All of the partying and pouring over brackets now long since mangled and tossed in the garbage, or forgotten online, has come down to this. Through all of the smoke,gas, and debris of the war torn battlefield, four teams have emerged in 2014’s edition of the NCAA tournament.
Florida. Connecticut. Wisconsin. Kentucky. A 1,2,7, and 8. Unusual Final Four numbers but nonetheless these teams are heading to Dallas and knocking on the door at a possible chance at a championship – and all four of these schools have storied traditions with winning. By making the Final Four these teams have shredded lingering doubts cast upon them.
Florida did what is was supposed to do against Dayton, pulling the dreamers back down to earth and ending Cinderella’s story. They won by ten and now face a surprising UConn team that has hit their stride at the right point in the season. Still, the Flyers’ journey had it’s benefits. Now the school has gained some exposure which could lead to better recruiting and future appearances in the tournament. They’re still Ohio States’ much smaller brother but maybe now there is something to gain from the two teams playing each other if Dayton’s program is finally getting up to par; reaching the Elite Eight after a 30 year absence has got to send shock waves across the program. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, the Gators haven’t lost a game since December 2 and have won all four of their tourney games by double-digits. Scottie Wilbekin might face trouble against Napier and Boatwright of UConn, though. The last time Connecticut and Florida faced each other, Napier scored 26 points and Wilbekin had more turnovers than assists, the only time that happened to him against a non-SEC team in all of 2013-14.
Connecticut took down the team that a majority of the nation had pegged for the Final Four or possibly winning the championship. Sure, it was more of a home game for UConn at Madison Square Garden but that doesn’t take away the fact that this team has been absolutely on fire. Senior Shabazz Napier has led his Huskies through the tournament, averaging 23.3 points per game, while facing tough competition against Villanova, Iowa State, and Michigan State. And all three of those opponents were handled with expertise. Against Florida, Napier will need some help; the Gators boast the number 1 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency. UConn’s defensive rebounding will also have to improve drastically if they want to get by Florida.
Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison beat Michigan on a three-point shot with a couple of seconds to go to send the Wildcats on an improbable trip to the semifinals. He has also been quite consistent during this tournament, while his brother Andrew has not. A key for Kentucky against Wisconsin is it’s ability to grab offensive rebounds with 552 on the year and an offensive rebound percentage of 42.5, both ranking first in the country. Kentucky has been a frequent visitor to the free throw stripe, 26.3 percent of its points coming from there, highest of the four teams still standing. But only three Wildcats – the Harrison boys and Julius Randle – make even 70 percent at the line.
The Wisconsin Badgers are suddenly a favorite of mine to roar into the championship game and take home the gold. After totally dismantling Baylor I believe this team has peaked at the correct moment. The one thing that will come into play against Kentucky is size. Wisconsin has three players with heights of 6-1, 6-2, and 6-3 while Kentucky counters with the 6-6 Harrison twins. The question will be whether the Badger trio can get to the basket and score the way Michigan’s bigger guards could. Wisconsin picks up 72.8 percent of defensive rebounds that come their way, good for sixteenth in the country while the Bluegrass cats got 17 offensive rebounds in their match against the Wolverines alone. Frank Kaminksy, at 7 feet tall, is a tough player to guard, even by the biggest men. He averaged 22 points on 58.7 percent shooting in his last three tournament games and made easy pie out of Arizona’s frontcourt of Kaleb Tarczerwski and Aaron Gordon. The towering trio of Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and Marcus Lee will not be easy to get by in this match up.
All in all, the two games at AT&T Stadium are sure to be action packed and quite competitive. Whoever wins, it’s hats off to them for their amazing season and journey through what’s been called time and time again the greatest tournament in sports. It has been total madness this time around.
My predictions are Florida vs. Kentucky in the championship game, with Florida winning it all, the Gators being the only team still intact in my flat-lined (dead) bracket.