squad.

This year’s storied Final Foursome has had a whole season to build a bevy of pre-conceived outside notions and elicit a variety of opinions on the winding road to Indy. Now, with the national semifinals only days away, it’s time to separate the fact from fiction.

In piloting Duke to its 12th Final Four and tying John Wooden for the most career appearances, Coach K has a legitimate claim as the all-time greatest college hoops coach.

FACT. Even if the Blue Devils capture their fifth national title next Monday, many critics will still be quick to point out that Mike Krzyzewski will still only be halfway to Wooden’s all-time mark. But let’s dig a little deeper here. For all but one of the Wizard of Westwood’s championship seasons, the NCAA Tournament featured between 22 and 25 teams, compared to 64–68 in Coach K’s era.

Even though freshmen were ineligible for a good part of Wooden’s tenure, he still benefited mightily from three All-America seasons apiece from Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton and two each from Sidney Wicks and Jamaal Wilkes. And while Duke’s back-to-back title teams in 1991–92 were built around All-America upperclassman Christian Laettner and the rising Grant Hill, Krzyzewski has spent the majority of his career in the one-and-done—or even none-and-done—era for blue-chip studs. Big advantage to Coach K.

Guards remain the key ingredient in the championship recipe.

FICTION. Uh, not among this quartet. Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), Jalili Okafor (Duke), and Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky) are leading their respective teams in Big Dance scoring and not one of them is shorter than 6’11”. In addition, Kaminsky, Okafor, and Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s 7-foot defensive-minded monster, comprise three-fifths of the Associated Press All-America first team and Wooden Award finalist list—an award which is expected to be a jump ball between the Wisconsin senior and Duke freshman.

Meanwhile, a pair of 6’6” swingmen in Justise Winslow (Duke) and Branden Dawson (Michigan State) who do their best work in the paint and on the glass as the postseason’s top-two total rebounders. Finally, let’s not leave out Badgers’ 6’9” Sam Dekker, who can also step outside with deadly accuracy. Arizona, for one, won’t soon forget his 5-of-6 three-point performance in the West Regional final. In short, after is all said and dunked Monday night, there might not be any room left for a true guard on the all-tourney team.

There figures to be an attendance record set in Indy this weekend—for NBA scouts.

FACT. Check out the latest nbadraft.net mock draft. Nine of the 30 projected first-rounders—including likely top-10 selections in Okafor, Towns, Winslow, Trey Lyles, and Cauley-Stein—will be on the court Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Five more, including the Spartans’ duo of Dawson and Travis Trice, are projected to come off the board in the second round. That means essentially a fourth (14) of the 60 likely NBA draft picks in late June—including a whopping seven Wildcats—will play this weekend.

Revenge will be a key factor in Saturday’s second semifinal.

FICTION. Avenging last year’s 74–73 Final Four loss to Kentucky—a captivating contest capped by Aaron Harrison’s NBA-range three-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining—will certainly be on the minds of Kaminsky and Co. this week, but it’s a motivation mainly forgotten once the actual game tips off. And—more importantly—the games themselves rarely stick to that dish-served-cold script. Just ask the Badgers’ last opponent, Arizona, which had revenge on its mind after last season’s overtime loss to Wisconsin in the West Region final. So what happened? The Badgers held the lead for most of the game and won fairly easily, 85–78.

The previous weekend, Michigan State and Virginia squared off in the round of 32, with the second-seeded Cavaliers yearning to avenge their 61–59 Sweet 16 setback against the Spartans a year earlier. What happened? Michigan State broke the hearts of Tony Bennett’s crew again, this time by a 60–54 count. So Badger Nation, just don’t bank on the revenge factor putting your team over the top in Indy.

Michigan State’s inspired roll isn’t about to get interrupted by its off-target free throw shooting.

FICTION. Of the 148 Division I teams to have played this postseason, the Spartans rank 116th in free throw shooting at 62.5 percent. That’s somehow even worse than their regular-season accuracy rate of 63.3—which ranked 336th among 351 teams—and yet Izzo and Co. find themselves a win away from playing for a national championship. The Spartans, however, are about to step up in class. In their four East Regional wins, none of the Michigan State’s opponents shot better than 36.7 percent from the field and hit a combined 68.2 percent of their own charity attempts.

Contrast that with the Spartans’ three Final Four compatriots who are all shooting three percentage points better than Michigan State (42.5) from the floor and are all converting at least 73.8 percent from the foul line. In other words, missing more than every third free throw this time around will almost assuredly guarantee the Spartans will miss out on Monday in a Final Four where they will have precious few advantages as it is.

Even a milestone 40–0 finish won’t guarantee that Kentucky will go down be the greatest college hoops team of all-time.

FACT. The 1990 and ’91 UNLV teams, the vintage late ’60s/early ’70s UCLA squads featuring Alcindor and Walton and Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana bunch—of course the last team to finish the season undefeated—were all seasoned, upperclassmen-dominated units in an era where one-and-done players didn’t exist and programs filled in around a core group of stars and standouts over multiple seasons.

40–0? Wooden and Walton’s Bruins reeled off a record 88 straight wins and three national titles from 1971–74. In fact, John Calipari’s crew might not even prove to be Big Blue’s best-ever team as Rick Pitino’s 1996 squad featured five first-round draft picks, nine NBA players in all and won its NCAA tourney tilts by a six-game tourney-record average of 21.5 points.

Forget the regular-season gripes about low scores and boring games, the all-around success of 2015 NCAA tourney shows the sport is in great shape.

FICTION. Despite the glowing TV ratings and the captivating contests and intriguing storylines we’ve followed this March, the game is in need of some tweaks. Scoring was down, and the pace of play similarly slowed during the regular season. Meanwhile, the turnover rate increased and so has the angst level of the casual fan, many of whom are turned off by the sluggish, physical play which is only exacerbated by the timeout-riddled closing three minutes of the seemingly few games which are actually close and somewhat interesting.

The one-and-done era—while at least bringing the most promising prospects to campus for a season—still hasn’t exactly been beneficial to the overall game. The one-season rentals of blue-chip prospects—many of whom are enrolled for all of a single semester—is a “student-athlete” sham. Meanwhile, from the outside perspective, the continuity is simply lacking from season to season as fans are having to familiarize themselves with completely new casts of characters each year, especially with the most recognizable programs.

In short, it’s going to take more than one shining tournament to get the game headed back in the right direction. And it should start with offseason rules changes, beginning with the reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds, widening the lane, cracking down on the clutch-and-grab defensive tactics, possibly moving back the three-point arc and trimming the seemingly endless supply of timeouts coaches have at their disposal. Let the players play.

Speaking of players playing, a talented Wisconsin team nor Izzo’s March magic won’t be enough to prevent an anticipated Duke-Kentucky championship showdown.

FACT. In the first semifinal, the Blue Devils simply have too much for the Spartans, especially with Okafor now receiving plenty of help from a rapidly emerging supporting cast, headed by Winslow and the backcourt Jones duo of Tyus and Matt. Expect something similar to Duke’s 81–71 win over Michigan State on Nov. 18, a matchup that also happened to be in Indy. In Saturday’s nightcap, look for Kaminsky and Dekker to have their moments, but unless the Badgers go 10-for-12 from long range again in the second half, Kentucky will take control. It also must be mentioned that Kaminsky only had eight points and five rebounds in last year’s Final Four matchup, and now he’ll have to deal with Cauley-Stein who didn’t play in that game.

As for Monday night, with a near-record TV audience tuning in, it will be a back and forth title tilt most of the way, but you just get the feeling that Calipari’s crew already has gotten through its toughest test in surviving Notre Dame, and they’ll methodically—but not necessarily prettily—pull away down the stretch. In the end, it’ll be the Wildcats—the 40-0 history making Wildcats—cutting down the nets.

This article first appeared on The Sports Post and was syndicated with permission.


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