Best in show at the Final Four
Senior Focus: The Value Of Experience
The Final Four features four unique and talented teams. You don't get this far, advancing to the final chapter of the college basketball season, without strength in personnel and overall skills.
But Kentucky, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Florida all have a player who is vital to his team's respective fortunes.
Here are the faces of the indispensable player for each Final Four team:
Scottie Wilbekin (Florida): Every program needs a maestro, a Duke Ellington -- someone who rarely panics, especially in turbulent times. On Feb. 15 in Lexington, the Gators had been outplayed by Kentucky. Julius Randle & Co. were just the better team. For 30 minutes. In that final 10-minute stretch, however, Scottie Wilbekin showed the college basketball world why Florida has separated itself from the pack in the past four months. The senior point guard weaved through Kentucky's young lineup, hitting big shots and drawing fouls. He just toyed with the Wildcats. He controlled the floor. When the Gators needed a spark, Wilbekin delivered. He can do it with a big shot or a steal or a deflection. He stands out on both ends of the floor (he has six steals in the tournament). That has been the Gators' storyline for months. He helps Florida find itself when it needs to. The Gators are always steady down the stretch due to Wilbekin's serenity and refusal to abandon the script. He has committed two turnovers in the NCAA tournament. Two.
It's not easy to win four games in a row, what with the level of parity in the college game. Florida has won 30 consecutive games. Yes, 30. And Wilbekin has been its leader all season. In Arlington, Texas, the Gators will probably encounter troubling stretches against Connecticut, the last team that defeated them this season, all the way back on Dec. 2. And in those moments, coach Billy Donovan will turn to Wilbekin, who's averaging 16.8 points and 3.0 assists in the tournament. And the Gainesville native, if this trend continues, will respond. He always does. He's just a playmaker.
Julius Randle (Kentucky): When Kentucky faced Michigan in the Elite Eight, the Wolverines had to ask themselves a legitimate question every time Julius Randle touched the ball: Do you stand in front of a 6-foot-9, 260-pound missile when he drives to the rim, or do you avoid bodily harm and move? Randle has the prototypical power forward's body, and he's the best player in Arlington not named Shabazz Napier. John Calipari's offense turns Randle into a projectile who shoots toward the rim from all angles. He's a mammoth in the paint, a dunking, driving, rebounding, shot-altering giant. And because he's left-handed, his approach is unorthodox. Add his lottery-level skill and you have the most dangerous player in the Final Four other than Napier. Randle (15.8 points, 12.0 rebounds per game in the tourney) can certainly lead Kentucky to its second national title in three years.
But his presence and impact are evident off the floor, too. That Kentucky locker room is filled with players who have been stars for years. They're all confident. It takes a special player to stand out in a group like that, but Randle does. His teammates respect him because of his passion and confidence. They know that Randle will get a bucket when they need one. They know he'll do what it takes to win. After Kentucky lost to Florida in Lexington, Randle was disgusted. And he accepted blame, even though he finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds. He doesn't care about the expectations and hype. He just wants to win. And that attitude has helped the Wildcats kick in the door and have their way in the tourney thus far.
Shabazz Napier (UConn): Well, every NCAA tourney needs a superstar, a captivating character. Enter Shabazz Napier. The Connecticut point guard is the David Blaine of college basketball. You don't know what he's going to pull out of that hat. But you know it's going to be something special. So don't blink. His significance? His sheer brilliance in his 6-1, 180-pound frame. He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half of UConn's Elite Eight victory over Michigan State. He hit big free throws down the stretch. "His will to win -- you could just see it," Michigan State's Gary Harris told reporters after the game. "He wasn't going to let his team lose." Napier has had the most impact in the tournament to date. The Huskies finished three games behind American Athletic Conference co-champions Louisville and Cincinnati. They've had their struggles. But Napier has put together an epic run. His tourney numbers are ridiculous, averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the Big Dance.
This tournament hasn't made a lot of sense. It rarely does. But Connecticut's rise to this stage a year after it was ineligible due to academic issues isn't some inexplicable fairy tale. Coach Kevin Ollie has the best player in the Final Four, the best player since the Big Dance began two weeks ago who has carried the Huskies to surprising heights. This UConn team already has a win over Florida, although the Gators weren't at 100 percent then. But the Huskies won that game because Napier was clutch in the final seconds. He's even better now. Anything seems possible for UConn with the senior guard on the floor.
Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin): Wisconsin's offensive numbers are deceptive. The Badgers have averaged 73.5 points per game this season (92nd overall). But they're fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Arizona, their Elite Eight opponent, had been the No. 1 team per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings for months. But the Badgers scored 1.05 points per possession against that stubborn unit. Coach Bo Ryan's offense has talent (Sam Dekker might be a first-round pick whenever he decides to leave) and variety (five Badgers shoot 38 percent or better from the 3-point line). Frank Kaminsky is the anchor. Can Wisconsin beat Kentucky? Well, the Badgers were successful against a better defense last weekend. Kaminsky had 28 points (3-for-5 from the 3-point line) and 11 rebounds. He's the 7-foot, 234-pound quagmire who makes every Wisconsin dream seem possible. Who guards him? Will Calipari put Randle on him? Maybe. But how comfortable will the Kentucky freshman be guarding Kaminsky in space? Maybe they'll use the more mobile Alex Poythress (who is 6-8) and just deal with the height advantage that Kaminsky will have.
Regardless, Kaminsky (18.5 points, 6.0 rebounds per game, and 7 total blocks in the tourney) could be a problem. It's difficult for any team to adjust to a squad that has a 7-footer who shoots 38 percent from the 3-point line. But that's exactly what the field has faced with Kaminsky, the toughest matchup in Arlington. Ryan can do things in his offense that few teams can match with Kaminsky's versatility. He's a threat all over the floor. And he's constantly moving. Defenses have to deal with that. But if the best defense in the country couldn't handle him, Kentucky could have its hands full against him, too.
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2014 FINAL FOUR
When the confetti fell at the Final Four, UConn was the team left bathing in the title glory.