by Nick Rotunno
On Saturday in Arlington, TX, inside a massive 80,000-seat stadium normally occupied by the Dallas Cowboys, four excellent basketball teams will compete in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
They are nominally the best teams in the country right now. UConn, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin are the last men standing; they have survived a brutal single-elimination tournament and all the madness of March. They have played their best basketball when it matters most.
And now these four teams will compete for a shot at a national title, the biggest game on the NCAA’s grandest stage: Monday Night.
First we have No. 1 Florida versus No. 7 UConn—the muscular interior play and sturdy defense of the Gators against the quicksilver guards of the Huskies’ backcourt, the nation’s best. Then the nightcap: No. 2 Wisconsin versus No. 8 Kentucky, a matchup of two very different coaching styles—Kentucky and its NBA-ready freshmen, all the talent in the world, will look to slow down Wisconsin’s finely-tuned offensive machine.
We can expect the usual circus in North Texas.
There will be pageantry, net-cutting and a finely-rehearsed production. The media hordes will cover Arlington like a plague. There will be endless commercials during timeout breaks. In all likelihood there will be poor shooting –especially in the first halves—because it’s damn hard to shoot baskets in a drafty football arena when you’re accustomed to a gym.
That’s all fine, though. It’s just part of the experience, the exclamation point at the end of a marathon season. Might as well go out with a bang.
Yet beyond all the money and marketing, the Final Four is ultimately, and rightly, about the players involved. The coaches are great, to be sure, the public faces of the sport—but fans always remember the players.
Names are made here. Legacies are secured.
Who will be the man this year? Who’s going to score 30, or hit that legendary game-winning jumper? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
No. 1 Florida (36-2) vs No. 7 UConn (30-8)
AT&T Stadium, Saturday, 6:09 p.m. EST
How They Got Here
Top-seeded Florida was an odds-on favorite to reach the Final Four, and the Gators didn’t disappoint. They struggled to find their best form against Albany in the second round but still won easily, 67-55. They cruised by Pitt, a familiar rival, then bounced a very good UCLA team 79-68 in the Sweet 16, setting up a date with tournament darling Dayton. The 11-seeded Flyers had already knocked off Ohio State and Syracuse, so they didn’t fear Florida. But the Gators came to play. Center Patric Young controlled the block, point guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 23 points and the Gators knocked out the Flyers 62-52.
UConn’s run was much less predictable. The Huskies squeaked by St. Joseph’s in overtime, bested 2-seed Villanova 77-65, and defeated a very talented Iowa State squad in the Sweet 16. Last weekend UConn faced 4-seed Michigan State, a team many experts picked to win the whole thing. The Huskies had other ideas—slippery point guard Shabazz Napier cranked out 25 points, forward DeAndre Daniels went for 12 and 8, and Connecticut punched its ticket to the Final Four. The Huskies were 21-22 from the free throw stripe in that game, by the way.
Patric Young – The 6-9, 240-pound senior is built like a piece of steel, with long arms and skills to boot. His size, experience and rebounding ability give Florida a big edge in the low post. Averaging 10.8 points and 6.2 boards per contest this season, Young has stepped up his game in the NCAA Tournament. Young’s looming presence on the low block last weekend helped Florida get past Dayton and into the Final Four.
Casey Prather – Another big-time forward in the Gators’ frontcourt, Prather is the team’s leading scorer at 13.8 ppg. Efficiency and high-percentage shots are Prather’s trademark—he’s shooting around 60 percent from the field this year.
Scottie Wilbekin – As Wilbekin goes, so go the Gators. The 6-2 senior runs the show on offense, averaging more than 13 points and 3.7 assists per game this season. He was brilliant against Dayton, running the floor, dissecting the Flyers’ defense. With sneaky handles and vision for miles, he’s the man to watch when the Gators have the ball.
Shabazz Napier – UConn’s senior point guard might be small in stature—6-1 (generously), 180 pounds—but nobody has a bigger heart. The Roxbury, MA, native has that tough city-style game—the silky dribbling skills, the lightning-quick drives to the rim, the range from deep. He can break down a defender one-on-one or hit the step-back jumper. With four years of college ball on his resume, he’s learned to draw fouls like nobody else in the tournament. And, probably most importantly, he can make all the right reads off the high ball screens that UConn runs so well, often finding his teammates with beautiful cross-court skip passes.
‘Bazz averages about 18 points per game, and he’s exploded over the past two weeks—24 against St. Joe’s, 25 against Villanova, 25 versus Michigan State on Sunday. Napier’s play has drawn comparisons to Kemba Walker’s incendiary performance in the 2011 tournament. He’s the leader of these Huskies, without a doubt. But can he follow in Kemba’s footsteps and bring a title back to Storrs? (For more on ‘Bazz, check out this great piece from SLAM’s Peter Walsh.)
DeAndre Daniels – A crucial piece of the Huskies’ lineup, Daniels provides some size and skill in the UConn frontcourt. He will have to keep pace with Florida’s talented bigs if UConn hopes to win Saturday. Daniels should be up to the task—the 6-9 junior has been terrific in this tournament. His best game was March 28 versus Iowa State, when he posted a 27-point, 10-rebound double-double.
What To Watch For
Florida is long, strong, fast and deep. They have a coach in Billy Donovan who knows how to win National Championships. It’s very hard to score on the Gators, and they have plenty of big bodies that can crash the boards.
But UConn is playing with an edge. Napier is all but unstoppable right now, the Huskies don’t miss free throws, and coach Kevin Ollie has this team swarming the ball on the defensive end of the floor. The backcourt matchups should be fascinating, especially the Wilbekin-Napier contest, a battle between two of the most competitive kids in the country.
This should be an excellent game between two experienced, well-coached clubs. My gut says Florida wins this thing; I think it’s the better team from top to bottom. If Shabazz gets going, though, and if UConn gets some additional scoring from Daniels, guard Ryan Boatright or 6-7 swingman Niels Giffey, the Huskies could very well pull off the “upset.”
One more juicy note: With an overall record of 36-2, Florida hasn’t dropped a game since Dec. 2—a 65-64 loss to UConn.
Bold Prediction: Florida 56, UConn 50
No. 2 Wisconsin (30-7) vs No. 8 Kentucky (28-10)
AT&T Stadium, Saturday, 8:49 p.m. EST
How They Got Here
Wisconsin’s road to the Final Four was a bumpy one. It struggled against a sharpshooting Oregon team in the third round (but rallied); stomped Baylor in one of the more impressive offensive showings of the entire Tournament; and beat Arizona 64-63 in the Elite Eight, in somewhat controversial fashion. Big Frank Kaminsky was brilliant against the Wildcats, scoring 28 points and tracking down 11 rebounds.
Kentucky, somehow, transformed itself over the last month or so. It became the team we all thought it would be at the beginning of the season, when the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the polls. Come NCAA Tournament time, Kentucky was ready to dispatch Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State and Louisville, the defending national champs. In the Elite Eight, young Aaron Harrison knocked down a three-pointer with just a few seconds left in the game to beat Michigan 75-72.
Julius Randle – This young man is a future NBA lottery pick, and for good reason. The 6-9, 250-pound freshman is arguably the finest forward in the country, averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game this season. He’s a one-and-done, an elite physical specimen, but it’s his skill set that sets Randle above the rest. Ball-handling, shooting, interior footwork, passing—he can do it all, with the strength and physicality of a pro.
It’s fun to watch him work on the block. He beats defenders with quick spins, short jumpers or simple hard work. And boy, does he crash the glass for those all-important rebounds.
If Randle’s game is on, good luck beating Kentucky.
Alex Poythress – On this team, sophomores are the old men on the roster. Poythress is 6-8, 239 pounds, and he will be a critical player as the Wildcats look to contain Wisconsin’s multi-talented big men. Poythress doesn’t score a ton of points, but his size, experience and rebounding skills will be much-needed in this game.
Aaron Harrison – A big (6-6), talented guard, Aaron is one-half of Kentucky’s vaunted Harrison twins combo. He’s been extremely clutch of late, hitting big shots when the Wildcats need them most. None was bigger than the last-second three-pointer he knocked down against Michigan, the shot over a defender’s outstretched hand that sent Kentucky to the Final Four. Harrison is a big-time scorer, playmaker and long-distance shooter. If Kentucky needs a bucket late, look for him to take the shot.
Frank Kaminsky – With every big shot, the legend of “Frank the Tank” continues to grow. Earlier this season, I thought Kaminsky was merely a nice piece of Bo Ryan’s offense, while Sam Dekker or Ben Brust would be the real scoring threats. I did not foresee—who did?—the ascendance of Frank Kaminsky.
At 7-0, 234 pounds, averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 boards per game, Big Frank is a walking matchup problem. The junior is a stretch-5, if such a position actually exists. He shoots the three-ball with devastating accuracy, passes extremely well and commands double-teams on the low block. To watch him work in the post is to watch a man with nearly limitless options—up-and-under, drop step left or right, shot-fake-and-drive, jump hook, etc., etc. Kaminsky scored 28 points on Saturday against Arizona; he dropped 19 on Baylor in Sweet 16. When the big man is flowing, the Wisconsin offense is all but un-guardable.
Sam Dekker – Wisconsin’s second-most dangerous player has been a little quiet in the Tournament, but don’t let his numbers fool you. Dekker is a tall, versatile forward with a surplus of skill; a guy who can stretch the floor or finish near the rim. He’s only scored 7 points in his last two games, largely deferring to Kaminsky and others, but he’s due for an offensive explosion.
Traevon Jackson – Perhaps the most important player on this Badgers team, Jackson is Wisconsin’s only true ball-handling guard, and he makes the offense go. Turnovers just aren’t his thing—he’s always in control, finding the open man, initiating Bo Ryan’s intricate sets. The savvy junior is a clutch late-game scorer, but he’s most effective spearheading the offense and getting his shooters good looks at the rim.
What To Watch For
Two very different coaches with very different philosophies will square off in North Texas. John Calipari is the one-and-done guy, the master recruiter who hordes All-Americans and wins National Championships with them. His teams are always long on talent and short on experience, and this year’s Kentucky squad is no exception.
Bo Ryan is all about the Wisconsin system, the ongoing development of a player from freshman to sophomore to junior. Most of his kids aren’t going to the NBA, and that’s fine with Bo. They stick around for three or four years and, like Frank Kaminsky, sometimes develop into a special kind of player.
Stylistically, Kentucky leans on its superior athleticism, its ability to break down defenders and its rebounding. Randle is a beast. Wisconsin plays pretty good defense, no doubt, but it’s the offensive end where the Badgers really shine. They’re an excellent passing team, good screeners, deadly with the shot fake. Kaminsky toys with defenders.
My questions for this game: Can Wisconsin defend the powerful Wildcats, particularly Randle and the Harrisons? And can Kentucky find any solution for Kaminsky and Badgers’ offense?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Bold Prediction: Wisconsin 72, Kentucky 68
*Statistics per ESPN.com