Indianapolis — Two ways of viewing Kentucky’s narrow escape against Notre Dame: That was the close game that every champion-to-be must endure, or it was a sign that the Wildcats aren’t as great as they’ve been cracked up to be. I lean toward the former, but I must say: The final two steps for the Big Blue could be treacherous.
Wisconsin doesn’t play as fast as Notre Dame — almost nobody does, and the Badgers are known for their meticulous ways — but it’s even more precise. It’s also much bigger. Georgia coach Mark Fox said this week that he believes Wisconsin has the best chance of the three remaining teams to beat the unbeaten, and Fox knows more than a bit about the ‘Cats.
Me, I actually think Kentucky — having played Wisconsin in last year’s Final Four and having just slipped past Notre Dame — is steeled for the Badgers. As West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said last week, a team playing Kentucky must get baskets in transition because the Big Blue is so stifling in the half-court.
Wisconsin doesn’t run much, but it still scored an astonishing 55 points in the second half against Arizona in the West Regional final, and Arizona ranks third — behind Kentucky and Virginia — in adjusted defense efficiency. (This according to the estimable Ken Pomeroy.) The Badgers made 66.7 percent of their second-half shots, 88.3 percent of their second-half treys.
If they do that against Kentucky, they’ll beat Kentucky, too. I just don’t see anybody making 10 of 12 treys over the Wildcats. (Notre Dame made four all game.)
To me, the bigger challenge for Kentucky would be Duke. (I’m assuming the Devils will beat Michigan State because Duke has better players and Tom Izzo is 1-8 against Mike Krzyzewski.) In Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, Duke has three one-and-done-level talents. This is the only team in the land that can come close to matching Kentucky’s manpower.
But I could be wrong. (I thought Georgia would beat Michigan State in the round of 64, though I was kind of right about the East Regional opening up for the winner of that game.) The final could be Wisconsin versus Michigan State, and when those two met in the 2000 Final Four, the halftime score was 19-17.
Wisconsin is much less ponderous under Bo Ryan than it was under Dick Bennett, but still: Kentucky-Duke would be a final for the ages; Badgers-Spartans would be a repeat of the Big Ten championship game. (Wisconsin won in overtime.) And if memory serves, the past two Kentucky-Duke NCAA tournament meetings have been halfway decent.
Further reading: Ryan’s hope — that Wisconsin renders Kentucky 38-1.