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2015 NCAA Tournament Final Four Preview: Team Comparisons And Tendencies

Saturday features a Final Four of elite teams coached by a quartet of the best coaches in college basketball today. A Sea Of Blue compares the teams and previews the semi-final match-ups.

So, we meet again.
So, we meet again.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to A Sea of Blue's Final Four Preview.  We're going to look in-depth at the 2015 NCAA Tournament semifinal games, including the matchups and tendencies of all four teams on both sides of the ball.  We hope that this will help everyone enjoy the games more by knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each team statistically, as well as their tendencies on offense and defense.

Note that this is intended mainly for basketball fans; I think people who are only casual fans of the game might find this a bit over-technical for their taste.  But if you have a general understanding of the game, I don't think you'll have trouble with it at all.

The Big Picture

First, here is how each team has performed on offense and defense throughout the season.  All stats are from KenPom.

Offense Adj Off Eff eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
Kentucky 119.4 51.5 16.4 39.9 44.5
Wisconsin 127.5 55.0 12.3 32.0 36.5
Duke 121.4 56.8 16.6 36.5 39.0
Michigan St 115.2 53.4 17.4 33.8 32.8

The common link between all the Final Four teams this year is offense: all four teams are well above average in efficiency.  Kentucky is the worst shooting team but makes up for it with elite rebounding and getting to the free throw line where - contra what Marv Albert was making up in his head - they are quite good at knocking down shots.  Wisconsin has been as good on offense as the Cats have on defense this year, fueled by excellent shooting and stubborn refusal to turn the ball over.

Michigan State is the "worst" of the bunch with an Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rank of 13.  This isn't a classic Izzo team on the glass and they are actually sort of a lesser Wisconsin: MSU scores using good shooting and solid ball handling.  Duke of course is led by Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow on offense.  They boast even better shooting than the Badgers along with very good rebounding and free throw rates.

Defense Adj Def Eff eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
Kentucky 85.6 39.2 21.4 31.6 31.4
Wisconsin 96.4 47.5 16.1 23.9 22.1
Duke 93.3 46.5 18.8 30.4 24.1
Michigan St 95.4 44.7 16.6 27.1 38.1

Kentucky's defense has been historically elite all year and they are clearly the best team remaining in the field on that side of the ball.  The Cats are substantially better than the other three squads in overall efficiency, forcing turnovers, and defending shots.  Wisconsin is the best rebounding team of the group and they don't foul, so opposing teams are able to get shots, which they knock down at a solid rate.

Michigan State isn't really great at anything except rebounding and they foul a lot as evidenced by their substantial FT Rate.  However, the Spartans have been involved in A LOT of close games this year, so that rate might be artificially inflated by the need to stop the clock.  Duke is the second best defense remaining based on efficiency.  Ball pressure is their key focus along with avoiding fouls.  They are ok-but-not-great on the glass and teams that do gets shots off are able to hit with decent accuracy.

Semifinal #1: Michigan State vs Duke

Duke's Offense vs MSU's Defense


When Duke is on offense:

Duke runs a fairly straightforward 3-2 motion offense. What you’ll see is Jahlil Okafor in both the high and low post, but mostly low. Duke likes to put Amile Jefferson at the foul line and run a little high-low game, and if Jefferson has an advantage, he will shot-fake and drive to the rim. Opponents must be careful helping off the weak side in that play because of Okafor.

Duke likes to space the floor and send Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook down the elbows for straight-line drives to the rim for a finish or kick out to an open shooter, or open post player if the defense reacts.

Duke also likes to set thee or four players down on the baseline creating a lot of space, then run out to the wings and set screens. If the screener’s man isn’t quick enough, this action always frees up the dribbler into the lane for a shot or a pass. It’s and extremely deadly technique because the screener runs a long way, leaving his man behind. If the screener’s man, follows and hedges, the screener usually rolls out to the wing to receive a pass for a 3-point shot, dribble drive, or to initiate the offense again.

Finally, Duke likes to run pick-and-pop action on the wings. They will set a high screen for a driver, then they screener will drift out to the 3-point line to receive a pass for a shot, or for a rim attack.

When Michigan State is on defense

Izzo runs a straight man-to-man, virtually never runs any zone. On screen and rolls, he varies his approach according to who has the ball. On shooters, he prefers to hedge or switch, but the hedge is preferred over the switch to avoid the mismatch. He will also string out good shooters with the "show" technique (Josh Harrellson used to be great at that) and also occasionally "hug" the pick, effectively picking the screener so the on-ball defender can get by.

There is nothing magical about Izzo’s defense, it is pretty much what you’d expect from a strict man-to-man coach. What makes it so effective is how sound the Spartan guys are running it — they don’t get lost on the pick and roll, they don’t run away from shooters and they absolutely don’t leave their man to double-team a driver when they are not the help defender.  The Spartans are also excellent in transition, and especially good at getting set quickly to avoid the early offense.  Izzo's defensive philosophy is to execute the fundamentals well, disallow transition shots, and force teams to run their offense.

Duke's Defense vs MSU's Offense


When Michigan State is on offense:

Tom Izzo doesn’t have a name offense he runs, like a motion, swing, or other pattered offense. Instead, Izzo runs simple plays out of several different formations, like 1-4, isos, on-ball and pick and roll. A lot of his sets will look familiar to Kentucky fans, like dribble hand-offs, UCLA cuts, and double-screens, but they aren’t part of a "system" offense like Bo Ryan or John Calipari are identified with.

A typical Izzo set will start with a 3-2 set with a dribble handoff on one wing or the other. The weak-side wings will then switch position, or execute a v-cut for a pop-out. From there, if there’s noting doing, a big will come out and set up the high screen and roll, with the 3 or 4 man dropping down to the strong side baseline.  The driver then has three options on the take; layup or pullup, pass to the weak side big or pass to the strong side big.

He also likes to send shooters from the top around screens on the baseline and back out to the wing, a la Bobby Knight with the single and double screen action to free up the shooter.

When Duke is on defense:

Defensively, Duke plays a straight-up man-to-man. They will often extend this defense to a simple man press, and the extent of the pressure varies widely. Duke likes to try to push the guards out away from the basket on defense, making perimeter passing difficult and bothering ballhandlers.

Duke also does not like to double-team the post, and they will generally just play straight up unless Okafor gets into foul trouble. Then, they will dig down from the guard position, but they don’t often send double-teams.

Duke’s main claim to fame on defense is their pressure, where they try to intimidate teams by getting in their face at half court and pressing up very closely on them. They will switch pick and rolls, but prefer to fight over the top or hedge.

Duke will also zone occasionally, as they did against Notre Dame, Louisville, Pittsburgh and others. They don’t do it a lot, but if you’re not ready for it, they can surprise you with it.

Semifinal #2: Kentucky vs Wisconsin

Kentucky's Offense vs Wisconsin's Defense


When Kentucky is on offense:

John Calipari was famous for his Dribble-drive Motion offense when he came to Kentucky, but that offense was designed for a different set of players and personnel than he has been able to recruit to come to UK. While it was originally envisioned as an offense to take advantage of athletes, it also requires good shooters, which Kentucky has sometimes had and sometimes not had. As a result, Calipari now runs mostly a straight post-up offense out of the horns set, or a 3-2 set.

Coach Cal also likes a setup where he’ll station two men, a big and a wing, down on the right block. This creates a lot of space on the strong side, and UK will send a big out to set a screen for the offensive initiator. If the driver gets free, he’ll go for the layup of the floater, and if not, the big on the block will cut to the middle of the lane for a quick pass. The other guy on the block will try to bump his man and slow him down, freeing up a layup.

But the base play for this offense is a simple wing entry into the post, and from that flows a post-up move, or a two man game on the perimeter, or if the double-team comes (which is often necessary against Kentucky’s size) a pass to the wing for an open shot. Kentucky also likes to strike early in possessions before the defense gets set with either slashes to the rim or one-on-one isos, forcing opponents usually smaller guards to try to defend Kentucky’s much bigger ones off the bounce.

When Wisconsin is on defense:

Wisconsin plays a man-to-man defense, not complicated or special. I have never seen Bo Ryan zone, although to be fair, I don’t get to see all that much of Wisconsin every year. He may do it occasionally, but I’ve not seen it.

Wisconsin is very good at getting back in transition. They don’t send a lot of guys to the offensive glass. They focus more on keeping the floor balanced defensively and forcing opponents to run their offense. They are very disciplined and fundamentally sound defensively, but they are a little bit heavy afoot compared to some other teams. They make up for that by avoiding fundamental mistakes.

One of the problems with Wisconsin’s defense, and possibly a reason why they don’t guard the three all that well, is that they tend to go under screens where they do not switch to avoid a size mismatch. That really hurt them against Duke and it will hurt them against Kentucky if they do that a lot.

Wisconsin also does not usually double-team the post, particularly against teams who have guards that can shoot. Kaminski or Nigel Hayes will normally try to guard the post one-on-one. Both are good post defenders and don’t foul a lot, even against excellent post players, but neither are particularly good shot blockers.

Kentucky's Defense vs Wisconsin's Offense


When Wisconsin is on offense:

Wisconsin’s offense is called the Swing offense, and it is a bit of a hodge-podge of traditional offenses woven together into a coherent whole. The swing is basically a 4-out offense that is predicated on all 5 players being able to shoot. You will often see Wisconsin invert the bigs and the guards in this offense, and it requires close attention to defend properly.

Most offensive sets will feature a triangle setup on the strong side where Wisconsin will try to enter the ball from the wing. From there, you will see weak side players look for back cuts. UCLA cuts are also a feature of this offense, as are flex cuts from the wing.

Wisconsin, from my review, doesn’t adhere to this offense strictly. They will occasionally just run one-on-one drives from the wing if they think they have a favorable matchup, or run out from the post to take a down screen for a curl.

Wisconsin loves to run the straight pick-and-pop to Frank Kaminsky early in sets. Whenever you see Kaminsky run down the floor ahead of the ballhandler, you can almost be positive that a pick-and-pop to Kaminski is coming, and if Towns or whoever is guarding him sags down below the 3-point line, he’s liable to get off a decent look.

Wisconsin also loves to run back-cuts. They wait for the defense to turn their head, much like what happened to Kentucky against Notre Dame, and the wing will set sail for the rim.

When Kentucky is on defense:

Kentucky is a man-to-man defensive team that will throw up an occasional zone when the base defense is struggling, or Calipari deems a change of pace wise. The Wildcats love to extend the defense into a man press, which they will usually run very aggressively early in games to test the opponent’s ability to deal with it. Kentucky doesn’t press on every play, but they will on about 30% of possessions where they score. Sometimes the press is just a possession-shortener, and sometimes it’s a full-blown attack on the ballhandlers. You never know which. When Tyler Ulis is in the game, the press is often much more aggressive.

Early in the year, Calipari was switching every screen and roll. Now, he hedges and traps them all, mostly hedges. Kentucky guards the 3-point shot with tremendous effort, trying to force opponents to put the ball on the floor or make tough passes, and trust their size to alter or deflect shots. The Wildcats will often send guards into the passing lanes for steals, and they usually get one or two turnovers for layups this way every game.

Kentucky's defense is all about exploiting their size, both inside and out. The theory is that shooting over that kind of size usually makes you a less efficient shooter, and in 38 straight tests that has proven to be the  case, although some tests worked out better than others.