There’s the ever-present threat of unpredictability with the NCAA tournament because, no matter what the regular season offered or what the numbers say on paper, every single game comes down to individual and team matchups. VCU made its run to the Final Four in 2011 because the teams it ran into were disrupted by its Havoc-style pressure and uptempo capabilities. Last season, 9-seed Wichita State knocked off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State on the way to the final weekend because it was one of the most balanced and efficient teams in the country, limiting its mistakes in a tourney setting and outlasting everyone in its path until running into the eventual national champs, Louisville.
Matchups bust brackets. Hot streaks bust brackets. Individual stars and surprise contributions bust brackets.
This is just the third Final Four in the modern era to feature two teams seeded 7th or worse by the NCAA tournament committee (Kentucky, UConn), so chalk predictions aren’t exactly useful here for the likes of Florida and Wisconsin. Two teams are going to win matchups in some important areas on Saturday to advance to the final game of the year. Here are five potential game-changing areas to keep an eye on:
When Florida and Connecticut met in Storrs earlier this season, Napier was the best player on the floor. The Huskies senior point guard has hit some snags along the way to the Final Four, but overall he’s built off an impressive junior season to become one of the most effective players in the country, vaulting his team to college basketball’s final weekend much in the same way his predecessor, Kemba Walker, did back in 2011.
In his second season in coach Kevin Ollie’s system, Napier is playing more minutes, taking more shots and being utilized on more possessions than ever before … and he’s producing at a higher rate. Without question, he’s one of the best players in the country and certainly one of the best remaining in this tournament — all of which raises the question: Can Scottie Wilbekin slow him down this time?
Back to that matchup in Storrs. On Napier’s turf and following some difficult travel arrangements (weather-related), Florida could not find an answer. Napier went off for 26 points (9-of-15 shooting), four rebounds and three steals — hitting the (quite fortunate) game-winner, the last time coach Billy Donovan’s top-ranked Gators dropped a game. He’s now averaging 23.3 points per game in the Dance — including three straight games with an offensive rating of 110 or higher — in wins over St. Joseph’s (10-seed), Villanova (2-seed), Iowa State (3-seed) and Michigan State (4-seed).
Florida has the best chance at slowing the senior down, though. The Gators are riding a 30-game winning streak thanks in large part to the nation’s most efficient defense which is allowing just 88.5 points per 100 possessions. And Wilbekin, who projects to draw the Napier assignment more than any of his teammates, is the best on-ball perimeter defender remaining in the tournament — or perhaps even when the tourney first started. The Gators’ 6-foot-2 senior point guard is everywhere (in a good way) on the defensive end, forcing turnovers (1.6 steals per game) and hurried possessions. If he can have more success against Napier this time around, it’s going to go a long way in keeping the No. 1 overall seed in the hunt for the national title.
The thing that makes this matchup so intriguing, perhaps the most intriguing individual matchup of Final Four Saturday: This is not just an offense vs. defense scenario. Wilbekin is playing at an equally high level on the offensive end; he’s the Gators primary shot-taker in big situations and he’s posted three straight 110-plus offensive rating games against Pittsburgh, UCLA and Dayton while averaging 19.3 points per game. Napier or Ryan Boatright or whoever else checks Wilbekin defensively is in for a tough 40-minute task, too.
On paper, this looks like a wash. Napier has had the better season, but Wilbekin has the ability to shut any perimeter player down at any given time and he’s playing with plenty of warranted confidence on the offensive end. Much like the previous meeting, UConn probably needs more out of its point guard than Florida does to advance to the title game.
The Arizona Wildcats entered their Elite Eight matchup with Kaminsky’s Wisconsin Badgers as the most efficient defense in the country — even better than Florida — and it still was not enough. Kaminsky is simply a matchup nightmare for opponents. A 7-footer with range and the ability to put the ball on the floor, the junior from Lisle, Ill., has to be in the conversation for the most improved player in the country as well as the most dangerous offensive player in the Final Four. He’s averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this season, but he’s been at his best in the tourney, scoring 19-plus in the past three games, including his 28-point highlight reel against the Wildcats.
Kaminsky’s versatility allows him to adjust his offensive approach to his defender’s weaknesses: when guarded by smaller defenders, he has a smooth low-post game, hitting 72.5 percent of his shots around the rim; for fellow big men trying to guard him, he’s able to draw them out to the 3-point line (where he shoots 37.8 percent) and either shoot or drive. Arizona coach Sean Miller kept having to substitute his own 7-footer, Kaleb Tarczewski, off the floor because of Kaminsky’s perimeter threat, and when he did, leaving talented freshman forwards Aaron Gordon or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to try and contend with Kaminsky, the inside-out clinic was taken into the paint.
So what’s the answer for Kentucky?
The good news that isn’t going to change from now until Saturday is that the Wildcats are big. Really big. Kaminsky struggled against Virginia and Minnesota, two of the bigger teams in the country, earlier this season (though Arizona is right up there with the biggest of teams, too, in terms of Pomeroy’s effective height), so perhaps there’s an answer tucked into the Wildcats’ frontline of Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and, yes, newfound super sub Marcus Lee (assuming 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein is out).
Kentucky’s defensive numbers (40th nationally in efficiency) are not near as good as Arizona’s over the course of the season, but these Wildcats are different than the ones that dropped a game to South Carolina near the end of the season, and they’ve bought in more defensively in this tournament, especially down the stretch late in games. They are athletic and versatile, and they have a few more big bodies to run at Kaminsky over the course of 40 minutes.
Kentucky’s plan defensively will likely be to force Wisconsin’s other pieces (Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust) to take on bigger roles — keeping the ball out of the 7-footer’s hands as much as possible — offensively. Kaminsky is matchup nightmare for most teams, but if Kentucky has the physical capabilities of playing him inside and out. (Arizona assumed the same thing, though.)
In case you missed it above, Kentucky is very, very big and it uses its size particularly well on the glass — as good big teams are wont to do. The starting unit includes five players standing 6-foot-6 or taller, including Randle, the 6-foot-9 USBWA freshman All-American, and Johnson, an imposing 7-footer who is just beginning to tap into his potential (he scored 15 points against Louisville, the first game he played 30-plus minutes in his career).
The major rebounding problem that Kentucky poses for most teams comes on the offensive boards, where the Wildcats rank best in the country — and substantially better than the next-best power conference team. They grab 42.5 percent of available offensive rebounds. Quite a few of those come on putback dunks (hello Mr. Lee), creating extra possessions and extra points for a team that has not shot too well from the perimeter over the course of the season. For a sense of just how much Kentucky has punished teams with its size on the offensive end this season, here are the nation’s top five offensive rebounding teams and their overall efficiency ranking (per Ken Pomeroy):
It should be noted that the other two power conference teams on that list, Baylor and Tennessee, made the Sweet 16 — offensive rebounding rate is one of the four factors of winning in basketball for a reason, and Kentucky is the very best at it this season. The top power conference team in offensive rebounding rate over the past six seasons, including this year’s Kentucky team, has won at least one NCAA tournament game, with three Elite Eight and two Final Four appearances tucked in there.
The Wildcats are looking to be the first of that group to win a national title, though, and Wisconsin will not make it easy on them. Badgers coach Bo Ryan has built his program’s identity around efficiency on both ends of the floor, and defensive rebounding is a system staple. The Badgers have finished top-30 nationally in defensive rebounding each of the past eight seasons. Led by Kaminsky and Dekker, the 2014 squad keeps opponents off the offensive glass better than all but 12 teams. No other Final Four participant does it better.
If anybody is built to limit Kentucky’s extra possessions, its the team running out against the Wildcats on Saturday.
Wilbekin isn’t the only defensive menace on Florida’s roster. Becoming the No. 1 defensive unit in college basketball is a team effort, and the Gators are as cohesive a unit on that end of the floor as any in this tournament. Guards Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II come up with their share of steals — as do forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete — all while being backed by a physical rim protector and rebounder in Patric Young.
All together, that unit forces turnovers at one of the highest clips nationally (23rd), dictating bad shots and fruitless possessions with the best of them.
UConn is getting the most out of its possessions right now. The Huskies are turning the ball over a little more than nine times per game in the tournament, aided in part by the experienced backcourt of Boatright and Napier.
Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky and his teammates rank 13th in defensive rebounding percentage this season.
Still, they’ve coughed the ball up on 17.2 percent of their possessions this season, and they haven’t played a team of Florida’s defensive capabilities since Louisville (lost all three meetings) and … Florida earlier in the season. UConn turned the ball over 60 times in those four games. Ollie’s team will need to perpetuate its current trend of getting the most out of every possession, because it will need every single one against the Gators’ suffocating defense.
The play of Aaron and Andrew Harrison has, in large part, sparked Kentucky’s postseason turnaround. The two 6-foot-6 freshmen guards have taken their respective games up several notches as the season’s urgency has kicked into full gear.
For all the talk and speculation of what John Calipari’s now-famous "tweak" was, it’s clear that it directly affected the Harrison twins’ effectiveness, particularly Aaron, who, simply put, has not played a bad game since SEC tournament tipped off. He’s submitted seven straight games with a 100-plus offensive rating, surpassing the 20-point plateau three times and capping it off with a 13-point effort against Michigan in the Elite Eight that ended with a game-winning 3-pointer that will go down as an iconic shot in the storied history of one the sport’s blueblood programs.
Add those 6-foot-6 freshmen talents to another 6-foot-6 freshman talent, the Wildcats’ best outside shooter James Young, and that’s three NBA-caliber talents on the perimeter that Wisconsin will have to guard — moreso as a unit than as individuals.
This is one of Ryan’s worst defensive units, in terms of efficiency, he’s had in the past decade or so, and with all the attention that big men Randle, Johnson, Poythress and (apparently) Lee require — especially Randle, both on the drive and on the blocks — it’s not as simple as rolling the ball out and telling Brust, Jackson and Josh Gasser (the team’s top perimeter defender), all 6-foot-3 or shorter, to blanket Young and the Harrisons. At least it shouldn’t be.
The closest comparison to Kentucky’s lenghty perimeter that Wisconsin has played this season is probably Michigan (the two Big Ten opponents split the season series), as the Wolverines run out the likes of Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson, each of whom stands 6-foot-6 and is effective on the perimeter. But Michigan’s offense, while excellent, doesn’t provide the type of physical interior presence that Kentucky will throw at the Badgers. Again, it is perhaps this game’s biggest point of interest: How will Wisconsin handle Kentucky’s superior size and athleticism at both ends of the court? Which team can force the other outside its comfort zone?
Wisconsin’s team cohesiveness, just like its rebounding department, will need to be at a season-high level to take out the recently-discovered juggernaut that just became the first school in history to knock out three of the past season’s Final Four participants.
Freshman guard Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer against Michigan catapulted Kentucky into the Final Four. He finished the Elite Eight matchup with 13 points.