Not many people saw this coming.
The Final Four begins Saturday in what the NCAA is calling “North Texas” but is actually the city of Arlington, where Florida, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Wisconsin will converge to battle for college basketball’s national championship (a feat which will earn coaches hefty bonuses to go along with the extra cash they’ve already earned. Sorry, players!). The combination is surprising, so much so that only 612 of the more than 11 million brackets submitted on ESPN.com correctly predicted it. That’s a 0.0000551% success rate that makes me feel quite a bit better about my busted bracket.
Now that these four teams are here, though, let’s take a look at what might decide who meets in the final game on Monday night.
(1) Florida vs. (7) Connecticut
The Skinny: The Final Four’s first match-up pits two teams that played earlier this season, when Connecticut knocked off Florida on a last-second shot to win 65-64. But the Gators didn’t have their full line-up for that meeting, and they haven’t lost since, winning 30 consecutive games and going undefeated in the Southeastern Conference. Florida boasts the nation’s top overall defense. Connecticut, which won a title in Texas just three years ago, wasn’t expected to be here, not a year after they were banned from postseason play and certainly not after they took a 33-point shellacking at the hands of Louisville to finish the regular season. And yet, here they are, largely because Shabazz Napier is putting the team on his back the same way Kemba Walker did when the Huskies won the 2011 national title.
Why Florida Will Beat UConn: Defense, and a lot of it. The Gators are the top team in Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball rankings, and that’s in part because they’ve overtaken Arizona during the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s best overall defense. Take away UCLA’s 68 points, and the Gators haven’t given up more than 55 to an opponent in this tournament, and the 55 came as the Gators shook off the nerves of being the top overall seed in their first game against Albany. Florida is absolutely suffocating. Stopping Napier, who’s put up 24 points or more in three of the four tournament games, has been impossible so far, but if any team can do it, it’s Florida.
The Gators are a good offensive team too. They rank 18th in KenPom’s adjusted offense ratings. And they have a point guard in Scotty Wilbekin who is playing as well as anyone not named Shabazz in this tournament. Wilbekin has hit big shots since he returned to the team in December, and his improved shooting stroke is showing in March too: he’s averaging 16.8 points and shooting 38 percent from deep. But Wilbekin’s command of the Gator offense is most impressive. In four tourney games, he’s dished out 13 assists and turned the ball over just twice — and he hasn’t had a turnover since the first half of the round of 32 tilt with Pittsburgh. Florida has other pieces too — Patric Young is a monster inside, and after making just three of his first 13 three-point attempts in the tournament, sharpshooter Michael Young II connected on seven of 13 in Florida’s last two games. If the Gators are as solid as they have been thus far, it’s hard to see them losing.
Why UConn Will Beat Florida: There’s not really a better reason than that Napier looks as unstoppable now as Walker did three years ago. Napier has been dominant in almost every way — he’s averaging 23.3 points, 6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists and is shooting 45 percent from three through four tournament games. But for all the attention he’s gotten, he hasn’t been alone. DeAndre Daniels has scored 17 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from the field, both improved from the regular season. It was Daniels, not Napier, who paced the Huskies in their upset of Iowa State, with the former pouring in 27 points. And enigmatic guard Ryan Boatright has been more consistent too, adding 13.8 points per game in the tournament and dropping 41 percent of his three point shots, also improvements over his regular season numbers.
If Florida tries to take Napier away — and it will — Daniels and Boatright will have to be even better than they’ve been already. UConn isn’t a high-scoring team, but with three perimeter players hitting 40 percent of their threes, they could stretch Florida’s defense. That said, if the Huskies are going to win, it’ll take a defensive effort like the one they turned in against Michigan State, which shot just 39 percent from the field against UConn in the regional final. The Huskies also have another big advantage: if the game turns into a foul shooting contest late, they’re knocking down 88 percent of their free throw attempts in the tournament. Florida, meanwhile, shot 67 percent from the line during the regular season, though it has made a respectable 74 percent of its attempts in the tournament. If UConn can keep it close in the final minutes, they’ll have a chance. The question is whether they can get there.
(2) Wisconsin vs. (8) Kentucky
The Skinny: If you prefer offense to defense, skip the early game and watch this one. Wisconsin and Kentucky are the fourth and ninth-best offenses in the country, according to KenPom, and neither is a startling defensive team: KenPom ranks Kentucky 40th and Wisconsin 45th in adjusted defense. If either of their tournaments are an indication thus far, this one should be a good game. Kentucky won three of the most entertaining games of the tournament in running a gauntlet of 2013 Final Four teams, beating Wichita State by two, Louisville by five, and Michigan by two. Wisconsin erased a 12-point halftime deficit and held on to beat Oregon in the round of 32 then played a down-to-the-wire thriller to knock off Arizona to reach the Final Four. The programs, meanwhile, are almost complete opposites, Kentucky relying on youth and future NBA lottery picks and Wisconsin relying on experience. This one should be fun.
Why Wisconsin Will Beat Kentucky: Kentucky hasn’t been bad defensively in this tournament. Only Wichita State broke the 50 percent shooting mark, and overall, the Wildcats have held their four opponents to 46.7 percent shooting (35 percent from three). But the absence of center Willie Cauley-Stein, who left the Louisville game with an ankle injury, leaves them vulnerable in multiple ways, most notably at the rim, where they now lack a true shot-blocking option. Louisville exploited that weakness at times in the Sweet 16, and Michigan found another weakness in the Elite 8: 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson has size but lacks agility, quickness, and defensive instinct, and Michigan picked-and-rolled Kentucky to death to take advantage of it.
Wisconsin is the type of skilled team that could do that, and 7-foot, do-everything forward Fred Kaminsky, who’s averaging an impressive 18.5 points per game and shooting 55 percent from the field in this tournament, could present a match-up nightmare for Kentucky. Without Cauley-Stein, it’s unclear who will guard Kaminsky, and the Wildcats don’t have any dead-set options. Dakari Johnson has the size but not the speed. Julius Randle and Alex Poythress have the speed and athleticism but not the size. And if Sam Dekker, who’s averaging just 9.3 points in the tournament after putting up 14.3 per game during the season, returns to form, Kentucky could be in even more trouble when Wisconsin has the ball. Wisconsin is also a balanced offense capable of distributing points: all five starters scored in double-figures in the round of 32 win over Oregon.
Why Kentucky Will Beat Wisconsin: Kentucky’s size has given each of its four opponents trouble, nowhere more than on the glass. The Wildcats have outrebounded their four opponents 144-104 and have hauled in 55 offensive rebounds, routinely turning them into second-chance points that have come at key moments in games. It often seems that Kentucky’s strategy is to get a decent look, put a shot on the rim, and take its chances that Randle or Poythress will grab any miss and put it back in. That might be a workable strategy against the Badgers, who aren’t a bad rebounding team — 18th in defensive rebound percentage during the season — but outside of Kaminsky will be outsized at every position against a team that sends three, four, and sometimes five players to the offensive boards. Michigan and Louisville hurt Kentucky by crashing their own offensive glass, grabbing 25 offensive rebounds between them. But Wisconsin may not be able to do that: the Badgers rank just 302nd in offensive rebounds per game and 263rd in offensive rebound percentage.
Kentucky’s size could also trouble Wisconsin in the backcourt, where twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison have exploited size advantages throughout the tournament. Both have bullied their way to the rim against smaller Wichita State and Louisville guards, and both are capable scorers in there even if they’ve been somewhat streaky. They’re also good foul shooters, and once they get inside, they draw attention from other defenders that opens up offensive rebounding opportunities for the other four Wildcats. Their aggressiveness, combined with better decision-making from Randle, has helped Kentucky on the perimeter, where Aaron Harrison (13-of-24) and James Young (6-of-14) have combined to make 50 percent of their three-point attempts in the postseason.
Who’s Going To Win
Have you seen my bracket? I don’t have a clue. But Florida has been the most consistent team in college basketball for months now, and they have something to prove against all three teams left here: both Wisconsin and Connecticut beat them earlier this season, while the Gators have already knocked off Kentucky three times and won’t want to ruin that by losing the most important meeting of the season.