And then there were four. After a thrilling weekend of basketball that saw the Fighting Izzos continue their amazing record against expectations and return to the Final Four, and Kentucky narrowly avoid losing to Notre Dame, three games remain in the 2014-15 NCAA men’s basketball season. Who will emerge victorious? We can give you the probabilities, but they still have to play the games. Read on for what to watch as the field gets whittled down to two teams…
Midwest No. 1 Kentucky (69 percent win probability) vs. West No. 1 Wisconsin
When to watch: At 8:49 p.m. EDT on TBS
Power ratings: Kentucky 99.1, Wisconsin 94.4
FiveThirtyEight model point spread: Kentucky by 4.5
Upset probability: 31 percent
Players to watch: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky; Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Thanks to the NCAA tournament selection committee’s seeding of Wisconsin fourth in its overall rankings — behind Villanova and Duke — we get what might be the de facto national championship game on Saturday night in the national semifinals. This matchup has it all: the two best remaining teams in the country (according to our power ratings), the two best players in the country (according to Ken Pomeroy’s Player of the Year metric) in Karl-Anthony Towns and Frank Kaminsky, and a clash between the nation’s top offense and its best defense.
Wisconsin’s offense is scary good in the half-court, especially when using its size in the post, but the Badgers may have met their match with this Kentucky defense. The Wildcats’ frontcourt is the biggest in Division I basketball, headlined by the nation’s top defensive tandem in the 6-foot-11 Towns and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. Thanks in large part to those twin towers, they boasted the country’s second-best block rate and its fifth-best defensive efficiency against post-ups1. It’s tough to envision Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes performing as well as usual against Kentucky’s massive front line.
Then again, the size of this matchup cuts both ways. Wisconsin is the biggest team Kentucky has faced all season, and the Wildcats’ habits of scoring inside the arc, getting to the line and corralling offensive rebounds will be restrained against a huge Badger squad. Kentucky’s outstanding transition game might also suffer against a Wisconsin team known for taking the air out of the ball and forcing its opponents into half-court affairs.
Ultimately, though, it’s going to be hard for Wisconsin to upend the undefeated Wildcats. In some ways, Notre Dame’s sharpshooting style made them a better candidate to end Kentucky’s winning streak than the Badgers — it’s 3-point shooting, offensive rebounding and swarming for turnovers on defense that create havoc. The Badgers rely more on conventional aspects of the game — such as interior efficiency and ball protection. The FiveThirtyEight model still gives Wisconsin a 31 percent shot at pulling the upset, but Wisconsin doesn’t seem to possess many special giant-killing traits that would make it more prone to knocking off Kentucky than its overall power rating suggests.
South No. 1 Duke (67 percent win probability) vs. East No. 7 Michigan State
When to watch: At 6:09 p.m. on TBS
Power ratings: Duke 93.9, Michigan State 88.5
FiveThirtyEight model point spread: Duke by 4
Upset probability: 33 percent
Players to watch: Jahlil Okafor, Duke; Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Is it possible for a Duke team to quietly make the Final Four? If so, this Blue Devils squad has pulled off that feat, taking care of its business against Gonzaga with relatively little commotion. According to Pomeroy’s win probability chart for the game, the Blue Devils only dropped below a 50 percent likelihood of victory for a 90-second stretch early in the second half. They then buried the Zags for good with a 32-14 run to close the game.
It’s not that Duke lacks star power. Swingman Justise Winslow, who scored 21 points and nabbed 10 rebounds in the Elite 8 against Utah, ranks sixth in ESPN’s top 100 NBA draft prospects — but he isn’t even the best player on this team (that would be center Jahlil Okafor). Four-fifths of the Blue Devils’ starting lineup had a Box Plus-Minus of 9.0 or better this season, a mark only matched by Kentucky, Wisconsin and Arizona. By the Simple Rating System, this is the top Duke team in at least2 four years, if not the best since they won it all in 2010. Only Kentucky has a higher probability of winning the championship, per the FiveThirtyEight model.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise if Duke is the last team left to challenge Kentucky’s unbeaten campaign, in a rematch of what was arguably the greatest game in NCAA tournament history.
But Duke will have to beat Michigan State first, and — as usual — the Spartans have proven extremely difficult to knock out of the tournament. In this matchup, they might exploit a comparatively average Duke transition defense and they certainly won’t be fazed by the Blue Devils’ unwillingness to put opponents on the line (Michigan State is a notably bad free throw-shooting team). Just don’t expect the Spartans to go wild from long range. The Blue Devils are highly committed to daring opponents into beating them from inside the arc, which isn’t Michigan State’s favorite game plan.
This game might be decided at the other end of the floor anyway. Michigan State’s defense is not aggressive — the Spartans prefer to stay disciplined in the half-court on shooters and pick-and-rolls, forcing teams into misses on which they can gobble up rebounds. Trouble is, Duke’s offense has the size and skill to neutralize those strengths, plus an enormous advantage on the break: according to Synergy’s points-per-play data, Duke’s transition offense ranked in the 99th percentile of Division I teams, while Michigan State’s transition defense ranked in the 4th percentile.
In other words, the outcome here could hinge on whether the Spartans can make the Blue Devils grind out their possessions in the half-court, force misses, rebound well and generate 3-point looks on offense. According to the data, that won’t be easy. Then again, Michigan State is no stranger to defying the odds come tournament time.
Read more of FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness coverage: