We really couldn't have asked for a much better Final Four. Maybe if we got Virginia rather than Michigan State it would be more ideal since they'd have the better chance of beating Duke, but you can argue that's outweighed by the cache of Tom Izzo and that this is the perfect Final Four. The casual college basketball fan just doesn't know Tony Bennett like they know Tom Izzo.
So how are these games going to go? My best guess is below.
As always, feel free to shoot me a comment to this blog post, or tweet at me. I'll do my best to respond to everybody.
Yesterday ATS: 1-1-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 37-27-0 (58%)
2014 Tournament ATS: 40-23-4 (63%)
2013 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2 (46%)
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1 (61%)
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3 (58%)
Duke (-5.5) over Michigan State: A key consideration in this game is deciding what you think of Duke's defense. Because so far in the NCAA Tournament, it's been ridiculous. All four of Duke's opponents have been held below 0.9 PPP. To put that in perspective, they held just four ACC opponents below 0.9 PPP all season, in 20 games. If this is for real then Michigan State doesn't have much of a chance. Is it? I argue "no". Duke's defense has primarily put up great stats because opponents have a 39.7 eFG%, compared to a 46.5 eFG% during the regular season. However, if you tease that out, it's due to 24% three-point shooting compared to 41% three-point shooting. And if we eliminate the Robert Morris game, which wasn't a serious opponent, the other three Duke opponents have shot just 21% on three vs 42% on twos. For the season, opponents have shot 31% on threes and 46% on twos against Duke. What about other main defensive parameters? Well if we again exclude Robert Morris, Duke's opponents are turning the ball over on 21% of possessions in the tourney, compared to a season average of 19%, but they're also rebounding 35% of their misses compared to a season average of 30%. To sum that up, Duke's defense has put up better defensive stats primarily because teams have been ice cold on threes, which is something not really in control of the defense. So those great defensive stats are mostly a mirage.
After all that, why am I still picking Duke? Well, Duke is the better team. This line is actually reasonably fair. And while Duke's 3P% defense is something of a mirage, they were 11th in the nation in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio, which is something they have always been good at in recent years. Michigan State's success in this tourney has primarily come from chucking up a ton of threes and hitting them at a high clip. In all four NCAA Tournament games, Michigan State has both made more threes and hit their threes at a higher rate than their opponents. In all they are 31-for-80 (39%) while their opponents are 14-for-59 (24%) in the tourney so far. And even so they've been barely squeezing by, with every game coming down to the final 30 seconds. Even assuming that Duke's 3P% defense is a fluke that is unlikely to continue, they are nevertheless good at preventing teams from taking threes. And considering that Michigan State doesn't have a defender who can handle Jahlil Okafor 1-on-1 and will be running a lot of doubles and traps on him, Duke is going to get plenty of open looks from deep (Michigan State was only 8th best in the Big Ten in 3PA/FGA defense anyway). So Michigan State's trend of making more than twice as many threes as their opponent will likely end. Unless they shoot significantly better on threes than Duke does, it's hard to see a path to victory.
Wisconsin (+5) over Kentucky: In raw efficiency (ignoring strength of schedule), Wisconsin is scoring 1.22 PPP this season while Kentucky is allowing 0.84 PPP. If we use Pomeroy's adjusted efficiencies, which take opponents into account, Wisconsin's offensive efficiency jumps to 1.28 PPP while Kentucky's defense efficiency becomes 0.86 PPP. To put that in perspective, we have 14 seasons of efficiency data at KenPom.com, and in those 14 years no team has put up offensive stats that good, and no team has put up raw defensive stats that good. A single team (2009 Memphis) had a better adjusted defensive efficiency than this Kentucky team (0.85 PPP). In other words, this is possibly the best offense vs the best defense of the KenPom era. You can't ask for much better than this out of a Final Four game.
That all said, I actually don't think Wisconsin's offense vs Kentucky's defense is where this game will be decided. Kentucky's defense does pose problems for Wisconsin with their length, particularly in the mid-range area. If Traevon Jackson is still struggling to find his form, Wisconsin might find itself unable to get to the hoop and settling for threes. That insane barrage in the second half against Arizona aside, Wisconsin actually isn't a great three-point shooting team (36.4%). And Wisconsin doesn't crash the glass enough to take advantage of Kentucky's defensive rebounding deficiencies. But on the other side of the ball, I think Kentucky is really going to struggle against Wisconsin's defense. The Badgers are excellent at forcing jump shots and not allowing an offensive rebound (they are 4th in the nation in DR%). Wisconsin was called for an ungodly number of fouls against Arizona, but they still lead the nation in defensive FTRate. If the refs call the game tight again and Kentucky marches to the free throw line, they'll get plenty of offense there. But if the refs allow Wisconsin to play defense and force Kentucky to hit jumpers, that's not how the Wildcats like to play. Kentucky is hitting just 35% of their mid-ranger jumpers and were 318th in the nation in 3PA/FGA. They put up an excellent offensive efficiency primarily because they were 6th in the nation in OR% and 25th in the nation in FTRate. Remember, Wisconsin is a big team. Pomeroy rates Kentucky as the tallest team in the nation, of course, but he has Wisconsin the 4th tallest team in the nation. They aren't going to get blown off the block by Kentucky's size.
In my opinion, this game comes down to what you think of the reffing. If they call it like the Wisconsin/Arizona game and Kentucky gets to attempt 30 free throws, they should be able to score enough to get past a Wisconsin team unlikely to hit their season average offensive efficiency. But if they call it loose and allow Wisconsin's starters to stay in the game and force Kentucky to hit shots, I do think that Wisconsin is the type of team you'd draw to beat Kentucky. I've said for months now that Wisconsin and Virginia were the two teams built with the right style to beat Kentucky. Those are the two teams that, more than any other, force jump shots, protect the defensive glass, don't commit fouls, and have the patience to work Kentucky's defense for 35 seconds. Anything can happen in a 40 minute sample size, but I think Wisconsin's style and talent is the exact style and talent that Kentucky is afraid of. If their perfect season doesn't happen, I think it goes down here rather than the title game.