Editor’s Note: Whether coaching or forecasting, Bobby Gonzalez knows college basketball. He went 8-0 picking games in the Sweet Sixteen a year ago, 7-1 in that round this year and 3-1 in last weekend’s regional finals. This is not some Bozo. It’s Gonzo. He knows what he’s talking about.
It was 1991 and I was standing in the crowd at the Final Four as a New York City high school coach, watching All-American Larry Johnson of the dominant, unbeaten UNLV team miss a forced, off-balance jump shot against Duke.
As the buzzer sounded, I can remember how scores of UNLV fans literally stood and stared in shock at the court as reality set in that their perfect 34-0 season had just come to a crashing halt. They were unable to move, maybe hoping that if they stood there long enough, somehow the result would change. Later that night, I saw a bunch of them trying to scalp their championship game tickets. Such are the highs and lows of March.
Fast-forward to this year’s fantastic game between unbeaten Kentucky and Notre Dame in the regional final. The game was tied in the last seconds, and the camera panned the crowd of the Big Blue Nation. There was actress and loyal fan Ashley Judd, who was so nervous she could not watch.
I saw that same look on the Kentucky fans faces that the UNLV fans had.
Then Andrew Harrison made those two clutch free throws with six seconds left, and Jerian Grant’s last shot missed as the buzzer sounded. Now here we are in Indianapolis with Kentucky at 38-0 and playing for history to become the first team to finish undefeated since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers did it in 1976.
In this year’s Final Four, we also have three No. 1 seeds and a Michigan State team led by Tom Izzo – better known as Mr. March – here as a somewhat unexpected seventh seed. We have four traditional names in Kentucky (SEC), Duke (ACC) and Wisconsin and Michigan State (both Big Ten).
We have four iconic Hall of Fame coaches who have a combined 27 Final Fours among them. The NCAA can say whatever it wants about Kentucky coach John Calipari’s vacated Final Four trips with UMass and Memphis. I was there and saw them with my own eyes, Coach Cal has been to six Final Fours, not four.
More than anything else, the Final Four is always about the players, and this Final Four has five of the top 10 projected picks in this June’s draft, including the consensus 1-2 in big men Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. Add to that fifth-ranked prospect Justice Winslow of Duke, sixth-ranked Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky and 10th-ranked Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin, who is expected to be named national Player of the Year. There will also be projected first-round picks such as Kentucky’s Devin Booker and Trey Lyles and Duke’s Tyus Jones.
There are also always some compelling stories and matchups of great college players who may or may not pan out to be good NBA players. For those who don’t make it, players such as those on Michigan State will have one of their last opportunities on a stage this big. The showdown between senior point guard Travis Trice of Michigan State against senior point guard Quinn Cook of Duke comes to mind – a great matchup between kids who epitomize what their schools and programs stand for.
I truly believe that this Final Four has the chance to be one of the greatest ever. It’s not often that you get all the emperors, dons and made men all in the same place at the same time. Unlike recent years, this Final Four is strictly for the big boys; mid-majors need not apply.
Just the matchup alone between Izzo and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in the semifinals sums it up. They have a combined 176 games coached in the NCAA Tournament, the most ever for Final Four coaching matchup. I can’t wait until they tip it this Saturday and get in that 94-by-50 ring together.
Without further ado, here are my picks and breakdowns for Saturday’s semifinals and the holy grail of the college game, Monday’s national championship.
Duke (1) vs. Michigan State (7)
I absolutely love and respect Izzo, especially in a 40-minute elimination situation because he adheres to what I believed in as a coach: There is no such thing as too much preparation, and no detail is too small. So there is no question in my mind that the Spartans will be ready for Duke. But I do believe there is a reason that Coach K has won eight of his nine meetings against Izzo.
I believe Duke will come out on top in this one and stop the unexpected magical run of the Spartans. This is actually a difficult pick for me because as much as I love this Duke team and its sensational young guys, this Spartans team with junkyard dog Brandon Dawson, versatile and underrated Denzel Valentine and the ultimate confident leader in Trice is my kind of blue-collar, bring-your-lunch-pail squad.
Okafor is due for a big game after struggling a bit against Gonzaga with foul trouble. I think he will be too much inside for MSU’s big men tandem of Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. I also think Duke guards Jones and Cook will win the little guy battle against Trice and Bryn Forbes.
Winslow and Okafor will be the X-factors that will get Coach K to Monday night and a chance to win a remarkable fifth national championship. I also think Duke’s pressure defense will be a big factor and will give the Blue Devils the edge they need to get by the spirited Spartans.
Kentucky (1) vs. Wisconsin (1)
The Badgers, having dissected the film of the Kentucky-Notre Dame game in the Elite Eight, will realize they also are capable of doing everything the Fighting Irish did and what they need to do to beat Kentucky. They will need to control the tempo and try to keep the game in the 60s, spread the floor with great spacing and use their shooting and passing ability to take Kentucky’s bigs away from the rim and paint, move them around and neutralize their shot-blocking ability. Kaminsky has the range on his shot to do that.
If Wisconsin can somehow make 10 3-pointers in a half as it did against Arizona, the Badgers can certainly find themselves in the title game. Another important factor for the Badgers is the ability to control the defensive boards and keep Kentucky from getting second and third chances. The Wildcats have tremendous size and are an outstanding offensive rebounding team.
Although I know Bo Ryan is a great coach and Wisconsin also has the revenge factor after getting knocked out in a war that could have gone either way in this same game one year ago, I believe that dodging the bullet against Notre Dame will actually help Kentucky in this contest.
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I believe the length and athleticism factor for the Wildcats – along with their superior depth – will wear down the Badgers and cause foul trouble for their big men. I also feel a big key which will help Kentucky advance is that it did a good job of not letting Kaminsky get on track last year – and that was without Cauley-Stein, an exceptional defender who can guard either Kaminsky or Sam Dekker with his great length and lateral quickness. That will be the difference.
Overall, Kentucky is the better, more talented team and will survive and advance for a chance at history.
Kentucky (1) vs. Duke (1)
In a battle of two coaches and programs who represent the pinnacle of the sport, this matchup will have a chance to have the greatest national audience and ratings since the 1979 title game with Larry Bird and unbeaten Indiana State against Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
I believe Kentucky will prevail over Duke, get to 40-0 and reach history. The Wildcats are the ultimate closer team; they are the Mariano Rivera of college hoops. When they are in a war, they play with unbelievable poise and always play to win instead of playing not to lose, which is huge.
The highly anticipated matchup of big men Okafor and Towns, who also are competing for the top pick in the draft, should bring back memories of Hakeem Olajuwon against Pat Ewing in the title game some 30-odd years ago. While all eyes will be on this matchup, however, the difference in the game will actually be the size of the Harrison twins against the small guards of Duke.
Specifically, I think Andrew Harrison, who has been Mr. Clutch for the Wildcats in the last two NCAA Tournaments, will make all the big shots and big plays to become the Most Outstanding Player of the national championship game and help the undefeated Wildcats cut down the nets for Coach Cal’s second title.