21 Things to Know About This Year's Final Four
While it's sad the NCAA Tournament is coming to a close, this year’s big dance will be going out with a bang, with four perennial powers making it to the Final Four. Duke and Michigan State will get things in Indianapolis started Saturday, and will be followed by Kentucky and Wisconsin.
While Kentucky’s attempt to complete an undefeated season will dominate headlines this weekend, here is a list of 21 other things to know as we head into the final weekend of college basketball season.
1. The Top Teams Survived the Madness...Mostly (Sorry Villanova and Arizona)
This year’s Final Four will feature three 1 seeds, the first time at least three number ones have made it this far since 2008, when all four top seeds reached the national semifinals. The last time it happened before that was 1999, as this is the fifth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that at least three 1 seeds have made the Final Four. Kentucky (1), Wisconsin (3), and Duke (5) also rank in the top five in our team efficiency rankings.
2. Michigan State Does Not Make a Great Cinderella
While the Spartans, a 7 seed, are the lowest seeded team remaining, they don’t exactly fit the plucky underdog role. In addition to the fact they're playing in their third Final Four in seven years and only Kentucky has more tournament wins since 2009, Michigan State ranks 16th in our power rankings and won 27 games despite playing the nation’s 11th-toughest schedule this year.
3. Kentucky is Continuing its Quest to Break Our Computers
Kentucky is not only our top-ranked team, but with a nERD rating of 23.17, they're also the second-best team our model has ever seen (dating back to the 2000-2001 season). Only the 2001 Duke Blue Devils, featuring Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams, ranked higher, as we rated them 25.10 points better than an average opponent on a neutral court.
4. The Pace Will Be Really, Really Slow
Duke is in the 58th percentile in pace, ranking 129th in the country. While that's not particularly up-tempo, the Blue Devils may as well be Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams considering the other three teams left in the field. Kentucky is 246th, Michigan State is 290th, and Wisconsin is 345th (making them the seventh slowest team in the nation) in our pace rankings.
5. Duke Has Historically Owned Lower Seeds (aka Your Fun Yet Meaningless Factoid Of the Day)
Unless you had the Blue Devils advancing in your bracket, you probably had a good laugh over Duke’s recent losses to 11-seeded VCU, 15-seeded Lehigh and 14-seeded Mercer. But because of these high-profile losses, you may not know Duke has more wins than any other program in tournament history against teams seeded seventh or lower (and has a 87.5% winning percentage in these games), and is unbeaten against such teams when they've been a 1 seed (30-0). Duke is 9-1 against 7 seeds specifically, and this would be bad news for Michigan State if any of these figures had any relevance to Saturday’s game.
6. Kentucky and Wisconsin Are Both Efficient...
Kentucky has our number-one defense and Wisconsin has our most-efficient offense. The Wildcats allow an effective field goal percentage of 39.2%, which is best in the country, with a block rate of 18.2% that is second only to Texas. Wisconsin’s eFG% of .555 is 15th, thanks in part to the Badgers shooting 66.4% at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.
7. ...And Tall...
Kentucky and Wisconsin rank first and second, respectively, in average team height. In terms of effective height (the average height of the center and forward position), they are first and fourth, respectively, according to KenPom.
8. ...And May Not Have Anything Else in Common
The Wildcats are young and deep. The Badgers are experienced and thin. Per KenPom, Kentucky is 346th in team experience and their bench has scored 40.1% of the team's points, which is 24th nationally. Wisconsin is 54th in experience, yet 340th in bench scoring (with 21.6% of its points coming from non-starters).
9. Kentucky Has an Offense, Too
The Wildcats rank ninth in offensive efficiency, and while they don’t shoot jumpers particularly well (ranking 158th in three-point percentage at 34.7% and 194th in two-point jumper shooting percentage), they are fourth in field goal percentage at the rim (per Hoop-Math). Plus, they rank in the top 40 in both turnover rate and free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and are sixth in offensive rebound rate (39.9%).
10. Sparty Loves To Pass
Michigan State ranks seventh in the nation in assists per field goal made (.641), by far the best ratio of the Final Four teams (Duke is next at .544, which ranks 147th). Point guard Travis Trice is a big reason why, as the senior is averaging 5.1 assists per game and is fourth in the Big Ten with a 31% assist rate. Also, among players averaging five or more assists per game, only Iowa State’s Monte Morris has a lower turnover rate than Trice’s 10.6%.
11. Sparty Hates the Free Throw Line
What do Columbia, Air Force, Davidson, and Colgate have in common? These are the only schools who have scored a lower percentage of their points at the free throw line than Michigan State this season (and that is probably literally the only thing). Per KenPom, just 16.3% of the Spartans’ points have come from the charity stripe, as Michigan State does not get to the line frequently (ranking 279th in FTA/FGA), shotting poorly when they do get there (ranking 338th with a 63.2% free throw shooting percentage).
12. Duke’s Defense Is Having A Strong Tournament
Duke’s offense, which ranks second in the country in offensive efficiency, has grabbed most of the headlines, but their defense has also been playing well, as the Blue Devils have held all four tournament opponents to under 0.90 points per possession, according to KenPom. While Robert Morris and San Diego State are hardly juggernauts, Utah and Gonzaga ranked 18th and 3rd, respectively, in our offensive efficiency metric.
13. Duke’s Defense Also Might Be Better Than You Think It Is
Though they allowed 102.4 point per trip in conference play, ranking seventh in the ACC, after strength of schedule adjustments, the Blue Devils defense rates well, ranking in the 84th percentile (for the season as a whole) by our numbers. Its biggest strengths are its ability to defend the three-point arc and keep opponents off the line, ranking 11th nationally in three-point attempt rate (27.3%), 38th in three-point percentage (31.2%), and fifth in free throw attempts per field goal attempt (.241).
14. Some Things Never Change
Grass is green, water is wet, and Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin offense is among the national leaders in turnover rate. For the seventh-straight season, the Badgers are in the top five in turnover rate, and were best in the nation this year, turning the ball over on only 12.3% of their possessions.
15. Don’t Expect the Other Three Teams to Turn the Ball Over Often, Either
Kentucky and Duke rank in the top 42 in offensive turnover rate, and while Michigan State is 70th, the Spartans’ 17.4% turnover rate is still better than the national average of 19.1%. Plus, these three are hardly facing hawkish defenses. Though Kentucky’s defense is 38th in the nation with a 21.4% turnover rate, the other three teams are below average defensively in this category, as Duke’s 18.8% forced turnover rate is 192nd, Michigan State’s 16.6% is 307th and Wisconsin’s 16.1% is 327th.
16. Three Players In “Power 5” Conferences Had a Usage Rate Above 27% and a True-Shooting Percentage Above 62%
This fact is pertinent to this list because two of them will play Saturday, and as you probably guessed, Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky and Duke center Jahlil Okafor make up this duo. Okafor averaged 17.5 points per game, a 27.4% usage rate, and a 64.4% True Shooting Percentage, and Kaminsky scored 18.7 per game to go along with a 28.6% usage percentage and 62.8% true shooting percentage (oh, and Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste is the third player).
17. Okafor Was a More Efficient Scorer from the field; Kaminsky was More Efficient Overall
Okafor posted a 66.8% effective field goal percentage, which was third in the nation, compared to Kaminsky’s 59.1%, and also bested the senior in terms of offensive rebound rate (though Kaminsky plays away from the rim more than an average big, so this is is probably not a great comparison). Still, Kaminsky posted a higher assist rate (18.8% to 9.8%) and lower turnover rate (9.5% to 15.7%), and while both go to the line at a comparable frequency, Kaminsky shot 77.7% from the line compared to Okafor’s 51.1%. As a whole, Kaminsky had a 130 offensive rating, compared to Okafor’s 120 (per Sports-Reference).
18. Okafor and Kaminsky Have Plenty of Help
Combine two of the most efficient offensive players in the country with a superlative supporting cast, and it’s not hard to see why Wisconsin and Duke rank first and second in offensive efficiency. Kaminsky is joined by Sam Dekker (13.9 points per game, 128.6 offensive rating) and Nigel Hayes (12.4, 128.4), while Duke’s attack also features Quinn Cook (15.5, 130.0), Justise Winslow (12.5, 115.2) and Tyus Jones (11.6, 124.9, 5.7 assists per game).
19. Kaminsky vs. the Kentucky Frontcourt Will Be FunOK, maybe this one is subjective (your idea of fun might be different than mine), but you’d be hard pressed not to be entertained watching the nation’s top offensive big man vs. its best defensive frontcourt. Kaminsky, in addition to everything listed above, shoots 46.6% on two-point jumpers and 41.5% from three-point range, according to Hoop-Math, making him a massive matchup problem. He’ll be tested, though, by the Kentucky duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, who rank first and second in the country, respectively, in defensive rating.
20. Trice Is Owning March
Spartans guard Travis Trice was mentioned earlier with regards to Michigan State’s ball movement, but the senior deserves another spot on the list for his postseason scoring. In four tournament games, he is averaging 19.8 points per game with a 58.5% true shooting percentage. Only Kaminsky (22.8) and Dekker (21.8) are averaging more points per game in the tournament.
21. There Is No Way the Championship Won’t Be Great
Yes, I should add the qualifiers “on paper,” and “to a neutral fan,” but just look at all the possible matchups. If Michigan State gets in, you would either have a meeting of conferences foes or a scintillating coaching matchup between Tom Izzo (with his seven career Final Four appearances) and John Calipari (who has six). Kentucky vs. Duke would feature two of the bluest blue bloods in the sport, with more tournament wins than anyone over the last 25 years, and Wisconsin-Duke would pit the two best offenses in America against each other. And, oh yeah, we might have a chance to see the first unbeaten season in decades. Sure, it’s the National Championship and you’d watch anyway (you sat through Butler-UConn in 2011, for God’s sake), but this year has the chance to give us something extra special.