If you take nothing else away from this Final Four grouping, other than just some really intriguing basketball games, try this. In a world that is becoming increasingly immediate, sometimes you can benefit from having a slightly more long-term outlook. Each of the remaining teams, at one point or another this season, were discounted. One was too slow. One was too small. One, frankly, at one point in the season, had trouble putting a team on the court. And one was a group of players, not a team. Well, here they are. And if you had these four teams playing this weekend, congratulations – AND I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.
Florida began the season nationally ranked in the top-10. They lost to both Wisconsin and UConn, and were playing without five of their most prominent players, due to either suspension or injury. Then they started finding their stride, plowed through the SEC, and earned themselves another Final Four trip.
Wisconsin began their preseason on a five-game exhibition tour through Canada. They played with FIBA rules – wider lane, 24-second shot clock. The Badgers got run out of the gym. Bo Ryan’s teams never played at a tempo like that, known as a half court team that didn’t make mistakes and played lock down defense. Well, they went back to the drawing board, and started the regular season red hot, winning 16 in a row. Everyone was infatuated with the new look Badgers. Then they lost five of six, and everyone wrote them off.
The Huskies had recently lost their hall of fame coach, their entire conference, players transferred or left for the NBA, and they were suspended from postseason play for a season. Then, after a decent regular season, and a sensational one by Shabazz Napier, the Huskies ended their slate with a loss to Louisville. By 33.
Finally you have the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats. Best recruiting class in the country. Some argued ever. Future NBA draft picks coming off the bench. They looked young and lacked a point guard. Following consecutive losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, they completely fell out of the top 25.
So, you see, this grouping is a microcosm of the phrase, it’s not how you start, but where you finish. And one will finish as National Champions after what promises to be a very interesting three basketball games.
UConn vs. Florida
This is a match-up from a really good game played in Connecticut in early December. Napier was great, converting a four-point play with about a half a minute left, then hitting a 16-foot jumpshot at the buzzer to give the Huskies the one-point win. Scottie Wilbekin left the game with three minutes left, forcing the hand of Billy Donovan. No one else on the team could guard Napier one-on-one, so they switched to a zone, and Shabazz did what he does.
Florida’s offense is largely comprised of motion and on-the-ball screens. UConn’s big men are going to have to play them very well, and expect Kevin Ollie to use different tactics to try to keep the Gators guessing. Only Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier can really hurt the Huskies from three-point range. Everyone else, UConn has to keep in front of them and out of the lane.
For Connecticut, it is imperative that they take good shots and not turn the ball over. Florida will run at any chance, and are really good in transition. They have been playing more zone lately, typically a 1-3-1, but I think Ryan Boatright and Napier may make it tough for Billy Donovan to implement that defense. Niels Giffey and DeAndre Daniels could help shoot them out of the zone as well.
This is a difficult game to pick. Frankly, they both are. I have been on the Shabazz Napier train for years now. He just has ‘it.’ And while UConn definitely can win this game, I am taking the Gators. Napier will have to be great for the Huskies to advance, which he is certainly capable of. I just think Florida has more ways to beat you. They are undefeated in games in which Scottie Wilbekin was not injured or suspended. I picked them to win it all, and I am sticking to it.
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Since the aforementioned losses dropped the Wildcats from the national rankings, they have only lost 2 games, but to Florida. Julius Randle has been a beast all season, solidifying his position as a likely top-5 NBA draft pick. But the real reason for the Kentucky resurgence has been the play of the Harrison twins. While lacking natural point guard skills, they have been good enough to get UK into solid half court sets and really push the ball in transition.
Not to be outdone, the Badgers have won 13 of their last 15. Their two losses were at Nebraska, and in the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan State. Wisconsin can be attacked on the interior. They usually are small, having three guards under 6’3″ on the court most of the game. And while Frank Kaminsky provides size, he isn’t much of an interior presence defensively. That is a tough match-up for Wisconsin, since Kentucky rarely has anyone on the court under 6’6″ That is one of the reasons the Wildcats were one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They rank 5th nationally. Wisconsin is 261st. I expect the Badgers to switch more than usual in the half-court, and try to make UK work to find the match-up they like best.
On the other end, I think the game plan for Kentucky is rather simple and straightforward. They have got to run the Badgers off the three-point line and make them make 2’s over their length and athleticism. Denying Kaminsky the ball is really the best way to guard him. He has been that good. But, he is also a very good offensive rebounder. He had seven against Arizona. Finally, they have to trust in the challenge and not foul. Not having Willie Cauley-Stein certainly makes the front line smaller, and eliminates the ‘Cats one real shot-blocking threat. Wisconsin doesn’t foul much on their end, and they are an excellent shooting team. Kentucky can’t get beaten too badly from the foul line.
I think this game really comes down to the patience and execution of Kentucky. If they can trust the gameplan and stay the course, I think the Wildcats advance. Patience will be key, on both ends of the court, and in the game as a whole. Wisconsin has lost one game by double-digits all season. Kentucky has had it happen twice. So, this lends itself to being a close game down to the end, but I think the Wildcats pull it out, setting-up the fourth meeting this year between them and Florida, this time, for the National Championship.