#7 Connecticut vs. #1 Florida
The Final Four kicks off Saturday afternoon with a matchup between a team many predicted to take the NCAA crown, and a relative surprise. A rematch of a game the Huskies took by a single point a little over four months ago. Since then, Billy Donovan’s Gators have looked dominant this season. They’ve cruised through tournament play as they’ve taken down their opponents by an average of 12.25 points per game. Kevin Ollie’s Huskies had a solid regular season, but have hit their stride behind the great play of Shabazz Napier, and despite a low seed, clearly have looked like a team worthy of a spot in the Final Four.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the U-Conn team Kemba Walker lead to the NCAA crown a few years ago. Shabazz Napier has played fantastic basketball, and is the heart and soul of this Huskies team, much like Walker a few seasons ago. A once very average looking DeAndre Daniels has upped his game and has averaged 17 points and 6.75 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament, while providing both tough defense and a tough offensive matchup for Connecticut’s opponents. Bringing this unlikely bunch together has been the superb coaching of Kevin Ollie. It helps when your team is laden with seniors and juniors, but U-Conn has looked like one of the better coached teams in the entire tournament right out of the gate.
Coincidently, U-Conn is the last team to beat Florida, but that was thirty games ago. Yes, these Gators are riding a thirty game winning streak. They’ve gone through an undefeated SEC regular season and tournament, and done so with a balanced scoring attack and some of the toughest defense in the entire nation. Florida holds their opponents to a mere 57.6 points per game. Florida is a well oiled machine, who boasts their top 3 scorers all sporting above a 40% clip from downtown, one of the best glue guys in the nation, in Will Yeguete, and the immovable low post enforcer that is Patrick Young. Florida has seen it all. They’ve actually played every team in the Final Four and while they bested Kentucky, Wisconsin and Connecticut are the only two teams who have defeated the Gators this season.
The guard play in this matchup will be superb, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin bring a lot of the same things to the table as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. One is a gritty do it all combo, while the other can spread the floor and help split ball handling duties from time to time. Will Yeguete could be the guy to finally slow down DeAndre Daniels and an up and coming coach, in Ollie, goes up against a coach, in Donovan, who was very much in his shoes a little over a decade ago after emerging from Rick Pitino’s bench. This is a rematch. U-Conn proved they can beat Florida, but can they beat them twice?
#9 Kentucky vs. #2 Wisconsin
Coach Cal’s surging Wildcats meet up with Bo Ryan’s new look Badgers in the second Final 4 game Saturday night. In the Elite 8, both teams won close match ups against teams that won their conference regular season titles to earn their spot in the Final Four. Kentucky held off #2 seeded Michigan, who split with Wisconsin during the Big 10 season, and won the Midwest region, while Wisconsin edged out #1 seeded Arizona in overtime to advance out of the West.
The Wildcats have a seemingly unending core of young players both willing and able to step up when their name is called. Julius Randle, serves as their low post anchor who provides a steady influx of both physical post scoring and rebounds of both the offensive and defensive nature. The Harrison twins’ perimeter shooting has come through in the clutch time and time again over the past few weeks. So in other words, Kentucky is stacked. Even with Willie Cauley-Stein a question mark for Saturday, the Wildcats have the luxury of having both 7’ Dakari Johnson, and their newest standout 6‘9’’ forward, Marcus Lee, who dropped 10 points, mostly off dunks, in only 15 minutes of relief last weekend.
Wisconsin on the other hand, has more experience and a lot of depth in their own right. The emergence of Frank Kaminsky, has given them a dynamic offensive player who can both stretch the floor and use his large frame to establish position down low. They also a handful of players who fit the mold of European style swingmen who can scrap, put the ball on the deck, and stretch the defense. The Badgers are a true finesse, spread the floor team. Every starter boasts both a 3 point percentage higher than 32% and more 33 or more long range makes on the year.
This game is a classic matchup between physicality and finesse. The Wildcats bring their usual hard nosed defense and boast a massive front line capable of winning just about any battle of the paint. The Badgers have their usual grind it out defensive style of play, but unlike past Bo Ryan teams’, this year they have a group of shooters who can actually score the ball. Despite their different styles, their results have been very similar. Kentucky scores 76.4 points and gives up 66.6. Wisconsin scores 73.5 and gives up 63.7. This game could very well come down to who plays their style better. Frank Kaminsky, who’s averaged 22 ppg over his last three games, has the ability to draw the slow footed Dakari Johnson away from the basket and open up the lane, and Wisconsin has no answer for the ferocity of Julius Randle, who’s averaging 15.75 ppg and 12 rpg in tournament play.
It’s tough to say who looks better on paper, the Harrison twins have a significant size advantage again, Wisconsin outlasted a more athletic team in their last game. Kentucky has had a harder road in the tourney, but the Badgers have won more decisively. Neither team has room to have an off game, but my hunch is that both squads leave it all one the line.
I think it’s a rematch of the SEC Championship game. Wisconsin outlasted an athletic, tough defensive team in Arizona, but I think Kentucky’s front line is to big, too bad, for them to get past. Fielding two 6’6’’ guards with tendencies to hit clutch three pointers isn’t going to be slowed down by a small Badger backcourt either. Florida is a well oiled machine, and although the Huskies edged past them a few months ago, I think the Gators’ well balanced scoring attack, and Will Yegute’s ability to defend DeAndre Daniels will neutralize U-Conn’s X-Factor. I have a feeling both games are close, including the national championship game, where Florida cuts down the nets and the Wildcats end a fantastic season one win short of winning it all.