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Great field spells dramatic finish

I love a Cinderella as well as anyone. Butler, VCU and Wichita State were tremendous stories when they made their runs in recent years. But my heavens, this is one fantastic Final Four.

Three of the four No. 1 seeds are still with us. And with all apologies to Notre Dame and Arizona, it’s fair to say that Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke are the three best teams in the country.

Throw in Michigan State, an ever-reliable sleeper despite its No. 7 seed, and you have a truly great field, one that could provide one of the most dramatic finishes in college basketball history.

This Final Four is a Mount Rushmore of modern coaches. The media gets criticized for fussing too much about the coaches at the expense of the players, but college hoops is a coaches’ game. Just look at the men who will be on the sidelines in Indianapolis.

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski will be coaching in his 12th Final Four, tying him with the legendary John Wooden for first all-time. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo will be in his seventh Final Four, Kentucky’s John Calipari his sixth, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan his second.

That’s a combined 27 Final Fours among the coaches, easily the most ever. How do you not marvel at their accomplishments? The players are the show, but there’s a reason the players gravitate to these schools and evolve once they get there.

In an ESPN poll of college basketball’s top coaches last summer, Calipari came in second, Izzo third and Krzyzewski fourth. Ryan was seventh. Billy Donovan of Florida was first in the voting.

So the Final Four will be a showdown of elite coaches, and disparate operating philosophies.

Calipari and Krzyzewski have embraced the “one and done” plan, loading up on enormously gifted freshmen who are likely to bolt for the NBA after serving a one-year hitch in the college game. As West Virginia’s Bob Huggins said last week, it’s a lot more difficult that it looks.

Then you have Wisconsin and Michigan State, who are winning in a more customary fashion. They get most of their scoring and leadership from upperclassmen who, for the most part, were not highly recruited.

Calipari is the dark lord of the one-and-dones. But do you know who starts the most freshmen in the field? Krzyzewski, the sainted “Coach K”, who decided that if he had to compete against NBA-bound freshman in the NCAA tourney, he might as well dance with some of his own.

Coach K went to seven Final Fours in nine years in his peak years at Duke, when one-year college players were rare and Krzyzewski had the good fortune to coach the likes of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Tommy Amaker for four full seasons.

Now he’s looking to win a fifth national title with a roster led by three fabulous freshman: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, all of whom are expected to be first-round picks if they declare for this year’s NBA draft.

Kentucky has four freshmen, four sophomores and 7-foot junior defensive whiz Willie Cauley-Stein as his top nine players. Cauley-Stein and the sophs opted to return for one more season to chase the national title that eluded them a year ago.

They’re all pro prospects, but Calipari has gotten them to sacrifice personal glory and stats for the greater good. They bought in, and now they’re two wins from a perfect 40-0 season.

The TV moguls must be salivating at the prospect of a Duke-Kentucky final. It would be Coach Cal vs. Coach K: Calipari, the slick salesman who has already had two Final Fours vacated for recruiting improprieties, and Krzyzewski, the guy who “does it right.”

Who cares if both men have become easy caricatures for the press? It makes for great theater. Who better to stand between Kentucky and its 40-0 season than Coach K, the man who saved our Olympic program and recently won his 1,000th college game?

Imagine the angst among Kentucky fans if Duke shows up in the title game. They’re still not over 1992. I talked to several during the regional in Cleveland; they all remember where they were when Laettner hit the last-second shot that broke their hearts in an epic regional final.

They might never recover if another Krzyzewski team spoils their beloved Wildcats’ quest for perfection. And doing it with a bunch of freshmen! Why doesn’t Krzyzewski trample on Adolph Rupp’s grave while he’s at it?

Of course, both teams have to get past Saturday, which is far from a guarantee. Wisconsin is eager to avenge its loss to Kentucky in last year’s national semis. Ryan’s Badgers are a year older and wiser. But Kentucky, despite its youth, is better and deeper than a year ago.

Wisconsin is being called a bigger version of Notre Dame. I’m not so sure. Notre Dame hung with Kentucky because of its perimeter defense, which disrupted Kentucky’s offensive flow. Wisconsin’s guards aren’t as good defensively. The Harrison twins shouldn’t struggle early, the way they did against the Irish.

Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers’ 7-foot senior, is perhaps the most complete big man in the country. It’ll be fascinating to see how he fares against Kentucky’s deep, monstrous front line – especially its smooth 6-11 freshman, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Duke has to get past Michigan State to reach the championship game for the ninth time under Coach K. The Spartans have 11 losses, more than the rest of the field combined.

Krzyzewski is 8-1 in his career against Izzo, including an 81-71 win early this season at a tournament in Indy. But Izzo’s victory came in 2005, when Michigan State upset top-seeded Duke and No. 2 seed Kentucky (in double overtime) to reach the Final Four.

Izzo has pulled off more NCAA tourney wins over higher-seeded teams than any coach in history. Duke is only favored by five, which tells you that Vegas knows about Izzo’s history in the Dance. This isn’t his most talented group, but they have that signature Spartan resilience, plus tough, versatile big men.

They beat the No. 2 seed (Virginia), No. 3 seed (Oklahoma) and No. 4 seed (Louisville, in OT) to win the East this year. Last season, they knocked off top-seeded Virginia in the East Region semi before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.

UConn won it all as a No. 7 seed. So Michigan State seems like a perfect sleeper to round out a great Final Four. Still, I see Kentucky, which showed its competitive character against Notre Dame, beating Wisconsin and Duke to complete the perfect season.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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