Final Four Preview

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spvideoimg_17_2013 Final Four

 

Four unique teams are in Dallas on college basketball’s biggest stage. Florida arrives unbeaten in four months driven by a core of seniors and a deep bench. UConn rides in on the strength of a dominant guard and stone-cold execution down the stretch. Wisconsin has paid their dues after plenty of failed tourneys, make teams play their game, and are led by a hard-nosed coach; and Kentucky storms in with teenagers playing at a level as high as their pre-season expectations.

Let’s take a close look at each team and explore what got them to within two wins of a National Championship.

FLORIDA – I have to admit, heading into the tournament I had my reservations about the Gators. The SEC was historically terrible this year, and I felt they had lost to the two best teams they had played (Wisconsin & UConn). I wasn’t that impressed with the three Kentucky wins or the Memphis and Kansas wins. As the #1 overall seed, they have taken care of business – I would have liked to have seen them trounce a team but I don’t think that’s who they are.

Seniors Wilbekin, Prather, and Young are the core (in an era where senior-laden teams are not title contenders). Frazier is the sniper, and Yeguete, Hill, and Finney-Smith have bought in as role players. Billy Donovan’s work with Wilbekin cannot be overlooked – no coach in the country gets more out of his PG. The SEC Player of the Year may not even get drafted. Putting his well documented off-court troubles behind him, Wilbekin is running the offense efficiently. Prather does a bit of everything, and Patric Young is your consummate enforcer – physically imposing; cleans the glass at both ends; tries to dunk everything; and implements the no-lay up rule. Frazier is the wild card. As pure a shooter as you will see on the college level, his impact cannot be minimized; 77 % of his attempts are threes.

This team is well-coached, does not give away possessions, and comes at you in waves. The winning streak aside, egos are checked and they are supremely confident. With what Donovan brings to the table coupled with a ridiculous amount of tourney experience, this is the best team on paper.

 

UCONN – I don’t want to parallel Shabazz Napier with Kemba Walker. That’s lazy. Different coach, different conference, and different path to the Final Four. UConn was hit with academic sanctions imposed before the 2012-13 season; Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA, and several other players transferred. The ACC and the Big Ten stiff-armed them and a year later the Big East split and left them hanging in lieu of the Catholic Seven.

Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, and Niels Giffey stayed and formed the nucleus for the current squad. This was a team that was wildly inconsistent during the regular season; a few weeks after knocking off Florida, they lost to a Houston team that finished 17-16 (and hired vagabond coach Kelvin Sampson yesterday as a side note). Louisville stomped them three times by a combined 55 points, but they also beat Memphis three times.

Every game in the tourney has been a battle for UConn. But when a play needs to be made, Napier takes the game by the throat. Yes, they had a couple of home games at The Garden. But of the four teams in Dallas, UConn has what the other three teams do not: A player capable of carrying them and raising the level of his teammates’ play. Danny Manning. Glen Rice. Carmelo Anthony. It is not hard to imagine Napier dropping 30 on Saturday (and Monday) and willing the Huskies to a title.

Jim Calhoun handpicked Kevin Ollie as his successor. He knew what he was doing. This team plays their ass off for Ollie and will make every extra pass, free throw, and lay up down the stretch – if they are up a bucket late, the game is getting closed out. That seems to be their mantra in the tourney – ride Napier’s hot hand, make every foul shot, and execute down the stretch.

 

WISCONSIN – I am still not sure what conference was the country’s best, but there is no doubt that the Badgers were tourney-tested by a top-heavy Big Ten. This is a different Wisconsin team. They no longer beat the shit outta you inside and win games in the 50’s (however, they did hold Virginia to 38 in a December win in Charlottesville). This is one of those teams that takes on the personality of their head coach.

Bo Ryan won four national championships at D-III UW-Platteville in the 90’s before heading to Madison. Ryan grew up in the Philly area and brings a no-nonsense brand of hoops into the Final Four. Make no mistake – this roster is not littered with pros, and probably has the least amount of talent among the four teams. But they know who they are and their limits. This is a club that will make you play their style, and will do all the little things that it takes to win.

The Badgers offense is incredibly efficient. Predicated on your basic motion look, Ryan and his club succeeds by exploiting matchups. Without getting too wordy, the Badgers replicate an NBA team by spacing and high-screening for open looks. Their stud in the postseason has been Frank Kominsky. Kominsky has killed it on the block, on the perimeter, and off the bounce. At times it seemed he was toying with Baylor and Arizona – he has been that good. Outside of Napier, he is the only other player I can see getting 30 within the flow of the game this weekend. Brust and Dekker have been relatively quiet in the tourney, as Traevon Jackson stepped up and made some big plays in that epic game vs Arizona.

Wisconsin will be willing to trade offensive rebounds in exchange for limiting transition buckets. They will walk the ball up and get great shots on most possessions because of their offensive discipline. But do not mistake them for a one-trick pony; Dekker, Brust, and especially Jackson are capable of a 20 point night if Kominsky is off or contained. This team has a nice balance of veteran leadership, confidence, and toughness.

 

KENTUCKY – Two weeks ago, this was a team teetering on the brink of crashing out of the tourney in a ball of flames to cap a season of disappointment. What a difference four games make.

Let’s start with the coach – Calipari, whether you see him as a genius or a charlatan, did an honorable job getting this team up to beat Wichita St, Louisville, and Michigan. Some will argue that they benefited from a few bounces their way, but the Wildcats were poised, focused, and opportunistic in each of those games down the stretch…and battled back late in each of them.

Now let’s talk about the regular season. Not really sure why the coaches/nerds had UK #1 in the polls in the first place over a seasoned Arizona squad. They showed some warts early and league losses against pedestrian LSU, South Carolina, and Arkansas (twice) branded them as overrated. Even in wins, Calipari was killing them in the post game pressers.

But something happened in the SEC tourney; left for dead with ten minutes to go in the championship game, they battled back and had a chance to win the game with the last possession vs Florida. You can’t help but think that their current form was predicated on that late run. They were tossed into the 8-9 game in a brutal region.

I still don’t know what to make of this ball club. Mid-season, I thought Julius Randle was in over his head; but in the tournament he has been Zach Randolph and the best passer on the floor. They lost Cauley-Stein, and Marcus Lee stepped up and they didn’t lose anything. James Young looked like a prototypical NBA 2-guard at times and JR Smith the rest. The Harrison kids looked like world beaters when they’re not playing Florida.

Kentucky is the ultimate enigma: The talent and coaching pedigree combined with their ability to close out games makes them very difficult to beat. Yet of the four teams, this is the one I can see laying an egg.

Unsolicited opinion: I want to believe in Florida, but the Huskies play Monday night; Ollie outcoaches Donovan. Wisconsin is too seasoned for Kentucky and win going away.

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