This article was co-written by the TNJN sports staff and contributors – Henry Koch, Danielle Whaley, Cody McClure, Mason Taylor, Jordan Dajani, Nathan Odom and Sam Forman.
With the Sweet 16 coming to a close, the TNJN sports staff takes a look at the college basketball teams remaining in the Elite 8. The question now is who has the best chance to win it all? Here is a look at some potential answers:
Nathan Odom: Duke has its strongest, most consistent team since the championship team from 2010. Potential No. 1 draft pick Jahlil Okafor can beat just about anybody one-on-one in the post and the Blue Devils have the guard play to compliment him. Justise Winslow has played as well as any freshman in the country and is rounding into elite form when his team needs him most. In Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup against Utah, Winslow scored 21 points and went 8-13 shooting. His teammates often struggled with Utah’s shot defense, one of the best in the nation. Okafor, arguably Duke’s best player, was held to six points. Duke was held to 63, yet the Blue Devils still won by six. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski credited his team’s work on the defensive end for prevailing when their offense struggled throughout the game. If Duke can continue its elite defensive play and continue to be carried by multiple players, the Blue Devils will reign supreme on April 6. Although Duke played phenomenal defense against Utah, their defense has not played up to that standard all year long. The Blue Devils rank a lowly No. 127 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and No. 126 in total scoring defense. Duke can give up a lot of points. When matched up with teams like Gonzaga, or potentially Arizona or Kentucky in the final, Duke will probably be in a shootout. Kentucky is a potential nightmare for Duke to match up against. The Wildcats have the size and strength down low to deal with Jahlil Okafor. On top of that, Kentucky has the speed to double-team Okafor and recover to keep him limited. Duke looked frustrated on offense many times when Okafor got trapped by a double-team, something that could give their offense even more fits against a more talented Kentucky team. If Duke cannot continue its stellar defensive performances, or they lose production from one or two key players on offense, Duke may fall short in its title quest.
Mason Taylor: Points, points and more points. This Notre Dame team can flat out score. Over the course of the tournament Notre Dame is averaging 74.5 points per game. Not only is this team scoring but it is doing so with ruthless efficiency. Notre Dame is shooting 52 percent from the field while splashing home 37 percent of their three pointers. The big reason this team is so dangerous is because no matter which five guys the Irish put on the floor all of them are legitimate scoring threats. This late in March, points are a hot commodity, and Notre Dame has plenty to go around. However, their journey could prevent them from winning it all. Notre Dame’s road to the national championship is incredibly difficult. Saturday, the Irish face off against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats who boast six potential NBA draft picks. Even if the Irish can manage to knock of the Wildcats they must face the winner of the Arizona-Wisconsin match up just for a shot to get into the national title game. Kentucky, Wisconsin and Arizona are potential match up nightmares for the Irish. All three teams boast stifling defenses and are long and athletic. The margin for error for the Irish is small and the journey is daunting.
Jordan Dajani: If you haven’t noticed yet, Michigan State is more than just some average No. 7 seed team. In fact, last week, The Washington Post called Michigan State, “The most dangerous team in the tournament.” They are led by senior Travis Trice, who had 24 points last night against the Sooners, and junior Denzel Valentine, who scored 18 last night. They could definitely beat a streaky Louisville team this Sunday and would have to next face Duke, who is not an unbeatable team. While they have a great squad, they also have an incredible coach in Tom Izzo, a.k.a “Mr. March.” He is 37-14 in the NCAA tournament which ranks third among all active coaches with 10 or more games coached. It has been 15 years since he’s won the championship. Sparty may be due.
Cody McClure: For Louisville, the road to the finals is not quite as treacherous. They will be tested by Michigan State Sunday in the East region final. Tom Izzo and March go together like Batman and Robin, but after that, a potential match up with Duke or Gonzaga still doesn’t seem as scary as Kentucky. Louisville is one of the select few that can almost match up with Kentucky and give them trouble. A bluegrass final in Indianapolis would certainly be fun. Harrell and Rozier shined against NC State. Obviously, they must remain on top of their game for the Cardinals to make a run. Unfortunately, Duke won’t let them. The Blue Devils have looked as good as any team in the NCAA tournament. Coach K has his team playing at an exceptionally high level, much more efficient than any Duke team in the last half decade or so. When they are exhibiting their full potential, only Kentucky will beat them. In what some would consider a ‘down year’ for the Cardinals, a trip to the Final Four would not be so bad. It would also be a testament to the coaching ability of Rick Pitino.
Henry Koch: Arizona is one of the most talented teams in the country. Their starting five is possibly the best in the country and only one of their starters is shorter than 6’7″. They have two centers who are 7’0″. Their three losses this year were all close and on the road, the largest margin of defeat being four points. Arizona will be out for revenge against Wisconsin – a team they lost to by one point in overtime in last year’s Elite 8. While they are a very talented team, they do not have the best depth using only nine players. This lack of depth could cause some wear and tear on the starters as the tournament goes on. They might not be able to go head-to-head with some of the other teams remaining in the tournament. Arizona will have to hope that they can keep their starters healthy and ready to play if they want to win the tournament.
Danielle Whaley: The No. 1 overall seed, undefeated, the pursuit of perfection. These are terms that have been heard all throughout the tournament and they can only be describing one team: Kentucky. One thing the Wildcats have to focus on Saturday and in the rest of their tournament match ups is continuing to use their height to their advantage. Looking at the roster, Kentucky has multiple athletes who range anywhere from 6-6 to 6-11 and two towers who size up at 7 feet tall. Along with this height, the Wildcats’ offense has improved over the season, finding ways to score no matter the cost – whether it be going strong in the paint or letting it fly from the arch. Not to mention, the fact that head coach John Calipari can rotate two starting lines is a huge key for the Wildcats because the star of the game could literally be anyone on the team game in and game out. Their defense hasn’t been too shabby either. For the Elite 8, I’d expect to see Kentucky’s defense having a bit of a tougher time against a Notre Dame team that will be looking to drop baskets from just about everywhere on the court. After their overtime win against Butler, a new life has been brought to the Fighting Irish and they are going to find ways to stand up to the Wildcats. Overall, for the rest of the tournament, the main way that Kentucky will lose will be when teams find the weak points of their shooting game and really work to break it down. Sure, the Wildcats have an impressive shooting game, but it is not as strong as their paint play. To put it simply, if you want to beat Kentucky, size and shooting will be your best friends.
Sam Forman: Which team wins the whole thing? Why, it is elementary my dear Watson. It is the Wisconsin Badgers. The No.1 seed in the west will not only make it to the Final Four, but they will be cutting down the net in Indianapolis. Why do they win? Well, let’s just be Frank about this. At the end of the day, it is all about Frank Kaminsky who is averaging 33.3 minutes per game, 18.4 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. The man is a beast in the paint. The Badgers also have Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes that join Kaminsky in double digit averages. They also have one of the best coaches in the game today in Bo Ryan. This team is built for this point in the season and for this moment. It is their first time as a No. 1 seed and having to play No. 2 Arizona in the Elite Eight will be tough, but so what? The Badgers win it all at the end of the day. But one reason they may not win it all: an injury – or Kaminsky, Dekker, Hayes and Bronson Koenig just flat out don’t show up. Arizona’s talent will make it tough on the Badgers, but it will be a good game. The biggest reason why the Badgers won’t win a Final Four, however, is a meeting with the Kentucky Wildcats. As long as they stay off of Twitter, beforehand they will be fine.
Cody McClure: Many did not believe Gonzaga would be in their current position. The excuse of national pundits has always been that the Zags do not play anyone during the conference season. Since the days of Adam Morrison, Gonzaga has not been a legitimate threat in the NCAA tournament. But this may be the best team Mark Few has ever had in Spokane. The Zags have a deep bench and a chance to get to the Final Four for the first time in school history. They are on the favorable side of the bracket. Kyle Wiltjer is a punishing big man. For the Zags to make it to Indianapolis, Wiltjer will have to get the best of Jahlil Okafor. However, they won’t win it all, because they have the same problem Louisville does. Duke won’t let them. It seems simple, and maybe a little understated, but Duke is really good. They are hot at the right time, and Okafor is playing at a level most players could not dream of. He’s a sure pro, averaging 17.7 points per game. However, if Wiltjer can contain him most of the game, Gonzaga can shoot outside with the Blue Devils. The Zags have an experienced bunch of players, but when it is all said and done, Duke’s talent will overwhelm them.
Edited by Maggie Jones