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.