A capacity crowd is expected at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on April 5 and 7th when the annual NCAA Men’s Division 1 Final Four is held. Florida and Connecticut tip off in Saturday’s first semifinal, followed by Kentucky and Wisconsin in the nightcap, with the winners meeting on Monday night for the title.
Billy Donovan’s Gators (South Region) are the only surviving No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, with Wisconsin advancing out of the West Region as a No. 2. The other two participants weren’t expected to advance this far, with Connecticut coming out of the East as a No. 7 seed while Kentucky, the consensus pre-season No. 1 pick, makes the finals as a No. 8 seed out of the Midwest. All four schools have both appeared in the Final Four and won national titles (Florida- five appearances, titles in 2006 and 2007, Connecticut- five appearances, titles in 1999, 2004, 2011, Kentucky- sixteen appearances, titles in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1975, 1996, 1998, 2012, and Wisconsin- two appearances, title in 1941).
Florida (36-2) vs. Connecticut (30-8)
Florida, the overall No. 1 seed, comes in with a 30-game winning streak, with their last loss, ironically, 65-64 at Connecticut on December 2nd. In yet another ironic twist, Florida’s only other loss occurred on November 12th to another Final Four participant, Wisconsin, 59-53.
The Gators are extremely experienced, starting four battle-tested seniors and a sophomore, and their regular rotation goes only 8-9 deep at the most. Senior PG Scottie Wilbekin is the floor general for Donovan’s team, adept at distributing the ball, suffocating opposing ballhandlers on defense, and reliable with outside shooting. He’ll have his hands full with UConn’s two-headed tandem of Napier and Boatwright however. Wilbekin’s primary backcourt mate is Michael Frazier II, one of the nation’s most deadly deep marksmen. Operating from the wing is the team’s leading scorer (13.8) Casey Prather, who can sink the perimeter jumper but is more dangerous when he puts the ball on the floor. Up front, what Florida lacks in length it makes up in bulk and intelligent positioning in seniors Patrick Young and Will Yeguette. Both are much better offensively than their misleading stats, and both crash the boards relentlessly. Off the bench, Dorian Finney-Smith provides muscle and energy, while Kasey Hill gives the offense a different approach when spelling Wilbekin. Overall, the Gators won’t overwhelm opponents with explosiveness or physicality, but their experience and intelligence serves them well, while defensively, they lack the shot-blockers, but they blend together impressively all around, and are effective when trapping is required.
In 2011, Connecticut came out of nowhere behind star PG Kemba Walker to hand long-time former coach Jim Calhoun his third championship in a dozen years. In 2013-14, Walker’s successor as floor leader, Shabazz Napier, appears to be following his predecessor’s blueprint. The All-American has carried the Huskies quite a bit in his senior season, including the last-second game-winner against Florida. His backcourt mate, Ryan Boatwright, has similar skills and the duo work well together, combining for 30 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals per game. Up front, UConn employs both offense and defense “by committee,” with DeAndre Daniels capable of putting up regular double figures, while Niels Giffey is a dangerous and streaky three-point threat. Off the bench, the Huskies have a capable shot-blocker in Amida Brimah, although any offense from him is generally a surprise. Philip Nolan has stepped up his frontcourt presence in the postseason, but make no mistake about Kevin Ollie’s Huskies; they are heavily dependent on their backcourt.
Wisconsin (30-7) vs. Kentucky (28-10)
During almost all of Bo Ryan’s dozen-plus seasons as coach of the Badgers, they’ve been a walk-it-up, methodical squad that specializes in smothering defense and crisp passing. This 2013-14 team is still patient and continues to harass opposing ball-handlers, they’ve also become much more adept on offense, led by big man Frank Kaminsky, who has a “Euro-style” inside-out game, but he can also effectively work in the paint. Wisconsin is loaded with sharpshooters, from Ben Brust to Josh Gasser, while Sam Dekker provides a nice mix of perimeter and driving skills. PG Traevon Jackson has a game reminiscent of former Badger star Devin Harris, while Nigel Hayes gives athleticism and hustle off the bench. Bo Ryan has long been considered one of the most unsung head coaches in the nation, and now his low-key style gets a prime shot of exposure on a bigger stage.
Throughout January and most of February, bashing John Calipari’s latest batch of “one-and-done” McDonald’s All-Americans was rampant, but Cal’s “Diaper Dandies” are maturing at the perfect time, knocking off three of last season’s Final Four participants to advance to Arlington. The ‘Cats are loaded, even without the injured Willie Cauley-Stein. Marcus Lee came out of nowhere to become a force in the regional final, while the backcourt of the Harrison twins are playing like NBA veterans. Along with that potent threesome, Calipari can call on freshman All-American Julius Randle, athletic Alex Poythress, scorer James Young and a handful of other future NBAers to insert. If Kentucky gets past Wisconsin (which won’t be easy), they may find themselves matched up with fellow SEC team Florida for the fourth time this season. For the record, the Gators have won all three matchups, giving Calipari plenty of motivational ammo for a title re-re-re-rematch.