College Basketball Nation: 040414 Final Four preview

ARLINGTON, Texas -- After five days of prelude, it's hard to find something new to say about these games -- every angle has been explored, discussed, dismissed and recycled, often in the matter of an afternoon. No analytical stone goes unturned, and yet, the underlying matchups we'll see on Saturday remain as fascinating and exciting as ever.

UConn vs. Florida

What to watch: Can UConn's defense keep it in the game? Fact is, no matter good Shabazz Napier is -- and he's really, really good -- the Huskies are probably going to struggle on offense. Florida's defense is the best in the country, and it's also well suited to guarding a perimeter-oriented, guard-dominant group like Kevin Ollie's. But UConn's defense is a top-10 per-possession unit in its own right, and if the Huskies frustrate Florida inside and keep Michael Frazier II from knocking down 3s from the wings, and they can keep the game close enough to give themselves a shot in the final few minutes … well, is there any player you'd rather have in that situation than Shabazz?

Who to watch: Napier is the star of the show here, obviously, and UConn's chances are inextricably tied to how well its point guard plays. But that won't necessarily be enough: Ryan Boatright will have to create some rotation havoc with dribble penetration; DeAndre Daniels will have to get to the rim here and there; Niels Giffey will have to make shots.

Key matchup: Again, there is an obvious answer here: Napier, the best guard in the country, will frequently be guarded by Scottie Wilbekin, arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. And vice versa: Napier will have to check the always-calm SEC player of the year when Florida runs its spread pick-and-roll stuff. But I'm also interested to see how UConn matches up with Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith and especially Patric Young down low. If Florida gets easy post buckets early and often, look out.

Who wins (with final score): Florida 72-66

Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

What to watch: Is "everything" an acceptable answer? There's so much to see here: John Calipari leading the nation's most talented team to an unlikely (if not exactly surprising) late-season renaissance. Bo Ryan reaching his first Final Four with a team that plays an up-tempo, picture-perfect rendition of his elegant swing offense. The startling youth of Kentucky. The reliable veterans of Wisconsin. The high likelihood of a game decided by one or two possessions in the final moments. A massive state-of-the-art stadium filled with die-hard fans in red and blue.

There is no such thing as a bad Final Four game, and Florida-UConn is going to be great. But this has all the makings of a classic.

Who to watch: Frank Kaminsky's uber-efficient offensive play is what lifted the Badgers' already lights-out offense to even greater heights in March; it's what allowed them to score 1.19 points per trip in four games (the latter of which included Arizona's smother defense and a Baylor team that destroyed Creighton two nights before Wisconsin put it through a clinic). And so much of the discussion here this week has revolved around how Kentucky will stop Kaminsky. Zone doesn't seem like a viable option, UK is missing Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson can't play far from the rim. Can Julius Randle take on the task? Marcus Lee? Does Kentucky go small and use Alex Poythress -- who has had a very solid tournament -- at the 4?

Key matchup: The above are all valid questions, but Wisconsin's offense is crafty enough to score against athleticism in all kinds of configurations. (See: last weekend.) Wisconsin's defense -- or, more precisely, its defensive rebounding -- may decide the game. Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the country. It grabs nearly 43 percent of its misses. It uses drives to the rim to peel defenders away from their assignments, at which point Randle and company devour easy second-chance points. Wisconsin is a pretty solid defensive rebounding team, but it hasn’t seen anything like UK. Can it hold the line?

Who wins (with final score): Wisconsin 68-67

Final Four has SEC flavor

April, 4, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As thin as the Southeastern Conference was as a whole this season, it looks like we’re headed toward a rematch of the SEC tournament title game to determine the national championship.

UConn vs. Florida

What to watch: UConn has what the other remaining teams do not -- players who made contributions on a national championship team. Tyler Olander started and both Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey played more than 20 minutes when the Huskies beat Butler to cut down the nets in 2011. That experience is why the Huskies have not faltered, although they have trailed by at least nine points in three of their NCAA tournament wins. Experience is a big reason why Florida is still playing. They start four seniors who have experienced tournament heartbreak, losing in the Elite Eight their previous seasons. They arguably play the best team defense of the four here. The Gators ranked third nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 57.6 points per game.

Who to watch: There isn’t a team remaining that relies more on a single player as much as the Huskies rely on Napier. His combined scoring and assists have accounted for 46 percent of UConn’s field goals during the NCAA tournament. As he goes, so will UConn. The same can be said of Michael Frazier II in relation to Florida’s 3-point shooting. Frazier, who made a school record 11 3s against South Carolina, has accounted for 46 percent of the Gators’ 3-pointers this season. He is their key to stretching defenses.

Key matchup: UConn’s DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright have to establish themselves early so the Gators can’t simply key on stopping Napier. Daniels scored 14 against Florida in their regular-season meeting, but Boatright shot just 2-of-8. Florida would be wise to attack the Huskies inside again, where Patric Young and Casey Prather dominated the first meeting, scoring a combined 36 points. It should come as no surprise the game will center on stopping Napier. No one has been able to do it so far, but Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin will get the challenge.

Who wins (with final score): UConn needed 26 points from Napier, the home-court advantage and a last-second shot to beat Florida in December. The Huskies won’t have any of that going for them this time around. The Gators have been consistently good all season and will continue into Monday’s national title game with a 69-62 victory.

Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

What to watch: Kentucky has to make its considerable size advantage matter. The Wildcats ranked second nationally in rebounding margin (plus-9.8), and despite losing center Willie Cauley-Stein to injury, they should control the boards against the Badgers. Kentucky’s big guards, 6-foot-6 Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, and 6-6 small forward James Young, have the length to cause considerable problems for the smaller Wisconsin backcourt to shoot over.

The Badgers have the offensive talent to pick the Wildcats apart. They spread the floor as well as any team, and all five of their starters are efficient 3-point shooters, starting with Ben Brust, the school’s career 3-point leader. The one thing opposing coaches harp on with the Badgers is that they don’t beat themselves -- they led the nation in fewest turnovers per game at just 8.1. The Wildcats can’t rest if they have a halftime lead, either. Wisconsin has outscored its NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 40-26 in the second half.

Who to watch: Wisconsin 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky has blossomed into a star during the tournament. It’s not just his ability to score from inside or out. He’s proficient passing from the high post and out of double-teams. He has had seven games with three or more assists. Seemingly overnight, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison became the big shot-taker and maker. His late 3-pointers against both Louisville and Michigan has him rolling into the Final Four with the utmost confidence.

Key matchup: How Wisconsin decides to defend Kentucky’s Julius Randle just may determine the game’s outcome. Listed at 6-9, 260 pounds, Randle presents a serious matchup problem. Sam Dekker, at 6-8 and 220 pounds, will likely get the assignment, and there’s little chance he can defend Randle one-on -one. He’ll need help from double-teams to keep Randle from dominating play in the paint. That will inevitably create open shots for Kentucky as long as its spacing stays clean and its passes are quick. Dekker defended Baylor’s Cory Jefferson in what was a similar matchup, but Jefferson wasn’t nearly as physical as Randle will be. (Jefferson had 15 points and seven rebounds against the Badgers.) Dekker’s best counter could be to keep Randle working hard on defense.

Who wins (with final score): Kentucky couldn’t win a close game during the regular season, going 2-8 in games decided by five or fewer points. In NCAA tournament play, the Wildcats are 3-0 in games decided by five or fewer. Make that 4-0 after Kentucky edges Wisconsin 73-72.
ARLINGTON, Texas – There are a variety of Final Four storylines that deserve a mention. But I can’t wait to see if Shabazz Napier finishes this thing. He’s been the best player in the Big Dance thus far. Will the veteran guard end his college career with two more otherworldly performances and a national championship ring? We’ll see.

UConn versus Florida

What to watch: When these two teams met Dec. 2, Napier was just too much for a good Gators squad. There was a lot of postgame chatter about Scottie Wilbekin’s absence in the final minutes of that game, which ended when Napier hit a buzzer-beater to win 65-64. It’s important to note that the Gators also shot 49 percent from the field. They committed 16 turnovers, though. Florida has been a better ballhandling team throughout the NCAA tournament. But the Gators are ranked 115th nationally with turnovers on 17.5 percent of their possessions, according to Ken Pomeroy. Another sloppy night could lead to a loss. Good news for Florida? Wilbekin has two turnovers in four tournament games.

Who to watch: Napier. That’s all. He’s magic. He has put together a remarkable run and carried UConn to the Final Four. There have been a multitude of Kemba Walker comparisons, and they’re all legit. We’re watching something, someone special. And even though Florida has the better team, UConn has the best player on the floor. The best player in North Texas.

Key matchup: There’s been a lot of talk about Napier versus Wilbekin. That’s obviously a key matchup. But Patric Young and DeAndre Daniels battled in the first game. This matchup will be critical on Saturday, too.

Who wins: I just think Florida has the weapons to finish strong and secure the victory. I say Florida 68, UConn 64.

Kentucky versus Wisconsin

What to watch: There’s so much talk about pace. Wisconsin is generally viewed as a plodding team that tries to slow the game down and lure opponents into the gritty games that it has won all season. But Kentucky beat Michigan in a 57-possession affair in the Elite Eight. Kentucky can go slow. This game will center on efficiency and execution, on offense and defense, in the half court. It won’t be a track meet.

Who to watch: Frank Kaminsky is a 7-footer who has made 38 percent of his 3-pointers this season. He scored 28 points and registered 11 rebounds against Arizona, which was ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy. Kentucky has a bunch of talented athletes. But Kaminsky is unique. He’s a perplexing athlete for any defense.

Key matchup: Kaminsky versus the Wildcats. Maybe John Calipari will put Julius Randle on Kaminsky. He could also go with Dakari Johnson or Alex Poythress. It’s not an easy matchup. Arizona tried Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon. Didn’t work. This is the matchup, whatever it ultimately looks like, that will decide the outcome.

Who wins: Kentucky is just on a different level right now. I’ll say Kentucky 72, Wisconsin 67.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The favorite? Florida. The trendy pick? Kentucky. And that's why this could be one of the most surprising Final Fours. Wisconsin has the look of a No. 1 seed and the resume to back it up. UConn has arguably the best college player in the event in Shabazz Napier and could easily ride him to a title. That's why there are no givens and plenty of unknowns this weekend:

UConn vs. Florida

What to watch: The point guard matchup, Napier vs. Scottie Wilbekin. We were cheated the last time. We didn't see it through, as Wilbekin got hurt. I would love to see these two go toe-to-toe for the full 40.

Who to watch: DeAndre Daniels. He could be the difference for the Huskies. If he has an Iowa State-like performance in scoring, or even just produces on the backboard the way he did in the first Florida game, then the Huskies have a shot.

Key matchup: Any big vs. Patric Young. The Huskies will need Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan to share some time banging with Young in the post. They must be effective.

Who wins: Florida 68-66. The Gators will have too much inside for UConn and end the Kemba-like run.

Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

What to watch: How does Kentucky guard the 3-point line? The Badgers can beat Kentucky if the 3s are falling. There are a variety of options for Wisconsin that Kentucky must deal with Saturday.

Who to watch: Julius Randle. The Badgers don't have a real answer for Randle. He could have a dominant performance if he is hungry enough to get fed.

Key matchup: Traevon Jackson against Aaron Harrison. If this matchup occurs, then it will be a test for Jackson. He has handled comparable lead guards, but this one will certainly push him on the grandest stage.

Who wins: Wisconsin 66-61. Frank Kaminsky will prove to be a difficult matchup and will make at least one game-changing 3-pointer.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Playing in domes is nothing new for the Final Four. But there are domes, and there is Jerry’s World, which looms like some sort of alien spaceship in the distance off the highway.

It, like everything in Texas, is huge. Like silly huge. From the upper press box, the basketball court looks like it might as well be sitting in Oklahoma.

So the question is, can these games be as big as the venue? My guess is yes. I know plenty of people think these two games look a bit lopsided, but I don’t. Connecticut and Wisconsin might be underdogs, but the two teams aren’t here accidentally. Both strung together strong regular seasons and have more than earned their way in March.

Here’s a quick look at what especially is worth watching in this national semifinal:

UConn vs. Florida

What to watch: The free throw line. Maybe it’s not the most dazzling part of a game to watch, but it could just be the most critical, especially if this game is tight. UConn has been unbelievably consistent from the line in this NCAA tournament, hitting 81 of 92. For the season, the Huskies average 77 percent. Compare that to the 67 percent and the 54 of 73 free throws the Gators have connected on, and you’ve got a situation that might get interesting.

Who to watch: Why stop watching Shabazz Napier now? The Huskies senior has been must-watch TV since the start of this tournament and odds are nothing will change on this, the biggest stage of the tournament. Napier has gotten plenty of help from his teammates, but the Huskies will still go as he goes.

Key matchup: As much as we’ll be talking about guard play, I still think the inside matchups might matter more. How DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah handle Patric Young will go a long way in determining how the Huskies fair in this game. UConn’s ability to hold Michigan State to just six points in the paint is the reason the Huskies are here. We’ll see if they can do the same against the Gators.

Who wins: I am oh-so-tempted to say the Huskies. I’ve seen teams catch lightning in a bottle in this tournament and that’s exactly what UConn is doing, but it’s just too hard to pick against a Florida team that has four seniors who have been on a four-year mission. Florida wins 73-66.

Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

What to watch: The boards. Kentucky has lived off its rebounding all season but never more than right now. In the postseason, only one team, Florida, has beaten the Wildcats on the boards. The Badgers have to keep them off the glass and prevent easy offensive putbacks or fouls.

Who to watch: The Harrison twins (sorry, they can’t be separated). The way the Wildcats’ guards have turned around their games in this tournament is why Kentucky is in the Final Four. Once chided for bad body language, the two have been the model of consistency, making big shots and even more importantly, making the right decisions.

Key matchup: It’s not original, but the matchup between Frank Kaminsky and Julius Randle is worth watching. Kaminsky can stretch the Wildcats’ defense some, pulling Randle out of the paint, but it’s the reverse side that could be problematic. The post players at Wisconsin are going to have their hands full (as most people do) with Randle, his post-mate, Dakari Johnson, and maybe even Marcus Lee.

Who wins: Kentucky was always the most talented team in this college basketball season. Now the Wildcats finally look like the best team. I don’t think this will be a blowout. Wisconsin is far too good and too solid for that to happen, but I still think the Wildcats make it to the national title game by beating the Badgers, 72-68.