I have been awfully quiet since my last post and a lot has happened. About three weeks ago I posted my tournament picks, but unlike the tournament itself, my bracket was far from memorable.
I usually have a pretty solid bracket, at least until the Final Four, but this year I crumbled throughout with just one team making it to Indianapolis (Kentucky). My champion, the Arizona Wildcats, were bounced in the Elite 8 by the eventual finalist Wisconsin Badgers. MY runner up, the Iowa State Cyclones, were upset on the first day by 14 seed UAB. Possibly my dreadful picks along with my procrastination tendencies during spring break hindered my willingness to write about the 2015 NCAA tournament. Or maybe I was consumed by the madness. Either way, it was a hell of a postseason.
The tournament began with the Kentucky Wildcats the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Indy. John Calipari’s squad entered the madness 34-0. Just six short wins away from perfection and eternal glory. Other 1 seeds included the Villanova Wildcats in the East Region, the Wisconsin Badgers in the West and the Duke Blue Devils in the South. The top seeds would ultimately own this tournament. Despite Villanova falling in just the second round to N.C. State, Duke and Wisconsin would advance to Indy along with the now 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats. The fourth finalist was the unlikely 7 seeded Michigan State Spartans who shattered many brackets with their remarkable run.
Final Four weekend and the tournament came to an official end just over an hour ago, and it was one we will always remember. All four qualifiers had incredible seasons and saved their best basketball for when it counted most while reaching Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. But only one would cut down the nets.
Michigan State Spartans – Champions of the East Region
Not many people picked Sparty to advance to the Final Four, but not many teams have a coach like Tom Izzo. Michigan State exploited the weaknesses of the top seeds in the East en route to Izzo’s sixth Semi Finals appearance. After taking down Georgia in the opening round, the Spartans would meet the 2 seeded Virginia Cavilers, a popular Final Four pick. Virginia couldn’t overcome a mistake-ridden performance and their season ended at the hands of a 7 seed. The Spartans were just getting started as they outplayed the favored Oklahoma and Louisville in back to back games to win a wild East Region.
Kentucky Wildcats – Champions of the Midwest Region
Would they go down as the best ever? The Wildcats were two wins away from basketball immortality. With the biggest and most powerful lineup ever, the question wasn’t will Kentucky finish as the first undefeated champion in 40 years, but could they compete with some of the lowly NBA teams? UK lived up to their hype en route to Indy, as they put away Hampton, Cincinnati and West Virginia with ease. Their first real test came with the 3 seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Elite 8. This is the game where UK showed a lot of weaknesses. They were able to gut it out and advance to the Final Four for the second straight year. But this time, they hadn’t lost a game.
Wisconsin Badgers – Champions of the West Region
Another squad that would earn a Final Four bid for the second straight year was the fundamentally sound Big 10 Champion Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers could be seen close to the top of the polls all year long. After a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the National Semis last year, the Badgers were out for blood in 2015 with basketball smarts and big time experience. Perhaps no one in the country meant more to their team than senior Frank Kaminsky did to the Badgers. The 6’11 National Player of the Year led the charge along with teammates Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes with an incredible follow up performance in the tournament. The postseason campaign began with a couple of wins over Coastal Carolina and Oregon in the early rounds. In the Sweet 16, the Badgers proved to be too much for the 4 seeded North Carolina Tar Heels and overpowered the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite 8 for the second straight year to punch their ticket as West Region Champs and it was On Wisconsin to Indianapolis to settle some unfinished business.
Duke Blue Devils – Champions of the South Region
No strangers to late March/early April heroics, it was the legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils making it to the National Semis once more. With a disappointing loss to the inferior Mercer Bears in the first round of last year’s dance, The Devils also had a chip on their shoulder as they proved themselves a worthy 1 seed with a spectacular regular season. Duke was led by freshman Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Coach K and company waltzed to another Final Four with convincing wins over Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah and Gonzaga. The Devils joined two fellow 1 seeds in Indianapolis and Coach K was looking to bring his fifth National Title to Duke University.
The stage was set for three more games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Four hopefuls, one champion.
Game 1 – Michigan State Spartans vs. Duke Blue Devils
The early game on Saturday was set between the Michigan State Spartans and the Duke Blue Devils. Sparty’s run would come to an early end in Indy and it wasn’t much of a contest. Despite coming out flat, Duke quickly righted the ship and took over near the end of the first half as State cooled off. The last twenty minutes was all Blue Devils as they overpowered the Spartans and outplayed them in just about every way possible. The final score was 81-61, and Duke had a chance at the title.
Game 2 – Wisconsin Badgers vs. Kentucky Wildcats
The late game wouldn’t be so one sided. As the Kentucky Wildcats were flirting with perfection, the Wisconsin Badgers were ready to avenge their one point loss from the previous year. The Badgers made it clear early they were here to win and didn’t seem to care too much about the size of UK. Wisconsin matched the unbeatable Cats shot for shot throughout the first twenty minutes and it was anyone’s game as the team took the court for the second half. Wisconsin outplayed Kentucky for much of the second half and even built an 8 point lead with less than 10 to play. But Calipari’s squad was 38-0 for a reason. The Wildcats of Kentucky went on an impressive run that included a 7 minute stretch of play with no field goals for the Badgers. Something clicked for the boys in red, however, when they trailed by 4 with time running short. Championship plays by Kaminsky and Dekker and a stout defensive effort gave Wisconsin the last laugh as they pulled away en route to a 71-64 victory and handed UK their first and last loss of the season. 38-1. Heartbreak and insanity broke out among the Lexington faithful. One particular Wildcat fan was quoted at a sports bar after the loss: “In Kentucky, we have bourbon, horse racing and UK Basketball.” Kentucky nation will rely on that bourbon to get them through the next month until the Derby. As annoying as I find UK fans, it’s hard to question their passion as you couldn’t count on two hands the amount of them sobbing in the stands as reality set in at Lucan Oil. It’s on to the NBA for many of the UK stars that did things we have never seen done in the college game. And it was On Wisconsin to the National Championship on Monday night.
The Wildcat Effect
If you ever discuss college basketball with me, you will find I am not too fond of the Kentucky Wildcats and their controversial coach John Calipari. That is for ethical reasons as I am just not a fan of how he runs his programs. I rooted against the Cats in all 39 games they played this year and was ecstatic when they finally fell to Wisconsin. I would, however, be remiss to say I didn’t enjoy watching Kentucky in their pursuit of perfection this year. They were certainly a once in a lifetime type of team that captivated the nation with 38 incredible wins. You will never convince Coach Cal or his players (or me for that matter) that this was a successful season, as they fell just two games short of their ultimate goal. But this team was a big part in making this such a memorable season and tournament. So keep doing your thing, Cal… I need something to bitch about.
National Championship – Wisconsin Badgers vs. Duke Blue Devils
Finally, the stage was set. The Badgers were ready to play in their first National Championship showdown since 1941, where they edged the Washington State Cougars 39-34. The tournament has grown a little bit since then, as the Badgers were one of just 8 teams in the 1941 NCAA Tournament. Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke would’t be born for another 6 years, wouldn’t become Duke’s head coach for another 39 years and wouldn’t win his first National Championship for another 50 years (1991).
While inventing what we know today as Duke Basketball, Coach K was seeking his fifth title while at the helm, which would give him the second most titles of all time only behind John Wooden of UCLA (10).
The Badgers stood in the way and had quickly become the team everyone was rooting for. They silenced many doubters with their win over Kentucky and had just one more big time program to knock off before earning the right to call themselves champions.
The first half was back and forth and tied at the break. It was clear this was going to be a dog fight throughout and the team who brought it in the final five would prove victorious. Wisconsin kept it tight throughout, but the Duke Blue Devils proved to be just a little too much as they pulled away in the final minutes. With Okafor in foul trouble, it was Duke’s other young stars that stole the show in the waning moments of the title game. Tyus Jones was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player with his 23 points in the championship and shots under pressure. Baby faced Grayson Allen was introduced to the nation with his 16 points against Wisconsin. Duke will lose a few key freshman to the NBA Draft this offseason, but Allen proved to be capable of leading a team when it matters most and will be a key element in future Duke campaigns. The final score in Indy was 68-63 Duke over Wisconsin. Coach K brings home his fifth title to Durham with an impressive stretch as a 1 seed out of the South Region. Congratulations to the Duke Blue Devils, your 2015 NCAA Basketball National Champions.
Phew. Tough to see this season come to an end after that amazing tournament. I didn’t comment much on how amazing the first round was, especially that first Thursday, and the amazing upsets we saw throughout. It once again proved that magic happens every March in pursuit of being the only one left standing. College basketball won’t return for another 6 months when teams across the country will have those dreams once more. Until then, they’ll be dancin’ in Durham as kings of the NCAA. It’s been an unforgettable March Madness and, as always, I’m satisfied.
Be sure to tune into “Sports Corner” on 88.3 The Dog on Tuesday nights, 5 – 7 P.M. to hear me and my co hosts Kyle and Lanier break down the world of sports. To listen online, click HERE
Future blogs feature the Chicago White Sox as they begin their 2015 campaign as well as how the NBA Playoff picture will shape. Stay Tuned.