This was supposed to be the year that America gave up on college basketball.
It was the season the NBA vs. college debate stopped and the season the "is college basketball even worth watching?" debate started. It was the year everyone collectively agreed the shot clock was too long, there were too many timeouts and the officiating was horrible. It was the season the sport's most visible ambassadors suddenly became its harshest critics.
College basketball needed some positive publicity in the worst way. Thankfully, the NCAA Tournament provided just that. There are still plenty of good ways to fix the sport, but sometimes even an avalanche of conspiring factors can't stop this from being a thrilling, heart-stopping three weeks that's as entertaining as any sporting event on the calendar.
This tournament basically had everything you're looking for. Wild first round? Yes. The opening Thursday was bonkers, with five one-point games, an instant classic buzzer-beater from R.J. Hunter that made his father an overnight celebrity, and a trendy Final Four pick (Iowa State) getting knocked off by a UAB team that finished fifth in Conference USA.
The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight were no letdown. We got the Wisconsin-Arizona and Duke-Gonzaga Elite Eight games everyone was looking for. We got an unlikely matchup between two titan coaches in Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino that went back and forth the entire way. We got Kentucky keeping its shot at 40-0 alive by surviving the scare of its life from Notre Dame in what felt like the most compelling college game in years.
And it's ending with what's pretty much a perfect Final Four. It really doesn't feel like college basketball is on life support anymore. The tournament was that good. If you're just now starting to pay attention, here's what you need to know about the last four teams standing.
SB Nation presents: Why Kentucky will will win the NCAA Tournament
Let's just be honest: whether you love or hate Kentucky, it wouldn't be the same without the Wildcats here.
John Calipari's team has been the story of the season since embarrassing Kansas in its second game, blocking the same number of shots (11) as the Jayhawks had field goals. The Wildcats survived overtime scares against Ole Miss and Texas A&M and pretty much pummeled everyone else. They put the biggest beatdown you'll ever see on West Virginia and then almost saw everything unravel against Notre Dame.
There's been drama following this team the entire season and now it has to go through a juggernaut Wisconsin squad at 38-0. You really couldn't write the script any better.
Kentucky's season has been so memorable from the beginning that it almost feels cheap trying to throw everything in a small blurb. I'll remember this as the team I watched open up a 24-0 lead on UCLA (a Sweet 16 team!) from the opening tip back in December. I'll remember it as the team that made an opposing coach call Jesus ... then tell the media even Jesus couldn't help him. I'll remember this as the team that mastered the double block ...
... and the team that dunked so much it dunked on itself:
Maybe you hate this team. It makes sense. Some people didn't like Barry Bonds, either. Greatness is hard to accept. But from a pure entertainment standpoint, Calipari and these Wildcats really are a gift. I am cherishing them because whether they go 40-0 or lose to Wisconsin or Duke or Michigan State, I'll know it felt like watching something historic.
Hate Kentucky all you want. It's more fun that way. Just don't take the Wildcats for granted.
SB Nation presents: What makes Wisconsin a title contender
This had to start feeling like deja vu for Wisconsin a long time ago. The Badgers beat Oregon in the Round of 32 just like last year. They had to beat Arizona in the Elite Eight just like last year. They have to go through Kentucky in the Final Four, just like last year. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are leading the way, just like last year.
Kaminsky and Dekker could have turned pro after last season and both would have had a good chance at going in the first round. Instead, they're back in the Final Four with a second crack at a very different if still talented Kentucky team and both of their draft stocks have improved considerably. Kaminsky is up to No. 10 on DraftExpress' board and Dekker is right behind him at No. 16. If you're looking for an argument in favor of going back to school, it's hard top this.
It feels right to say that Badgers enter the Final Four as the people's champs. Yeah, it's a historically good offensive team with five starters who shoot the lights out. More importantly, it's a team of extremely righteous bros. Kaminsky dances like no one is watching. Dekker does at least three things per game that look straight out of the NBA. Hayes might be the funniest player in the tournament.
Just try to hate on them. It's impossible:
It's worth noting when Wisconsin and Kentucky played last year, the Wildcats were without Willie Cauley-Stein and his backups still washed Kaminsky. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee were instrumental in limiting Kaminsky to just eight points on seven shot attempts, and neither is close to as good as Cauley-Stein. That has to be in the back of your mind thinking about this game, but there are still plenty of reasons to believe the Badgers match up with Kentucky better than any team in the country.
To beat Kentucky, you need size. The Badgers go 7-foot, 6'8, 6'9 across the front line with Kaminsky, Hayes and Dekker. You need multiple three-point shooters. All five starters and both of Wisconsin's key bench cogs can hit from deep. You need more than one player who can take over. Wisconsin checks all those boxes.
I don't know if Wisconsin will beat Kentucky on Saturday, but I do know that the Badgers are capable of beating Kentucky on the right day. That should be enough to make this the most compelling game of the season on paper.
SB Nation presents: What makes Duke dangerous enough to win it all
I'll admit it: I'm glad Duke is here, too. Gonzaga was an objectively talented team, but it just wouldn't have brought the same emotional investment that Duke does. The Blue Devils are bad guys, and maybe not even in the fictional sense.
I'm not going to make the argument that Duke is secretly likable like Kentucky because it's not true here. Mike Krzyzewski and his face inspire visceral reactions for a reason. I will say that this team probably starts four NBA players, that its offense is beautiful to watch and that it might be playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time.
You should appreciate Jahlil Okafor. As the game in general moves away from low post scoring as a primary offensive option, here comes a center in the mold of players who dominated the '80s and '90s. He has slow feet, he doesn't defend well and he can't make a free throw to save his life. It's all accurate and yet he's still the most consistently dominant player in the tournament.
The other two starting freshmen, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, are great, too. It feels wrong to ever evoke the name of Chris Paul when you're talking about a college player, but Jones has had moments this season when he's played with a similarly evil amount of precision and control. Look at the Wisconsin win (22 points on 11 shots) or the win at North Carolina (17 in the second half) for evidence. Tyus Jones was diabolical in those games and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he does it again at some point against Michigan State or in the championship game.
As for Winslow, it feels safe to say he's in the team picture of coolest players ever at Duke. He's the type of wing everyone wants, a super athletic defensive monster who kills teams in transition and can hit an open three. Winslow's chase-down blocks get all of the attention, and rightfully so, but his dunks aren't bad, either:
A Kentucky-Duke title game would be so ridiculous. Not saying I'm root for it or against it, just leaving that there.
Tom Izzo basically said it: no one thought this team would make the Final Four a month ago. Last year's team -- the one with Gary Harris and Adreian Payne and Keith Appling -- that was the squad that should have made the Final Four. This was basically a transition year.
"It'll go down as the best one, just because of what we went through all year," Izzo said. "This team had the least chance to get there, so that makes it a little special."
The only people who are surprised Michigan State is here are the people who paid attention all season long. Everyone else figured this was a formality, because it's March and it's Izzo so this is what happens. In a sense, that's their greatest accomplishment.
The Spartans certainly don't look out of place right now -- they're definitely playing at a Final Four level. Virginia was one of the best teams all season and MSU outplayed the Cavaliers start to finish. Oklahoma had a dominant defense and five starters capable of scoring in double figures. Louisville had a stud in Montrezl Harrell, got the best game of Wayne Blackshear's life, hit an extremely lucky free throw to force overtime and still couldn't kill Izzo's guys.
Travis Trice is on his Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier shit right now. Denzel Valentine is a stat-sheet stuffer (15-7-6 with two steals and a block) and one of the most underrated players in the tournament. Izzo is Izzo and that should be enough for anyone:
They're here and they deserve to be here. At this point, it would be hard to be all that surprised if they upset Duke. I watched these two teams play in person at the Champions Classic in November (a 10-point Duke win) and the Michigan State team we have now looks so much better than the one from that night.
You know the old saying: never count out Touchdown Tom (Izzo). You'd have to be a damn fool.