Like this season, this Final Four won't be boring
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Kentucky was always among the country's most talented teams, and the Wildcats showed to get to the Final Four, writes Myron Medcalf. Story
UConn was never the favorite, but led by Shabazz Napier, the Huskies didn't lost faith on their way to the Final Four, writes Dana O'Neil. Story
Many brackets surely imploded with this far-from-chalk Final Four. No. 7 seed Connecticut and No. 8 seed Kentucky make it the second time since the 2011 Final Four that two teams seeded outside of the top five reached the NCAA tournament's final weekend. Butler, as a No. 8 seed, and Virginia Commonwealth, as a No. 11 seed, made improbable runs that season.
The Huskies and Wildcats may be underdogs because of their seeding, but they're far from Cinderellas.
Connecticut is riding Shabazz Napier, who was a contributor on its 2011 national championship team. Kentucky is finally living up to its potential of having arguably the most talented freshman class in history. The Wildcats' tournament run, despite their stumbles through the seasons, is seemingly validating coach John Calipari's approach to filling his roster with one-and-done talents.
Both teams will have to deal with Florida and Wisconsin, both far-from-surprising entrants into the Final Four. The Gators are playing like the overall No. 1 seed of the NCAA tournament. The Badgers, the No. 2 seed in the West Region, still haven't lost to an opponent outside of the Big Ten this season.
Florida has played every team remaining. The Gators lost to both Connecticut and Wisconsin during non-conference play when they weren't at full strength and beat Kentucky three times during SEC play including in the tournament championship game.
Buckle up, folks, the Final Four should be entertaining and compelling.
Strengths: The Gators haven't lost a game when at full strength this season. Backup point guard Kasey Hill and freshmen forward Chris Walker did not play during their loss at UConn on Dec. 2. They're deep enough to withstand some foul trouble and they almost always get solid contributions from off the bench. Dorian Finney-Smith would start most places but averages 8.9 points and 6.7 rebounds as a reserve.
Among the point guards remaining, only Shabazz Napier is more experienced as a playmaker than Florida's Scottie Wilbekin.
The Gators rank 17th in steals nationally and average 7.9 steals per game. Defensively they can press their way into creating turnovers and scoring opportunities.
Weaknesses: Florida has a tendency to let teams stay in the game. When the Gators beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship game, they squandered a 15-point lead with 11 minutes left and let the Wildcats pull within one. To win the title they need to display a killer instinct.
Key to cutting down the nets: Florida is one of three teams to have a 30-game winning streak going into the Final Four. The previous three teams -- Indiana State 1979, UNLV 1991 and Duke 1999 -- did not win the national title. Unlike Kentucky, UConn and Wisconsin, they have four seniors that made the previous two Elite Eights. They may not have players who are considered the best at their respective positions, but their collective experience should come into play in Arlington.
Strengths: As center Frank Kaminsky showed against Arizona, he gets buckets. It probably won't continue to be of the 28-point variety, but when Wisconsin needs a shot, he'll be the guy to deliver it. He can be a matchup problem, inside and out.
The Badgers value the ball like few others. They ranked fourth nationally in fewest turnovers per game, averaging just about eight per game. And they ranked sixth nationally in assist to turnover ratio. The Badgers are an unselfish bunch who will make the extra pass to get the best shot possible.
Aside from the first half against Oregon, Wisconsin has played lockdown defense in the tournament. Guard Josh Gasser is generally regarded as its best defender. It's no coincidence that he drew the critical charge on Nick Johnson in overtime of the Badgers' Elite Eight win.
Weaknesses: The Badgers have trouble generating easy baskets through transition. They didn't score a single fast-break point against Arizona. The Badgers rely so much on their starting five that foul trouble could disrupt their rhythm. Especially if point guard Traevon Jackson had to sit for any long length of time. The team doesn't run the same without him on the floor.
Key to cutting down the nets: Keep shooting it. Ben Brust leads the way as the program's leader in career 3-pointers. In its eight-man rotation, Wisconsin has seven players who shoot more than 32 percent from 3-point range. The only player who doesn't is freshman forward Nigel Hayes, and he hasn't attempted a shot from behind the arc all season. Sam Dekker also has to get going again offensively. The sophomore forward was a combined 5 of 13 shooting in his past two games.
Strengths: Shabazz Napier. No further explanation is necessary for anyone who has been paying attention to college basketball this season. The senior guard and American Athletic Conference Player of the Year led the Huskies in scoring, rebounding and assists. But more important than those raw numbers, Napier is a big-shot taker and big-shot maker. Florida is well aware of Napier's clutch gene after watching his buzzer-beating jumper hand the Gators their last defeat, way back on Dec. 2. March is about guard play and Napier and Ryan Boatright have been operating in the same backcourt for three years now.
Coach Kevin Ollie has his guys believing in their respective roles. Niels Giffey doesn't take many shots, but when he does 57 percent of the time it's going to be from behind the arc.
Weaknesses: The past two losses the Huskies suffered both came to Louisville. The familiar theme in both of those games was that Boatright did not make much of a contribution. He was a combined 5-of-21 in those games. The Huskies can have a tendency to rely too much on Napier's production. They're most effective when Boatright and DeAndre Daniels make big contributions.
The Huskies can be hurt on the boards. The fact that Napier, a 6-foot-1 guard, leads the team with 5.9 rebounds is also a warning sign about their limited frontcourt.
Key to cutting down the nets: The comparison has been made between Napier and former UConn guard Kemba Walker, who carried the Huskies to the 2011 national title. Napier isn't as explosive as Walker was, but they have little chance of winning a title if Napier doesn't play at his best.
Strengths: The Wildcats ranked second nationally in rebounding margin at 9.8 per game. They have the best frontcourt of the remaining teams, led by forward Julius Randle, who is a virtual walking double-double waiting to happen. Randle averaged 10.7 rebounds per game.
Aaron Harrison has all of a sudden become the clutch shooter, delivering 3-point daggers in the closing seconds against Louisville and Michigan.
Kentucky is also the deepest team remaining. Marcus Lee did not play against Wichita State and played only a minute against Louisville. But he chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds against Michigan to help the Wildcats advance. Sophomore Alex Poythress, who is the "old man" on this roster, scored six points to start their 15-3 rally against Louisville. With Kentucky, you never know which player is going to initiate the run.
Weaknesses: If the injury center Willie Cauley-Stein suffered against Louisville keeps him out of the lineup, the Cats will no longer have a strong shot-blocking presence in the middle. Cauley-Stein averaged nearly three blocks per game.
Point guard Andrew Harrison has been key to the Wildcats' resurgence, but if he reverts to his old ways of trying to shoot more than facilitate, Kentucky will look more like the team that lost to South Carolina than the team that beat the top two seeds en route to the Final Four.
Keys to cutting down the nets: Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation for a reason. It has the most talent from 1-15 than any team remaining. The key for coach John Calipari has been getting them to play together instead of being individuals. As long as the Wildcats do that, they'll have a shot at winning Calipari's second title in three years.
Happenings In Indianapolis
Deciding factor: Kentucky's rebounding advantage. The Wildcats attacked the glass and collected 35 rebounds, 17 of them coming on the offensive end, compared to the Wolverines' 24.
Player of the game: It's hard to take it away from Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, who had 12 points, all of them coming on 3-pointers in the final 10 minutes. Julius Randle, though, led the Wildcats with 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Key stat: Randle's double-double was his 24th of the season, moving him into second place behind Michael Beasley (28) for the most by a freshman in Division I history.
Happenings In New York
Deciding factor: Michigan State's inability to get the ball inside. The Spartans had just six point in the paint, 14 fewer than their previous season low and the second fewest for any team in the past five NCAA tournaments. Of their 46 field goal attempts, 29 were from 3-point range.
Player of the game: UConn's Shabazz Napier. The senior guard had 25 points, six rebounds and was 9-for-9 at the free throw line on Sunday. He is now averaging 23.25 points for the tournament.
Key stat: Although Michigan State won the rebounding battle, the Spartans finished with two second-chance points, their fewest in any game in the last two seasons.
Happenings In Anaheim
Deciding factor: Arizona fans might tell you it was the officiating. Nick Johnson was called for a controversial offensive foul with 4 seconds to play. The Wildcats forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass, but Johnson couldn't get a shot attempt off in time, sending the Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000.
Player of the game: Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. The 7-foot junior had 28 points, including three 3-pointers, and 11 rebounds to lead the Badgers.
Key stat: The neck-and-neck game produced an almost symmetrical box score, but Arizona missed five free throws (12-for-17) while Wisconsin missed just two (10-for-12).
Happenings In Memphis
Deciding factor: Tempo. Florida controlled the pace of the game and limited Dayton's transition opportunities. The Flyers had been running and gunning in their three previous tournament wins but scored just eight transition points on Saturday thanks to Florida's full-court pressure defense.
Player of the game: Florida's Scottie Wilbekin. The senior guard had 23 points, including three 3-pointers, to lead the Gators. He also added three steals and three assists.
Key stat: Not only did the Gators outrebound the Flyers by 11, they also took advantage of second-chance opportunities. Florida finished with 13 second-chance points, while Dayton had just 1.
The Latest Dish
With a little more than eight minutes left in Sunday's Midwest Region final, Aaron Harrison had not scored a single point. Not one. Then it started. The freshman guard scored 12 points down the stretch to lift Kentucky to a 75-72 win over Michigan and a spot in the Final Four.
The biggest shot, though, came 2.3 seconds left. With the scored tied, Harrison rose for a long 3-pointer. It went in and Kentucky's long and winding season continued on, the next stop North Texas.
Final Four Happenings
Deciding factor: As is often the case with Kentucky, the Wildcats won the game on the glass. They outrebounded Wisconsin 32-27, which included 11 offensive rebounds compared to the Badgers' six.
Player of the game: Kentucky's James Young. The freshman finished with 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field and 6-for-7 shooting at the free throw line. He also pulled down five rebounds.
Key stat: Aaron Harrison is now 3-for-3 on game-tying/go-ahead 3-point shots in the final minute of the second half of this year's NCAA tournament.
Deciding factor: UConn's defense. After falling behind 16-4, the Huskies buckled down and made nearly every shot the Gators took a difficult one. Florida shot just 38.8 percent from the floor and made just 1 of 10 3-point attempts.
Player of the game: UConn's DeAndre Daniels. The junior big man led the Huskies with 20 points and pulled down 10 of their 28 rebounds. He's the first player to record 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal game since Carmelo Anthony did the same for Syracuse in 2003.
Key stat: Florida's three assists are the fewest recorded by any team in a Final Four game since assists became an official statistic in the 1983-84 season.
How UConn Got There
NEW YORK -- She used to sneak out of work at lunchtime and drive wherever the game was being played.
Sometimes when she went back to work the next day, she didn't have a job, her boss fed up with an absentee employee.
And then there would be another game, another job and she would do it all over again. The bills would come in and Carmen Velasquez would hole up in her bedroom while she tried to figure out a solution to an unsolvable problem.
"I didn't care," Velasquez said. "My kids came first. My kids always came first. I'd do it all over again if I had to because they knew. They knew it wasn't easy, but they knew I was there for them. It was worth it."
Her voice so hoarse even a whisper was almost too much, Velasquez then started to cry. Because believing something is worth sacrificing and realizing the reward isn't always immediate.
But the believers never stop clinging to the hope. It's why they call it blind faith. That's what Velasquez did.
And that's what she taught her son to do.
Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to a fairy tale Final Four courtesy of a 60-54 win over Michigan State because he scored 25 points and had four assists; because he, like Kemba Walker, the man whose bar he tried to reach for four years, scored or assisted on 45 percent of his team's points en route to the Final Four.
How Wisconsin Got There
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- How long could 2.3 seconds last? It sure felt like an eternity to Wisconsin as officials checked the monitor to determine the game's final possession. The longer it took for a ruling, the more the Badgers realized Arizona would get the ball and a shot to win the game.
With the call reversed and the Wildcats awarded the ball in the West Region final against the Badgers, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan gave simple instructions as they broke the huddle.
"All right," Ryan said, "it's time to D up."
Defense had long been the trademark of Ryan and Wisconsin basketball, to the point where this team wanted to change that perception.
All season the players wanted to show Wisconsin basketball could be a program that won with an explosive offense. It was determined to prove the Badgers no longer play a slow, deliberate pace to compensate for being scoring-challenged.
"This was known as defensive program that slows the ball down on offense," center Frank Kaminsky said. "We wanted to play a little bit of our own brand of basketball. We still have those principles instilled in us. So we're still a defensive team."
The Badgers reverted to that old brand of basketball to pull out their 64-63 overtime win against Arizona. And it couldn't be a more fitting way to send Ryan to his first Final Four.
How Florida Got There
MEMPHIS -- Billy Donovan could live with the first two.
Isn't that how it goes? There are losses you can live with and losses that drive you mad -- performances you can be proud of despite the result, and games that stick in your gut for months.
In 2011, the first of Florida's four straight Elite Eights, the Gators lost in overtime to a red-hot Butler team that made every play down the stretch. In 2012, Donovan lost to his mentor, Rick Pitino, and a Louisville team that guarded its way to the Final Four. Florida played well in both games. It was last year's loss -- a dreary blowout to eventual national runner-up Michigan -- that Donovan didn't like.
On Saturday, after Florida's fourth Elite Eight game in four years and its first win -- a 62-52 victory over No. 11 seed Dayton -- Donovan was fielding all of the expected questions about his program's remarkable run of success. He was making a larger point about the way seasons end in the NCAA tournament, and the ways those small samples skew perception. But for a second, his tone gave him away.
"I thought we played well against Louisville and Butler," Donovan said, his voice flecked with sudden disdain. "I did not think we played well against Michigan -- at all."
That, more than anything, was what bothered Donovan about losing his third straight shot at a Final Four last March. It wasn't the notion that Florida couldn't "break through" or any of the other fuzzy narratives applied to mostly arbitrary milestones. It was simply that his team didn't play well, and worse, that his players didn't "pull together" when they needed each other the most.
Florida, if it wasn't clear already, is not that team anymore.