We asked. The basketball gods listened. I’m not sure if we could have scripted a better Final Four than we have now, with Kentucky and Wisconsin on one side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan State on the other. The storylines are perfect: Kentucky going for 40-0, Wisconsin going for revenge from a year ago. Coach K, tying John Wooden with his 12th career Final Four, versus Tom Izzo, in his seventh. Four of the biggest names in coaching, with a combined 25 Final Four appearances, the most ever in a Final Four. Oh yeah – and the players, too. Here’s a list of my 10 best in the Final Four. Kentucky fans might tell you to just pick the 10 Wildcats with the most minutes, but this Final Four is jam-packed with star power. – Reid Forgrave
10. Tyus Jones, G, Duke
I like to call him 'Stones' Jones, because of his ability to always take – and make – the big shots. If there’s going to be a Christian Laettner moment in this Final Four for Duke, Jones will be the one to create it. What I love about this freshman-filled Duke team, Coach K’s youngest since 1982-83, Jay Bilas’ freshman year, is how they rarely play like freshmen. That’s because of Jones’ amazing poise, and the fact that Jones and his best friend Jahlil Okafor have an enormous amount of chemistry from playing together since middle school. And don’t forget that Jones’ defense, which was a frequent subject of criticism during Duke’s January swoon, has improved vastly.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
9. Branden Dawson, G/F, Michigan State
Here are some players who were ranked lower than the highly touted Dawson in the 2011 recruiting class: Ben McLemore, Rodney Hood, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Otto Porter. All of those guys are in the NBA. The story of Dawson’s college career has mostly been one of disappointment and not living up to the expectations of outsiders. But the senior has averaged nearly a double-double this season, and his putback on Sunday after Travis Trice’s missed 3 was one of the key plays in Michigan State’s win over Louisville. Dawson isn’t going to have a 25-point game in the Final Four, but the little things he does could be the key to a possible Michigan State upset.
8. Willie Cauley-Stein, F, Kentucky
During the SEC tournament, John Calipari told his best defensive player to focus on defense and the offense would come. That’s what Cauley-Stein did, and he won that tournament’s MVP award. His best offense flows off him playing aggressive defense. Cauley-Stein has been a defensive beast in this tournament, with nine blocks in four games. And don’t forget that his ad-libbing defensive play in the waning seconds against Notre Dame – double-teaming Jerian Grant, staying on his hip as he raced down the court, then challenging Grant’s shot at the buzzer – might have saved Kentucky’s perfect season.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY SportsAndrew Weber
7. Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin
We’ve heard a lot during this tournament about Dekker’s out-of-this-world performance at the LeBron James camp last summer. That’s because it was at that camp when people saw for the first time that Dekker could become an absolute star. And that’s what he’s become during this tournament. Dekker’s career-high 23 points were the main reason Wisconsin escaped UNC in the Sweet 16, then he upped his own ante by scoring 27 points against Arizona with a perfect-shooting second half. If Wisconsin is going to end Kentucky’s undefeated season – and I think the Badgers are the team best suited for the upset – Dekker is going to need to keep playing at this level.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
6. Justise Winslow, F, Duke
Remember when the sky was falling in Durham? It was January, and Duke had just lost two straight, one at NC State and the other at home to Miami. It is no coincidence that Winslow happened to be in the middle of a slump at that time. He shot 3-of-13 at NC State, then scored two points and got two rebounds against Miami. Duke’s fortunes will rise or fall on Winslow’s performance, and fortunately for Coach K, Winslow has been on fire. He has proven during this tournament why he’s a possible top-five pick in this June’s NBA Draft. Winslow got a double-double in the Sweet 16 against Utah, then dropped 16 points on Gonzaga. He’s the top 3-point threat on the top 3-point-shooting team in the Final Four. And that doesn’t even go into his defense, which might be the most impressive part of his game.
Getty ImagesLance King
5. Travis Trice, G, Michigan State
Two months ago I thought there was a better shot of Tom Izzo missing the tournament entirely than making the Final Four. This may be the biggest lesson of my March: Never count out Izzo. The main reason this Michigan State team is the seven-seed Cinderella of this Final Four is the senior point guard Trice. He’s second in the tournament in made 3-pointers, one behind UCLA’s Bryce Alford. He leads his team in scoring, assists and heart. If Michigan State can pull off the improbable and win the title in this stacked Final Four, Trice will go down as the Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier of this tournament.
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY SportsMark Konezny
4. Devin Booker, G, Kentucky
Kentucky is the type of team that can play a C+ game and still win. Just look back to the Notre Dame victory, where the Fighting Irish controlled the contest, played nearly perfectly and still lost. But when Booker is shooting well, Kentucky is close to unbeatable. After a shooting slump at the end of SEC play seeped into the tournament, he has made half his 3-point attempts the past two games. When he’s hot, watch out.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsRick Osentoski
3. Karl-Anthony Towns, F, Kentucky
This is the year of the big man in a time when the sport of basketball has been moving away from big men. Some people have been making a case for Towns to be the No. 1 overall pick over Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Though I think it’d be silly for anyone other than Okafor to go first overall, Towns looks like the type of player who’ll be a stud in the NBA. He is the single reason Kentucky squeaked past Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, scoring a career-high 25 points in 25 minutes. Kentucky will need every bit of that against Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
2. Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky may be the single most important player to his team, but Okafor is a close second. A title game of Kentucky versus Duke would be a college basketball finale for the ages, and it’d be on the shoulders of Okafor – the best offensive big man in a generation – to attack Kentucky’s legion of 7-footers. But first he’ll need to get past a Michigan State team that feels like the UConn of this tournament: a scrappy crew that got hot at the perfect time. He’s the type of player who could drop 30 points on the undersized Spartans, and the type who might be able to do some damage against Kentucky.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY SportsBob Donnan
1. Frank Kaminsky, C, Wisconsin
Is there a more enjoyable person in college basketball than Frank the Tank? He dances terribly. He hangs with Will Ferrell. He creepily massages the Big Ten tournament trophy on Selection Sunday. He’s the biggest dork in sports, and America loves him. He also may be the single most important player in this Final Four. Remember what happened when Kaminsky missed a game with an injury earlier this year? Wisconsin lost to Rutgers. He leads his team in points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots. The rematch of Kaminsky versus the historically great Kentucky defense will be a joy to watch.