Four for the money: Who’s cutting down the nets in Dallas?

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison is congratulated by teammates Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson (44) after making a three-pointer in the final seconds of their 75-72 win over Michigan to advance to the Final Four.  

David J. Phillip/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Final Four field is set, and there is no shortage of storylines in Dallas. You like old guys? Then you’ll love Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators — an experienced bunch plagued by second-weekend heartache the previous three seasons. And John Calipari is back with another rag-tag group of one-and-doners. Bo Ryan’s Badgers found some firepower — and the coach has found the Final Four for the first time in 13 seasons in Madison. And prodigal son Kevin Ollie has the UConn Huskies back to prominence. As for how it will play out next weekend?

 

 

FLORIDA (36-2, 18-0 SEC)

The No. 1-overall seed Gators enter the Final Four winners of 30 straight, and it’s somewhat poetic that their national semifinal pits them against a Connecticut team that was the last to deal them a loss — on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater way back on Dec. 2. In the four months since Florida last tasted defeat, the nation’s top team has truly blossomed, with senior stars Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young the most instrumental in that progress.

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Offensively, Florida doesn’t have a true go-to guy in the traditional sense, with Billy Donovan’s club taking a balanced approach to scoring. Five Gators average between 8.9 and 13.8 points per game, and Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II are all legitimate 3-point threats —Frazier among the best in the country from distance. Though Wilbekin or Prather would be most likely to handle the ball in a late-game situation, any one of Donovan’s men could get the call — making them that much tougher to defend.

The true key to Florida’s success, however, is the defense, which allows just 57.6 points per game and is anchored by Gainesville’s resident man-child, Young (whom Albany coach Will Brown said could have a shot in the NFL if basketball doesn’t work out). Young blocked four shots each against Pittsburgh and Dayton in the tournament, and can usually be found lurking in the paint — in true Gator fashion — waiting to embarrass unwelcome intruders. Combine that with a relentless full-court press after most made baskets, and it’s no wonder Florida is at the top of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

Florida may not have a future NBA star anywhere on its roster, but the Gators are experienced both in the tournament (with three straight Elite Eight appearances leading into this year’s Final Four run) and in the general sense (with four seniors in the starting five). And at the head of the bench, they have one of the nation’s top coaches in Donovan, whose 35-11 record in the NCAA tournament and two national titles speak for themselves. The Gators don’t have a particular weakness for opponents to exploit, so if they should fall in Dallas, it would almost have to be a result of them beating themselves.

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CONNECTICUT (30-8, 12-6 AAC)

Call 7-seed UConn a Cinderella if you want, but when the Huskies beat Florida back in February, they were the No. 12 team in the country, and eventually climbed into the Top 10 before a 5-4 slide from mid-December through mid-January dropped Connecticut from the national radar. An embarrassing 81-48 loss to Louisville in the regular-season finale ruined any remaining cred the Huskies had, but the tournament has seen something of a return to form for Kevin Ollie’s bunch, and they couldn’t have gotten hot at a better time.

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The key to stopping Connecticut is limiting the senior guard Napier, but that’s easier said than done. The well-rounded Napier leads the Huskies in scoring (17.9), rebounds (5.9), assists (4.9) and steals (1.8) and is a bona fide star who has played some of his best basketball in the tournament. Napier has averaged 23.3 points in four games thus far, and has been a sharpshooter from 3, hitting 14 of his 31 attempts, including 12 of his last 23. Napier scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half against Michigan State in the Elite Eight, and when he’s on, even the best defender can do little to contain him.

Problem is, Napier is prone to the occasional dud, his 2-of-13 shooting night in the 33-point loss to Louisville (which included a 1-of-10 mark from 3) being a prime example. And when you can contain Napier, the rest of the UConn roster, while talented, isn’t equipped enough to pick up his slack. With a week to prepare, Donovan will most certainly install a plan to make someone else — anyone else — beat his team, and as tough as DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright are, you don’t want either of them trying to tackle the best team in the country single-handedly.

Connecticut is exceeding expectations in its second season under Ollie, and there’s certainly something to be said about a fearless team playing with nothing to lose. The Huskies’ defense is good enough that their matchup with Florida shouldn’t be a runaway, and as the tournament has proven, anything is possible — they are here, after all. But the tournament has also taught us that a 7-seed has never won a national championship, even if the Huskies are, perhaps, underseeded. And it would take a virtually perfect game against Florida for their dream run to continue to next Monday.

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WISCONSIN (30-7, 12-6 Big Ten)

Big Ten football often gets a bad rap for being boring, and for a long time, that same school of thought applied to Wisconsin basketball and its application of coach Bo Ryan’s “swing offense,” which is at once mundane and deliberate, while still being effective enough to justify its implementation. But this year, the emergence of versatile junior 7-footer Frank Kaminsky has breathed some life into a Wisconsin ‘O’ in desperate need of some rejuvenation — and in doing so, Kaminsky has helped to make the Badgers a legitimate threat to win the NCAA championship.

In layman’s terms, Ryan’s swing offense utilizes virtually interchangeable parts at all positions — everyone needs to be able to both shoot and post up — and is dependent on good passing, great screening and cutting and incredible patience. Wisconsin pounds opponents into submission with its austerity; an approach which has gotten the Badgers to the NCAA tournament in each of Ryan’s 13 seasons in Madison. They haven’t exactly abandoned that strategy this season, but Kaminsky’s promotion from benchwarmer to key cog in the Badgers lineup has certainly altered their outlook for the better.

After spending the summer working on his interior footwork and post offense — Kaminsky, even in his limited playing time his first two seasons, was always a deadly shooter — Kaminsky announced his arrival when he broke the Wisconsin scoring record with a 43-point outburst against North Dakota in November. As the season has dragged on, including a rough January that saw Wisconsin lose five of six games at one point, Kaminsky spent more and more time in the post, dominating opponents inside while still keeping opponents honest with the threat of him stepping out for a 3.

Around Kaminsky, Wisconsin has still played its trademark staunch defense, is still impossibly precise, and leads the nation with the fewest turnovers per game on offense while also committing the nation’s second-fewest personal fouls on defense. But unlike previous campaigns under Ryan, the Badgers have a little bit of flash in Kaminsky, and it might make them interesting enough to win a national championship.

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KENTUCKY (28-10, 12-6 SEC)

Kentucky’s latest crop of super-freshmen came into 2013 as the supposed No. 1 team in the country. But until recently, the Wildcats did very little to live up to those expectations. It’s still unclear whether John Calipari’s team has gelled quite the way he’d like — not that it matters; they’ll all be replaced by fresh meat in a few months, anyway — but the Wildcats have been smoking-hot of late, which is all that really matters this time of year. And at the Final Four, we’ll get to see if the nation’s most talented team will also emerge as its best for the second time in three seasons.

Granted, it’s tough to call a team an underdog when it is propped up by one of the greatest recruiting classes one might ever see. But after UK lost three of four to end the regular season, including back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina and a throttling at the hands of Florida in the regular-season finale, it was fair to wonder whether the Wildcats were headed for another embarrassing finish like last season’s, in a 3,500-seat gym in the NIT first round against some guy named Robert Morris.

You can basically throw a dart at Kentucky’s roster and hit an elite player, but the most-touted prospect the Wildcats have is undoubtedly Julius Randle, who will almost surely be a top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft. A double-double machine, the chiseled Randle is a matchup nightmare for virtually anybody, and is one of a persistent group of rebounders that are among the country’s best. (Kentucky is second nationally in rebound margin and is especially productive on the offensive glass, where its 14.5 offensive boards per game help make up for its less-than-excellent shooting percentage.)

From Randle, you can go on down the line and count potential lottery pick after potential lottery pick, including fellow newbies James Young, Dakari Johnson, and twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress. But the one thing that could throw a wrench in all of Kentucky’s plans is the health of Cauley-Stein, whose 7-foot frame and “veteran” leadership were missing against Michigan in the Elite Eight.

Cauley-Stein is nursing a stress fracture in an ankle, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to return for the national semifinal on Saturday. If he can’t go against Wisconsin, it may take an outstanding performance out of Johnson in his place to slow Kaminsky and get the Wildcats over the hump. If they do, however, watch out. Florida has beaten Kentucky three times this season, but the SEC championship game went down to the wire, and you can’t figure it’ll get any easier — Cauley-Stein or not — in a fourth meeting with the national title on the line.

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PREDICTION

Florida lost just two games this season — I know, it was so long ago I can hardly remember them, either — and it just so happens that both of those teams are joining them in this year’s Final Four (Wisconsin handed Florida its first loss in the second game of the season). Generally, a team doesn’t need any additional reason to be motivated with a national championship at stake, but the prospect of avenging your only two defeats in an otherwise-perfect season seems like as good a reason as any to get up for what lies ahead.

The Gators don’t have the most talented roster left in the field, and they haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters in the NCAA tournament — though Saturday’s win over Dayton was mighty impressive. But they’re the best-coached and most experienced team left, they’re due to break through after coming up short each of the past three seasons, and, simply put it’s tough to see them losing to any of the other three teams remaining.

After being handed a cakewalk of a draw (by NCAA tournament standards), Florida should be well-rested — so don’t be surprised to see the Gators lineup play its two best games of the season next Saturday and Monday in Dallas, dispatching a UConn team whose luck, while inspiring, is due to run out, then steamrolling a Wisconsin squad that, despite Kaminsky’s best efforts, will be too thin inside to compete with the more physical Gators. Donovan will get his third national title in the last decade, adding more fuel to the burning debate over whether Florida is now officially a “basketball school.”

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