Final Four: Previewing Michigan State's Competition

MSU vs. Duke, Wisconsin vs. Kentucky Saturday

INDIANAPOLIS – The Michigan State Spartans are just two wins away from winning their first National Championship since the 2000 NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, MSU will battle the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils for the chance to play the winner of No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 1 Kentucky.

Do you notice a pattern here? Yes, Michigan State is the lone Final Four participant without a shiny No. 1 seed next to its name, but does that mean the Spartans have no chance?

Tom Izzo teams should never be counted out in March, but the seventh Final Four appearance might be the toughest test yet for the Spartans' leader.

Here's a look at the last teams standing in this college basketball season.

No. 7 Michigan State Spartans

Regular season (23-11, 12-6 Big Ten)

Throughout most of the regular season, Michigan State struggled to emerge as the national power Spartan fans have become accustomed to. Stunning early-season home losses to Texas Southern and Maryland dropped MSU to just 9-5 at the turn of the calendar, and the mediocre 10-5 stretch that followed wasn't much better.

But Izzo's team hit the gas pedal in March after a loss to Wisconsin on the first of the month. MSU beat tournament two tournament teams in Purdue and Indiana before running through the Big Ten Tournament and holding an 11-point lead over eventual champion Wisconsin with just 7:46 left in the college basketball season.

Unfortunately the Spartans coughed up that lead and laid an egg in overtime, falling 80-69 to the Badgers.

Road to the Final Four

Izzo didn't let the poor finish in Chicago carry over into the NCAA Tournament, as Michigan State handled No. 10 Georgia with relative ease. The win set up a highly-anticipated Round of 32 matchup with the nation's top defensive team: Virginia.

One year after sending home the No. 1 Cavaliers during the Sweet 16, MSU ended Virginia's season once again. Senior guard Travis Trice dropped 23 points on the top-ranked defense en route to a 60-54 win. MSU led throughout the second half and, with No. 1 Villanova's loss to No. 8 N.C. State, became the favorite in the Region.

Oklahoma jumped out to an early lead over the Spartans in the Sweet 16, and used that run to take a four-point lead into halftime. But Trice scored 24 more points and Denzel Valentine added 18 of his own to squeeze past the Sooners and set up a matchup with Louisville.

Wayne Blackshear took over for Louisville against MSU, scoring 28 points on six of 13 shooting and a perfect 12 for 12 from the charity stripe. But the Spartans exorcised their free throw demons in overtime, finishing the game at 75 percent, to outlast the Cardinals 76-70 and reach the Final Four.

Who to know

Trice is clearly the leader of the Spartans. When the offense gets into a rut, the senior takes it upon himself to find a shot and knock it down. He averages 15.3 points and 5.1 assists over 38 games, but his true value hasn't emerged until this tournament run.

Michigan State's X-factor is Branden Dawson, who showed spurts of being a dominating Big Ten center this season. When he's going right, Dawson can easily give MSU 20 points and 10 rebounds. But foul trouble and stretches of inactivity have plagued the senior at times during his career, but he'll have to put those periods behind him against Duke's talented front line.

No. 1 Duke Blue Devils

Regular season (29-4, 15-3 ACC)

Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski are coming off another dominant regular season in which the Blue Devils lost just four games.

After heading into the middle of January with a 14-0 record, Duke struggled through a 3-3 stretch that included losses to N.C. State, Miami and Notre Dame. Duke responded with a road win over then-undefeated Virginia and won 12 straight games before a loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Semifinals ended its regular season.

Duke finished the year in second place in the top-heavy ACC behind Virginia and earned A No. 1 seed.

Road to the Final Four

In a very un-Duke-like fashion, this year's Blue Devils stormed through their Region with very little drama. The same school that lost to both No. 15 Lehigh and No. 14 Mercer in two of the past three tournaments won its four Regional games by an average of 17 points per game.

Clearly, in a sport dominated by underclassmen, Duke is a whole new team in 2015. It enters the game against MSU coming off a 14-point dismantling of 35-2 Gonzaga. What makes Duke so tough is the number of weapons in the starting lineup, ranging from freshman center Jahlil Okafor to senior guard Quinn Cook.

Who to know

In preparing for a game against Duke, the defensive focus will center on Okafor, one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the country. The freshman averaged a team-high 17.5 points per game this year on 66.8 percent shooting. He also dominates the paint on defense, grabbing 8.7 rebounds and blocking 1.4 shots per game.

The silent hero on Duke's team is fellow freshman Tyus Jones, a 6 foot 1 point guard who plays nearly 34 minutes per game for Coach K. Jones is a rare freshman who thrives in the biggest moments and even takes the shot over Okafor in some late-game situations.

Jones dishes out 5.7 assists per game and shoots 88.8 percent from the free throw line. He's the ultimate finisher for Duke.

No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers

Regular season (31-3, 16-2 Big Ten)

Wisconsin is coming off one of the most decorated seasons for any team in the country after taking home the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships.

The Badgers were nearly perfect all year, falling only to Duke, Maryland and, in one of the most puzzling games of the season, Rutgers. Wisconsin spent the year making very good teams look very bad, like in its 32-point win over Iowa and 24-point win over Ohio State.

Bo Ryan's team came very close to coughing up the Big Ten Tournament title when it trailed MSU by 11 late, but used a huge run late and an 11-point overtime shutout to secure a No. 1 seed.

Road to the Final Four

Wisconsin enters its game against Kentucky coming off of three straight seven-point victories. After allowing Coastal Carolina to hang around for most of the Round of 64, Wisconsin knocked off Pac 12 Player of the Year and the red hot Oregon Ducks in a close second game to reach the Sweet 16.

The Badgers kicked off the second weekend with a win over an extremely athletic North Carolina team behind 23 points from sophomore Sam Dekker. Dekker and AP Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky took care of No. 2 Arizona in the Elite 8, combining for 56 points on 17-31 shooting to reach the Final Four.

Who to know

Everything runs through Kaminsky in the Badgers offense. The Big Ten's top player averages 18.7 points and eight rebounds this season and represents a matchup nightmare with his ability to shoot the three ball at 41.5 percent.

If there's one team that can bother Kaminsky around the basket, it's Kentucky. The senior had no problem shooting over basically any defender this season, but will have to battle harder than ever to get to his spots against the Wildcats' swarming defense.

Wisconsin becomes nearly impossible to guard when Dekker plays like he did over the second weekend of the tournament. The sophomore is listed a 6 foot 9 but can handle the ball and shoots just well enough from deep to keep the defense honest.

In terms of sheer athletic potential, Dekker is the most dangerous player on Wisconsin's roster. Could the duo of Kaminsky and Dekker knock off Kentucky? The Badgers probably have as good of a chance as any team in the nation.

No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats

Regular season (38-0, 18-0 SEC)

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two months, you know the story behind Kentucky's magical run.

The Wildcats are 38-0, coming off an SEC regular season and tournament title, and looking to polish off the best season in college basketball history.

Kentucky burst onto the scene this season, slamming No. 5 Kansas 72-40 in just its third game of the season. In December, Kentucky faced a string of three straight eventual Sweet 16 teams, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville, and won the three by an average of 20.33 points. The pressure of going undefeated never got the best of UK, which played just six single-digit games the whole year.

Road to the Final Four

There were no surprises for Kentucky during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament as it breezed past Hampton and Cincinnati with relative ease.

In the Sweet 16, the young Wildcats put an historic hurting on a trash-talking West Virginia team, doubling up the Mountaineers 78-39. In the Elite 8 Kentucky trailed the ACC champions, Notre Dame late, but came up with some big shots in the final minute to take the lead.

In the end, Notre Dame came up empty in its final possession and the undefeated season lived on into the Final Four.

Who to know

Kentucky's heart and soul lies in the play of junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who doesn't lead the Wildcats in many statistical categories but remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the sport.

Cauley-Stein is beloved by Coach John Calipari for his ability to effectively guard any player from a point guard to a center. For a seven-footer, Cauley-Stein moves tremendously well. He's never been a focal point off the Kentucky offense, but when he does shoot, he converts at a 57.8 percent clip.

But when the game comes down to the wire, Kentucky's offense is all about Aaron Harrison. The sophomore guard has made a living off of big three-point shots in the NCAA Tournament, the latest of which erased a two-point deficit with minutes left against Notre Dame.

In last year's tournament, Harrison hit late three-point shots to lift Kentucky over both Michigan and Wisconsin en route to the National Championship Game.

If Cauley-Stein and Harrison are both on their games Saturday, Kentucky will likely return to that same stage.

Final Four game times:

Michigan State vs. Duke: 6:09 p.m. ET on TBS
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky: 8:49 p.m. ET on TBS