Final Four: The Finality of Incentive

After four-plus months of buckets, boards, blocks, and blown whistles, we've reduced the field of championship contenders to four. The goal for each is obviously the same ... be the ones holding up the trophy next Monday night. As far as favorites, Kentucky is above the rest of the field. But all of the participants will have their own reasons for completing the journey to a title. We'll hear about all of them before Saturday's action, from each side, from every angle. So, in my opinion, what motivation is driving each squad? Let's review (and preview) their roads in chronological order.

Wisconsin Badgers

This has been a tournament filled with reunions. Bo Ryan's team got reacquainted with Oregon in the Round of 32 ... exactly where they saw the Ducks one year ago. Bucky found themselves standing toe-to-toe with Arizona in the West Region Final ... exactly where (including the same metropolitan area) they same the Wildcats one year ago. Now, the Mad-town hoopsters will face Kentucky in the national semifinals ... exactly where they saw these Wildcats one year ago. So far, Groundhog Bracket has been good to the Badgers. Can they turn the fortunes and get out from under Big Blue Shadow this time?

What's at stake — Validation. For the last decade and a-half, this program has been more associated with slow, plodding play than national championship contention. A return to the national semis is eroding that myth. This squad can score (72.8 ppg) along with their propensity to defend (57.8 papg). Yes, their numbers aren't as convincing as Kentucky's, but they are in the ballpark. While many have been extolling the prolific offense of Notre Dame, Wisconsin's is actually better ... number one in the country, to be precise (1.20 pts per possession). The Irish were tied for second in that category (with Duke and Gonzaga at 1.18 pts per possession).

A championship would also validate two other entities. The first is Frank Kaminsky's decision to return to college. Along with the overwhelming opinion that his NBA draft stock has improved, Kaminsky could provide himself with the ultimate dream scenario of walking off the stage with trophy in hand. The second entity to benefit ... the Big Ten/Fourteen/looks like a 16. It has been 15 years since a member of the conference won a national title (no, I'm not lumping Maryland's '02 trophy into the mix). Since Michigan State championship in 2000, 10 teams for the league have advance to the national semis, with five ending up as the national runner-up. Meanwhile the Big East, ACC, and SEC have gobbled up most of the team accolades, leaving many to wonder if the Snow Belt can get a foothold in today's era of hoops. A Badger Banner may start to turn that perception.

Kentucky Wildcats

It was a fairly routine run through the tournament until Saturday's Regional Final. The young ‘Cats had more than a sweat against Notre Dame. Another clutch run in the waning minutes (they hit their final nine shots) kept them undefeated and on track for the title that has seemingly been in their hands since the opening tip against Grand Canyon University.

What's at stake — History ... from first jump to final whistle. Unless you've been on the International Space Station for the last few months, you've heard that this champion would be the first unbeaten one since the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers. With history, prestige would follow right behind. An unblemished record would undoubtedly place them on the list of the greatest teams in the history of the sport (and many would put them well ahead of any other entrant).

But there's also expectation. The more victories this team notched, the more that the expectations have grown. Having a loss on the record may have dropped them on the "all-time great" list. Now, though, with the end of the road so close, a loss would certainly throw this squad near the top of the "best to have never won" list. Yes, their season would still be a great one. However, there will be so much expectation in Indianapolis that one in the "L" column would provide the ultimate anti-climactic ending. For my money, I don't think the pressure will get to them. I think John Calipari is playing with house money now that he's got his title. And to accomplish something today's coaching greats haven't ... that's just a bolder line on his resume.

Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans became the first (and only) top seed to make it through to Indianapolis. The start to their season, a 9-4 non-conference record that included a home loss to Texas Southern, wasn't horrible. However, compared to Michigan State standards, it was an underachievement. The team finished 12-6 during conference play, but a couple more home losses (to Illinois and Minnesota) still kept folks off balance. Once March and the Big Ten Tournament came along, Sparty hit a switch. They finally beat Maryland. They had a late lead against Wisconsin in the tourney final. Now, the run has continued into the NCAAs, including a run through some the of best of the ACC (Virginia and Louisville).

What's at stake — Revitalization. You can't mention the month of March without bringing up Tom Izzo. This is his 20th year at the helm in East Lansing, and he will now coach in his 7th national semifinal. Until last year, he had an astounding record where every four-year player in his program made at least one national semi. The string was broken in 2014, when the Spartans lost their Regional Final to (7th-seeded) Connecticut. This year's squad was still talented, but the graduations of Adreian Payne and Keith Appling were supposed set the team back a step.

But that hasn't phased the program. Travis Trice grew into his new role as the starting point guard. Denzel Valentine has stepped up his production through the campaign. And Brendan Dawson is fully healthy for this postseason run. These three are the core players that have led the revitalization of this season from the 9-5 start (after losing in the Big Ten opener). They have been key in the revitalization of MSU's tournament success (if you call a couple of misses a drop-off). And, like Wisconsin, this may be the group that revitalizes the ultimate source of pride across the Big Ten landscape. If you don't believe me, where do you think the conference stands after Ohio State's football championship?

Duke Blue Devils

After a few years away, Mike Krzyzewski has returned to his program to the status of Regional Champions. And, wouldn't you know it, the last time that happened, his team boarded a plane to Indianapolis. Since the championship run of 2010, the Blue Devils had alternated getting bounced in the second weekend with dropping out in first-game stunners. But after surviving a South Region that basically held to form, Duke will have to take on a "grit and grime" squad with a defensive mindset and a tournament-tested coach leading the way. Either way you slice it, the young nucleus of this team will see if their growing pains have paid off.

What's at stake — Legacy. The only thing I have on Kryzyewski is that I'm older than his tenure at Duke ... but not by that much. Over the last 30-plus years, no coach has been as consistently dominant as him. This tournament marks his 31st appearance while leading the Durham-based program. His 86 tourney wins are 21 clear of the duo holding down "second-winningest" status (I know, I know, different age with more games to play). And if Okafor, Winslow, Cook, Jones, and company can get their hands on the title, it'll mark the fifth for Coach. That may only be halfway to John Wooden's total of 10, but, in this era, that may be an even bigger accomplishment.

And there could be a side effect for Coach K's legacy. His first three title teams came along well before the "one and done" rule was implemented. The latest champion (2009-2010) primarily consisted of upperclassmen. Should this group finish the deed, it would be his first to feature at least one prominent "one and done" player (Jahlil Okafor). It would show that Krzyzewski, while not completely immersed, can adapt to the current culture of the game. When you look back on the history of any sport, that's the trait most legendary leaders have at their disposal.

So, the players are in place and the stage is set. Which motive will rule the weekend? Sit back, relax, and enjoy as the drama unfolds.

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