Forgrave: Top 10 storylines heading into Final Four
APR 04, 2014 8:53p ET
Here are the top 10 storylines going into this weekend’s Final Four in the sporting world’s greatest monstrosity, JerryWorld in North Texas.
* This Kentucky team has had a season without parallel in American sports history. Have you ever heard of a season arc as bizarre as Kentucky’s this year? Let’s review: This team was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, with a recruiting class considered the best in college basketball history (six McDonald’s All-Americans!) that had the media wondering if we might see the first 40-0 season.
Head coach John Calipari kicked off the season with a proclamation at Big Blue Madness in October: “We are college basketball.” Then Big Blue Hubris was knocked off its perch. An undefeated season became a 10-loss season, with a March loss to South Carolina knocking Kentucky out of the top 25. The new storyline went like this: Kentucky was one of the most overanalyzed teams in sports history, and one of the most underachieving, too.
Then after one overanalyzed Calipari “tweak” — and an improbable run to the SEC title game and now the Final Four — the storyline has become about a team that’s finally grown up. It’s No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Final Four, the first “Cinderella” team to be ranked No. 1 before the season. I asked Calipari on Friday about the life lessons from this wild, improbable season.
“First of all, don’t believe all the hype, including me,” he replied. “Know that each of these kids needs to be coached, needs to be challenged. You need to define their roles, however good they are. At the end of the day, they can’t do it by themselves.”
* Billy Donovan is chasing history. You know how many active coaches have more than two national titles? One — Mike Krzyzewski. Any idea how many have more than two national titles in the history of college basketball? Five, and they’re the most impressive names in the sport: John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (4), Coach K (4), Bob Knight (3) and Jim Calhoun (3).
That’s the sort of history Billy Donovan would make if, at age 48, he wins his third national championship in nine years. When we’re talking about the greatest coaches in college basketball today, Donovan often is overlooked, likely because we erroneously still think of Florida as a “football school.” Win or lose, we need to change that thinking.
* Bo Ryan should apply for David Letterman’s open spot after the Final Four. I could listen to a Bo “Aw Shucks” Ryan press conference all day long. With all this corn-fed (or cheese-fed) Midwestern wisdom, it constantly blows me away that he’s originally from Philadelphia. Here’s a sampling of his press-conference gems this week.
On the one-and-done rule: “When somebody asks me about one-and-done, all I remember is when my mom would give me a pork chop or a piece of meat loaf, and I would ask for another piece, and she would say, ‘No, one and done.’ ” On different styles of winning in college hoops: “Frank Sinatra, wasn’t that the song? ‘We did it our way?’ I mean, everybody’s doing it their way. If you’re a coach and here’s the landscape, you do it the best way you can.” On what a Division I championship means next to his three Division III titles: “When you say ‘lower-level,’ Division III is three numbers. Division I is one number. So some people might think that’s a higher level. I forgot the rest of the question. I heard the Division I or the lower level thing and you hit a nerve, but that’s all right. What was your question?’’
* Shabazz Napier really is that good. How good? You mean, other than that he has been the best player in the tournament and the sole reason UConn is in the Final Four for the second time in four years? How about that the obvious Kemba Walker comparisons (willing a UConn team to an unexpected Final Four) are statistically dead on? Walker, during the 2010-11 season, averaged 23.5 points, 4.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds. Napier, in this NCAA Tournament: 23.3 points, 4.5 assists, 6 rebounds. He’s been absolutely nails, shooting 45 percent from 3-point range and 93 percent from the free-throw line.
* Is that Wisconsin guy asleep while he’s playing? Wisconsin 7-footer Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky would like you to know that he is, in fact, not asleep. “I’ve heard comments about how I look like I’m asleep all the time,” the heavy-lidded Kaminsky said Friday. “But you know, it doesn’t matter once the game starts. It doesn’t matter what we look like. It matters how we play.”
And how Kaminsky has played is like the biggest revelation of this NCAA Tournament. A year ago, who would have guessed that Kaminsky, who averaged 10 minutes and four points a game as a sophomore, would drop 28 points and grab 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight against Arizona, the nation’s top-ranked defense? Certainly not any of the other 67 teams in this tournament, none of whom recruited him out of Lisle, Ill.
* This Final Four shows college basketball’s amazing parity. Well, sort of. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, this season’s Final Four has the fourth-highest average seed. Of course, this is counting Kentucky as a No. 8 seed, which it is … but it really isn’t.
* April is the season of the overlooked big man. And more than just Kaminsky. DeAndre Daniels is UConn’s X-factor; after disappearing for vast stretches of February and early March, the athletic junior forward has made it his mission to remind us this isn’t just Napier’s team.
Florida freshman Chris Walker has shown why he was considered a one-and-done candidate before he sat out the first two-thirds of the season with eligibility issues.
And I have to be honest: I forgot freshman Marcus Lee played for Kentucky. He didn’t play in 10 SEC games. He didn’t log a minute in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, then logged exactly one minute in Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen win over Louisville. Then, after Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury, he came out and was the difference in Kentucky’s Elite Eight win over Michigan, with 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
* Statistics never lie. OK, they do lie. But get this number: Over the past 11 seasons, every team that’s won the national title has ranked in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. There’s only one Final Four team that currently fits that bill, and it’s Florida.
* Kevin Ollie has forged his own path. Eighteen months ago, the legendary Jim Calhoun abruptly resigned as UConn’s basketball coach. Ollie, his top assistant and hand-picked successor, took over — but with only a seven-month contract, not exactly a ringing endorsement from the administration.
Then he guided his Huskies to a 20-win season despite being banned from postseason play, got a contract extension, and this season became only the fourth head coach in college basketball history to make a Final Four in his first NCAA Tournament. He’s done so by walking an extraordinarily fine line, embracing his mentor, Calhoun, while at the same time crafting a team in his own image.
“I don’t look at it like a lot of people look at it, that I’m replacing coach Calhoun,” Ollie replied when I asked him about his path to the Final Four. “Coach Calhoun is still beside me. He’s in front of me. He’s behind me. I’ve locked arms with coach because of what he’s put inside of me and his belief system in me … (But) this is my program now.”
* This Final Four is wide open. Has there been a more exciting NCAA Tournament than this one? Seven overtime games. A ridiculous amount of buzzer-beaters. Three straight Kentucky games — against Wichita State, Louisville and then Michigan — that should be considered all-timers. Upsets galore. For this Final Four to live up to the first two weekends, it’ll take a lot.
Sure, UConn can beat Florida, but it’ll take pretty much everything going right for UConn. And sure, Wisconsin can handle Kentucky, but it’ll take a team imposing its will (and tempo) on the most talented team in the nation.
Let’s say Florida faces Kentucky in the title game, which is what I expect. It would be an all-SEC title game in a season during which the SEC finally lost its stranglehold on the BCS trophy in football. In the Year of the Freshman, it would be a matchup between a Florida team that starts four seniors and a Kentucky team that’s only the second team to make a Final Four starting five freshmen. Can you imagine a better storyline than that?
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.