INDIANAPOLIS — The 2015 Final Four includes a Who's Who of coaches and plenty of players who can alley and oop. But that's not what Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested was the event's defining characteristic this year.
"For a few years, we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals," he said Thursday. "This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be. It's about teams."
Of course, that's been Kentucky's mantra in this season of historic achievement. For all the talk of multiple McDonald's All-Americans, and platoons, and tanks rolling over hills, UK has won because its many players relied on timeless basketball virtues: coordinated defense and selfless offense.
"Kentucky's been a great team," Krzyzewski said. "John (Calipari) has done an amazing job with his group, and it's been good for college basketball in that you've been talking about a team instead of talking about freshmen or individuals."
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Kentucky (38-0) gets another chance to show its team-first approach Saturday night in the national semifinals. UK plays Wisconsin after Duke plays Michigan State.
Collectively, the four programs can boast 46 Final Four appearances and 15 national championships. That's a lot of reasons for "swag," except that the players on these four teams do not strut their stuff.
"It's not a big ego group here," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said of the players on the four teams. "I think what (Krzyzewski) said about John's team is interesting because usually the superstars are supposed to have the big egos. I don't see a lot of big egos in this tournament. Probably the fewest I've seen in a lot of years."
Without question, there is talent galore. Three of the teams have first-team All-Americans; Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky, Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin and Jahlil Okafor of Duke. Guard play, a supposed necessity for NCAA Tournament success, abounds. UK has its foursome (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis), Duke has a twosome (Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones) and Michigan State has Travis Trice (second in the Big Ten in assists) and Denzel Valentine (second in three-point baskets). Wisconsin has had exactly 200 more assists (481) than turnovers (281).
Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan arguably has the best vantage point to assess the Final Four teams. His Badgers played Duke and Michigan State this season, losing to the Blue Devils in early December and then twice beating the Spartans in March.
And, of course, Wisconsin lost to Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four.
"What I can say about the talent is there's shooters, there's ball-handlers, there's 'bigs,'" Ryan said. "I mean, you can go from every aspect of the game of basketball, and look at these four teams. There are guys that are just blue-collar guys that are there to rebound and play defense. There are guys that are there to score. There are guys that are there to post. There's guys defensively that can lock you down.
"I would say in this Final Four, having played all the teams within the past year, there's a little bit of everything. It's at a very high level."
Izzo noted the importance of players filling roles that enhance their teams. "You can't be somebody you're not," he said. "Just like, as coaches, we can't change and be somebody we're not."
Talk of teams and individual players peaking filled the air.
Calipari told reporters of how he met with his non-freshmen before traveling here to tell them he was proud of their development.
"I looked at Willie," he said. "I said, 'Can you imagine, Willie? Tell (teammates) where I saw you play. In an AAU game.' He said, 'I don't want to remember.' 'How many points did you get in that AAU game?'
"He got two. The guy who was guarding him was, like, 6-4. He has come so far as a player, but more importantly as a person."
When asked about Calipari telling the story about scoring two points, Cauley-Stein smiled and said, "He lied. I didn't only score two points."
Well, it made for a good story. Importantly, it spoke to a larger truth: Cauley-Stein had improved dramatically in three years: From one of UK's relatively few players not a McDonald's All-American to its only first-team All-American (according to The Associated Press). Along the way, Cauley-Stein was, first, a team player.
The coaches suggested that is the best way of getting to the Final Four.
"This is my 40th year as a head coach," Krzyzewski said. "Starting out coaching, I always felt that if you crossed the bridge to the Final Four, you got to the Promised Land."