Elite Eight Recap: Can Anyone Beat UK? Recap

After an exciting Elite Eight round over the weekend, each region’s winner is heading to Indianapolis, Indiana for the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. This year’s Final Four is one of the more stacked groups in recent memory, with three No. 1 seeds in Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke and a No. 7 seeded Michigan State team that is always dangerous in March. After seeing 64 eliminated, the biggest storyline of the tournament is still alive; can Kentucky become the first team to go undefeated and win the national championship since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers? 

In the Elite Eight, Kentucky played their closest game of the tournament yet, sneaking past a talented Notre Dame team with a 68-66 victory. Notre Dame, a No. 3 seed, had won the ACC tournament this year and were often considered one of, if not the best, offensive teams in the country. Led by All-American senior Jerian Grant, the Fighting Irish played a fantastic game and gave Kentucky all they could handle. Notre Dame led 66-64 with about two and a half minutes to play after a Grant three. Then, Karl-Anthony Towns, who led the game with 25 points, tied it at 66 with a little over a minute to play. With six seconds to play, Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison was fouled and calmly sank both of his free throws. Grant missed a contested three pointer at the buzzer, and Kentucky survived, reaching the Final Four and keeping their dream of an undefeated season alive.

Wisconsin was the other team to advance to the Final Four on Saturday, beating an Arizona team that many people believed were the team with the best chance of beating Kentucky. Much like they have been all season, Wisconsin was led by its senior leaders Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who powered the team to an 85-78 victory. Kaminsky finished with 29 points and was dominant in the first half, showcasing why he is a favorite to win the Wooden Award for player of the year. Dekker took over in the second half, ending the game with 27 points and hitting an unbelievable, contested three pointer late in the game to seal the victory for Wisconsin. When Dekker and Kaminsky play the way that they did against Arizona, they can beat any team in the country, including Kentucky.

On Sunday afternoon, No. 4 seeded Louisville faced off against No. 7 seeded Michigan State. Both programs have coaches (Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, respectively) who have won national titles and are known for being tremendous coaches in the NCAA tournament. Izzo especially has garnered a lot of press over the years for taking seemingly average Michigan State teams on deep runs in the tournament, and this season is no different. Not to be outdone by the close games the day before, these two teams battled for the 40 minutes with before Michigan State came away with the 76-70 overtime victory. This Michigan State team is full of upperclassmen, led by senior Branden Dawson, senior Travis Trice and junior Denzel Valentine. Despite their low seeding, this a team with a ton of tournament experience led by a coach who has thrived in March. That experience cannot be discounted and it makes them just as dangerous as any other team in this Final Four. Trice has shot the ball particularly well during this tournament and Dawson has proven that despite being undersized for a power forward, his strength and athleticism allows him to match up with some of the best forwards in the country. 

The last team to qualify for the Final Four was the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils, beating a tough Gonzaga team 66-52 in a game that was much closer than the score indicates. Gonzaga was able to use their size up front to hold Duke’s All-American freshman Jahlil Okafor to just nine points for the game. However, his freshmen teammates Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow came up huge. Winslow was specifically dominant down the stretch, at one point scoring seven unanswered points to extend Duke’s lead from two points to nine, and grabbing multiple huge rebounds and to put the game out of reach for Gonzaga. Duke is the one team in the country who could argue they have young talent that can match Kentucky’s. However, if Duke wants to beat Kentucky, they will need a better game out of Okafor. Kentucky has the biggest and most talented frontcourt in the country, and for Duke to beat them Okafor needs to play like the first team All-American and likely first overall pick that he has been all season. 

All four of the remaining teams have phenomenal coaches and a ton of talent on their rosters. Regardless of whether the youthful upside of Kentucky and Duke or the veteran experience of Wisconsin and Michigan State prevails, we should be in for one of the most exciting Final Fours in recent memory.