MY COUCH, Md. — Yep, we’re down to the final four teams in this upset-filled, intensity-laden 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Some call it the Final Four, but would you? The only team I predicted to be contending this late in March is Florida and practically everyone and my mother picked them. (But, actually, my mother did pick Florida to win the whole thing). Either way, we’re a week away from the real Final Four in Arlington, Texas at Jerry World with all its massive video board and glory.
Since there were two No. 8-seeds in the 1985 Final Four, Kentucky is only the fourth such team to reach the final weekend of the tournament. Villanova ended up winning that national title 29 years ago, while the next-closest (2011 Butler) lost in the championship game. Meanwhile, No. 7 seed Connecticut is the first such seed to reach the Final Four since Georgetown in 1984. As for top-seeded Florida, it’s not as uncommon considering a 1-seed has reached the Final Four in 32 of the 35 years since seeding was introduced in 1979. Wisconsin is pretty much in the same boat.
Now that we’re on the subject of cool facts, here’s some interesting conference/seed/team tidbits that I found:
- To get to the Final Four, Kentucky beat a previously undefeated team (Wichita State), the previous year’s national champ (Louisville) and the previous year’s national runner-up (Michigan). This feat has never been done before in the history of the tournament, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
- That No. 8-seed Villanova team is the lowest seeded team to ever win the national title. Kentucky could match that feat this year.
- This is the first Final Four for Bo Ryan, Wisconsin’s head coach of 14 years, despite a .728 winning percentage, three Big Ten regular season titles, and three Division III championships at Wisconsin-Platteville.
- UConn head coach Kevin Ollie will coach in his first Final Four in only his second year on the job – the second to do so in NCAA tournament history.
- Connecticut and Florida will face each other for the second time this season. The Huskies won the first matchup back on Dec. 2, 65-64, thanks to a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the last four teams to beat a team in the regular season and then face them in the Final Four have all won the rematch too.
- This will be Kentucky’s third Final Four appearance in four years. Apparently Coach Cal’s “One-and-Done” philosophy works.
I’ve compiled some fast facts about each Final Four team below. Florida-UConn and Wisconsin-Kentucky should make for some exciting matchups – all for the chance to meet in the championship game on Monday.
1 Florida Gators
- Head Coach: Billy Donovan (450-168 career record, 4 Final Fours, 2 National Championships)
- Regular season record: 36-2 (18-0 SEC) – Regular season and conf. tournament champs
- Seed: 1 (South region)
- Last Final Four appearance: 2007
- Last Title: 2007
- How they got here: Beat #16 Albany, #9 Pittsburgh, #4 UCLA and #11 Dayton
- Projected starting five: Patric Young, Wil Yeguete, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Michael Frazier
- Preseason ranking: 10
- Last season’s final ranking: 9
2 Wisconsin Badgers
- Head Coach: Bo Ryan (704-223, No Final Fours or Championships)
- Regular season record: 30-7 (12-6 Big Ten)
- Seed: 2 (West)
- Last Final Four appearance: 2000
- Last Title: 1941
- How they got here: Beat #15 American, #7 Oregon, #6 Baylor and #1 Arizona
- Projected starting five: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson
- Preseason ranking: 20
- Last season’s final ranking: 22
7 Connecticut Huskies
- Head Coach: Kevin Ollie (50-18, No Final Fours or Championships)
- Regular season record: (30-8, 12-6 AAC) – Tournament runners-up
- Seed: 7 (East)
- Last Final Four appearance: 2011
- Last Title: 2011
- How they got here: Beat #10 Saint Joseph’s, #2 Villanova, #3 Iowa State and #4 Michigan State
- Projected starting five: Phillip Nolan, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright
- Preseason ranking: 18
- Last season’s final ranking: Not Ranked
8 Kentucky Wildcats
- Head Coach: John Calipari (552-172, 5 Final Fours and 1 National Championship
- Regular season record: 28-10 (12-6 SEC) – Tournament runners-up
- Seed: 8 (Midwest)
- Last Final Four appearance: 2012
- Last Title: 2012
- How they got here: Beat #9 Kansas State, #1 Wichita State, #4 Louisville and #2 Michigan
- Projected starting five: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young, Willie Cauley-Stein
- Preseason ranking: 1
- Last season’s final ranking: Not Ranked
As you’ve seen thus far in the tournament, the unpredictable should be expected. No one saw Kentucky to make the run they did, having to beat three teams that were some of the strongest during the regular season. Connecticut beat two teams that had more pure talent than they in Iowa State and Michigan State. Wisconsin beat a favored Arizona team and a Baylor squad that has three eventual NBA-ers. Florida was the only team among the Final Four that did what everyone expected of them – avoid upsets and roll to the final weekend unscathed.
As much I’d like to see UConn upset Florida and beat them for the second time this season, I just don’t see it happening. First off, Scottie Wilbekin fouled out of the first meeting with three minutes left – allowing Shabazz Napier to hit numerous jumpers that the defensive-minded Wilbekin would have been all over. On the other hand, DeAndre Daniels has developed into another weapon for the Huskies as someone who can score on their own inside – something the team has lacked all season. Also, Napier and Ryan Boatright make up arguably the best backcourt in college basketball.
In the other matchup, I don’t see Kentucky losing to a worse team than the three others they’ve beaten. What Arizona didn’t have that Kentucky does is size inside to defend and disrupt Frank Kaminsky, who tore up the top-seeed Wildcats in the Elite Eight for 28 points and 11 rebounds. Kentucky has Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein (if he’s healthy, which he should be), and Dakari Johnson – all bigs with the defense and strength to defend Kaminsky successfully.
So, for my predictions:
Kentucky 75, Wisconsin 64
Florida 63, Connecticut 60
….for a rematch between Florida and Kentucky for the fourth time this season. The Gators won the first three matchups by a combined score of 214-184. However, the latest such game is the thing to look at: a 61-60 Florida win in the SEC tournament championship game on March 16. It’ll be the seniors of Florida versus the freshman of Kentucky. Should be a good one.