Time seems to travel at warp speed during college basketball season, and I absolutely hate it.
The stage is set for the regional winners of this year’s NCAA Tournament, and your bracket (whatever landfill it lies in at the moment) probably had just one of them. Even still, these are some outrageously good games and there are no shortage of storylines.
Here are some quick previews and predictions for what sits on the docket for the final Saturday of the college basketball season. It’s been real, it’s been fun and it’s been real fun, 2014.
(1) Florida Gators vs. (7) Connecticut Huskies | 6:09 p.m., TBS
This tournament has been Florida’s to lose ever since claiming the top spot in the country earlier this season and the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday. This time of year, not enough can be said about the importance of senior leadership and a having a reputation for going deep in March.
Fortunately for Gator fans, Billy Donovan’s boys fit the bill perfectly this year, just as they did during their national title runs in 2006 and 2007. I recently asked a buddy of mine, a lifelong Gators fan, to rank this year’s team with those ’06 and ’07 championship squads. He said 2014 falls right in between the two, with 2007 being the indisputable best Florida team ever (I’d put this year first, but that’s neither here nor there). If that is indeed the case, we should expect this group to at least make a return trip.
But to do so, they’ll have to outlast maybe the peskiest UConn bunch we’ve seen in quite a while, which carved up everyone in its path (RIP Cyclones) and emerged from the East Region as the 7-seed. It’s fitting that this Florida team prioritizes defense (an inverse from ’06 and ’07) because the Huskies can fill it up from everywhere, and it all stems from their backcourt. It truly does depend on who you ask these days, but I believe Shabazz Napier is the best player left in this tournament and will be the best point guard to hear his name called in June (sorry Tyler Ennis). As Napier goes, so goes UConn. In the month of March, he averaged over 20 ppg in their eight wins and just 12.5 ppg on 6-for-25 shooting in the two losses.
In 10 out Florida’s last 11 contests they’ve held opponents to 65 points or fewer. Look for it to happen again Saturday night. Despite averaging a high clip for the tournament as a whole, many of UConn’s offensive weaknesses were exposed against Michigan State, only managing 60. Comparatively, this is a far better Florida defense (the best actually, according to KenPom) and it’s hard to believe the Huskies’ defense would be able to bail them out against the likes of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and, well, every other guy on the roster.
Florida: 66 | Connecticut: 59
(2) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (8) Kentucky Wildcats | 7:49 p.m., TBS
I love the Final Four games that have everyone saying, "Yeah, nobody called this."
Kentucky’s run to Dallas is about as memorable as I can remember. It’s not that they necessarily have a "Cinderella" stigma attached to them this season (they never have and they never will, certainly not under John Calipari), but you get the feeling that the guys wearing blue are the only ones who aren’t surprised to be here.
Like Florida, Kentucky was No. 1 once too. But as the season progressed, the former made the SEC look like a rec league while the latter fell victim to poor opponents a few too many times. But as I said prior to UK’s victory over 1-seed Wichita State, you have to throw out that kind of inconsistency when March rolls around — it’s one game at a time in the tournament. Did the they drop back-to-back games to Arkansas and South Carolina? They sure did. But as long as we’ve known Calipari as the coach of this team, Kentucky has the talent to beat anyone in the country. It’s amazing the things a team can accomplish when it realizes inconsistency has far more dire implications that it did during the regular season.
So yeah, Bo Ryan is going to have his hands full. What you’ve heard several times up to this point is that this Wisconsin team is different, and it’s true. For the first time in a while, we’ve witnessed a slightly faster tempo, more balance and a wickedly potent offense out of Bo Ryan’s gameplan. Whatever he’s done differently, it’s certainly working. The Badgers have that unique and attractive combination of both being big and having the ability to move the ball well and shoot from any spot on the floor. This is going to pose some problems for a Kentucky team that normally has a very discernible size advantage in most games. In addition, they don’t force a lot of turnovers which should allow Wisconsin to move the ball freely and get open looks.
What you’re getting in this game is the 4th (Wisconsin) and 9th (Kentucky) most efficient offenses in the country in a year when both teams have taken a slight dip defensively. It looks to be a shootout, and frankly I’m just more impressed with what I’ve seen the Wildcats do against three of last year’s Final Four teams in that regard. And the Badgers are scoring well below their season average over the last two games.
When the NCAA Tournament began, the SEC was essentially the laughing stock of major conference basketball. Three bids, one of them a play-in. Yet here we are. The stars have aligned for one gigantic middle finger of a National Championship.
Kentucky: 77 | Wisconsin: 76