Without undefeated Kentucky, this year's title game won't be historic. But it's still loaded with intrigue
At the start of the 2014-15 college basketball season, 351 Division I teams had a chance to win the national championship. Going into this weekend, four teams remained: undefeated Kentucky and Wisconsin on one side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan State on the other. Let’s face it: Duke-Kentucky would have been a dandy final. Both programs have a national imprint. Dynastic Duke is the New York Yankees, or Dallas Cowboys, of college hoops. Kentucky is not only a blue blood program, but more recently it’s a factory of future NBA talent led by a divisive coach, master salesman John Calipari. The NCAA had already nullified two Final Four appearances of his prior teams, UMass and Memphis.
Imagine Calipari’s Cats just needing to get by the venerable Coach K, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, to complete the first perfect season in major men’s college basketball since 1976. The good vs. evil narrative, trite as it is, would write itself. The cunning Calipari, the man whose system of shuttling players to the NBA after a year of college is a supposed affront to higher education, on one side, against Coach K, molder of student-athletes at prestigious Duke. That match-up guaranteed a monster TV rating.
Well, it’s not happening. Duke held up its end, as the Blue Devils trounced Michigan State, 81-61. However, Wisconsin gutted out a thrilling 71-64 victory over Kentucky to squash the Wildcats’ dreams of perfection. Plus, the Calipari/Krzyzewski clash is hogwash. If anything, Krzyzewski has copycatted Calipari’s strategy of recruiting NBA-ready players who are only in college because NBA rules require that they spend a year in school before they’re drafted. Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker left Duke after just one year in 2011, 2012 and 2014, respectively; this year, Duke freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are locks to be high first-round picks. Freshman guard Tyrus Jones could also go pro. So who’s one-and-done U here?
According to the ol’ eye test, the Blue Devils were just too good for Michigan State on Saturday night. They should swarm Wisconsin too. In the first half against Kentucky, the Badgers needed a few crazy shots to go in to stay ahead. In the end, the skills of Wisconsin stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker—combined with some sloppy execution by Kentucky, which relied too much on guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison to create scoring chances, rather than give the ball to the big men—made the difference.
On Sunday, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he got numerous texts from people reminding him that when the Team USA hockey team beat the Soviet Union to complete the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. still had to defeat Finland in the gold medal game. It’s cute to compare Wisconsin’s win over Kentucky to the Miracle on Ice, or even to Duke’s upset of the undefeated UNLV team in the 1991 national semis, but both comparisons are off. That Soviet team was unbeatable, and on paper a bunch of American amateurs had no conceivable shot to win. That UNLV team was not only undefeated, but it crushed everyone all year and had the same nucleus as the team that won the national title in 1990. Kentucky had a few close calls this season, including one just last week against Notre Dame in the regional final. The Wildcats had a perfect season going, but they weren’t a perfect team. It’s not entirely stunning that they lost.
And Duke, I suspect, poses a bigger challenge than the Fins—relatively speaking. If the Badgers are to beat Duke on Monday night, they’ll have to pull off the same feat they did against the Wildcats: make tough shots against a bunch of future pros. That’s difficult to do for two straight games.
One observer’s prognosis: one-and-done U will win the title. Just not the one most people expected.