Final Four Fodder
April 3, 2014
The 2014 Final Four is set. Suffice it to say, this is not the Final Four I predicted, and I doubt it’s the Final Four anybody predicted considering it features a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed. The No. 7 seed, Connecticut, finished three games back of Louisville and Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference. Kentucky, the No. 8 seed, finished six games back of Florida in the SEC. Joining the Huskies and Wildcats in the Final Four are top-seed Florida and a No. 2 seed Wisconsin.
Crazy stuff, right?
Storylines I like this weekend include Florida coach Billy Donovan attempting to capture his third national title in nine years. I also like the fact that his Gators last loss came back in December, a close setback to Connecticut. I also like the intrigue of having teams built with upperclassmen against the school, Kentucky, who believes in the one and done rule. Yes, the Wildcats start five freshmen and are attempting to do what the original Fab Five could not do, win a national title. Long time coaching great Bo Ryan has coached his Wisconsin to the Final Four, his first-ever appearance in the Final Four. Another storyline is that the best player remaining has a first name of Shabazz. Yes, Shabazz Napier of UConn is a player. The first matchup on Saturday is the rematch between 36-2 Florida and 30-8 Connecticut. The Gators have won 30 straight games since losing to the Huskies back in 2013. Napier of UConn hit a buzzer-beater shot to pull out the victory. One reason Florida has not lost since is that they did not have two of their top players, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. Florida is favored but Connecticut is playing its best ball of the season.
Game two Saturday night has the 28-10 Wildcats against the 30-7 Badgers of Wisconsin. Kentucky’s freshmen laden team has come of age in the tourney. After losing a close conference tourney championship game to Florida, the Wildcats have just beat, in order, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan to become the first school in history to eliminate three programs that made the previous season’s Final Four. Finally, John Calipari’s Kentucky looks like the team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. The Wildcats have shown that it’s capable of beating pretty much anybody with or without him, and that’s why UK’s fans can head to Texas optimistic about their chances of winning a second national title in a span of three years.
I like Florida (the lone remaining Final Four school on my bracket) for a number of reasons. The Gators have been consistently good all season. Conversely, it was just three weeks ago when UConn lost to Louisville by 33 points. Kentucky was not even ranked as the end of the regular season. Wisconsin lost five of seven games in late January. Saying all of this, I cannot help but remember that Florida’s only losses this season have been to Connecticut and Wisconsin. What Connecticut needs is Napier to keep doing what he has been doing. The senior guard is averaging just under 24 points a game during the tourney. It is not often that a point guard leads his team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and assists. That is why I earlier spoke of Napier being the best player remaining. Anytime you have the best player on the court, you have a chance. Napier needs help and he has gotten it from DeAndre Daniels who is averaging 17 points a game in the tournament.
Florida will counter Napier with the best defense in the nation. The Gators have relied on its defense to post double figure wins in all four of their tournament victories. The one weakness Florida does have is at the foul line. The Gators shoot just 66.7 percent from the free-throw line as a team, a figure that ranks 279th in the nation. They shot even worse in their losses to UConn and Wisconsin. Florida needs to stay away from close games.
Kentucky relies heavily on its physicality. The Wildcats lead the nation in offensive rebounding and also lead the country in foul shots taken. They do not always make their charity tosses as only three Kentucky players shoot over 70% from the foul line. Often it seems like all the Wildcats do is play one-on-one basketball before crashing the boards for follow-up buckets. Players to watch for Kentucky are the Harrison twins. Aaron Harrison made the game-winning three-pointer vs. Michigan while Andrew Harrison tore No. 1 seed Wichita State up in the second round.
Wisconsin, with seven footer, Frank Kaminsky, should be able to offset the Wildcats’ inside presence. But the Badgers are small in the backcourt with Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser running 6-foot-1, 6-2 and 6-3, respectively. That could be an issue against the physical, 6-foot-6 Harrison twins. Kaminsky is averaging 22 points a game in the tourney. Time and time again, his offensive excellence has gotten opponents in foul trouble. Kaminsky will need to do the same versus Kentucky.
I see an all SEC matchup in the finals Monday night. The Gators are so much better now then they were when they fell to UConn and Wisconsin earlier this season. Kentucky has too many athletes on the floor for Wisconsin to match up with.
Florida has beaten Kentucky three times already this season and it will do it again in the finals on Monday.