Friday, April 4, 2014
2014 Final Four - Arlington, Texas
Huskies coach Kevin Ollie has Connecticut back in the Final Four. I was curious to see how the Huskies program would fate when longtime coach and resuscitator of the program Jim Calhoun retired. After being banned from postseason play last year, Ollie has quickly proven that the Connecticut program should continue its success. The Huskies pulled off back to back upsets in Madison Square Garden last weekend, knocking off #3 seed Iowa State and #4 seed Michigan State. Their run is drawing parallels to their last championship and Final Four run in 2011. That year, it was Kemba Walker who put the Huskies on his back, and this year it has been Shabazz Napier.
Napier does so much for Connecticut on both the offensive and defensive ends. He will occasionally get some support from DeAndre Daniels, but often times, the Huskies are completely reliant on him offensively. In addition to scoring Napier is able to often fly past opponents big men and come down with rebounds. Napier is a pretty good defensive player, but the Huskies defensive leader is Ryan Boatwright. Boatwright was a menace to the Michigan State players, recording four steals. G-F Niels Giffey is a guy you don't often hear his name called but sometimes that can be a good thing because it also means he isn't doing much wrong while on the court. Center Phillip Nolan basically leaves the Huskies at a 4 on 5 disadvantage offensively and usually splits time with fellow big man Amida Brimah. UCONN doesn't have a ton of depth though and that could be their undoing this weekend.
The Florida Gators are on an absolute tear. They have won 30 games in a row and coincidentally enough their last loss this season came at Connecticut on December 2. When you look back at the stats from that game, it seems like it was mostly a fluky loss. Florida shot almost 50% and outrebounded the Huskies. They were going to win the game before Shabazz Napier hit a shot as time expired. Some would argue that Florida has had an easy road to the Final Four, but they did defeat UCLA in the Sweet 16 and the bruins were one of the hottest teams in the country. They might have caught a break by drawing #11 seed Dayton in the Elite 8 but Dayton had beaten some strong teams along the way including Ohio State and Syracuse.
Guard Scottie Wilbekin is on an absolute tear right now, and him and Napier could wind up in a scoring battle on Saturday. Patric Young is the Gators force in the middle and unlike UCONN's bigs he can be relied upon offensively. F Casey Prather was the Gators leading scorer in the teams first meeting, but in the Gators last three games he hasn't really looked for his shot much. Michael Frazier II is another dangerous guard for the Gators and someone who doesn't turn the ball over. F Will Yeguete, along with Young helps give the Gators their defensive dominance and off the bench Dorian Finney-Smith is a guy that can step up offensively with needed and is another tough defender.
This game really comes down to how well Napier plays and if Daniels or some other player on the Huskies can adequately complement him. In my opinion, Billy Donovan should focus his team's defensive attention entirely on Napier and let anyone else on Connecticut try to beat them. Florida is too good of a team to lose to Connecticut twice and I expect the Gators to never really pull away from UCONN but also never truly be in danger, as they return to the championship game for the first time since 2007.
Prediction: Florida 64, Connecticut 57
#8 Kentucky (28-10) vs. #2 Wisconsin (30-7)
It seems the fabulous freshman of Kentucky just needed the pressure removed for them to live up to the hype bestowed upon them prior to the season. The Wildcats have been tremendous in this tournament and their last three wins have all been instant classic victories. Last weekend they came back from early deficits against both Louisville and Michigan, hitting big shots at the end of those games to win. It was Aaron Harrison's three pointer late that sealed the game for Kentucky and put them in their third Final Four in four years.
Aaron and his twin brother Andrew have really upped their play in the tournament run. Andrew did struggle against Michigan but like a good twin, Aaron was there to pick him up. F Julius Randle is an absolute beast and is going to be tremendous on the next level. He averaged a double double this season and that has carried over to the tournament, where he has recorded double doubles in all four games. Dakari Johnson is another big man for the Wildcats and he was a big reason for their win over Louisville. James Young has been scoring under his average but part of that is because of the other Wildcats stepping up their game. Young has hit some huge three pointers during Kentucky's run to the Final Four. Willie Cauley-Stein injured himself against Louisville and is doubtful for the Final Four. Someone who came up huge for Kentucky in his absence against Michigan was Marcus Lee. Any boost Lee can provide for Kentucky off the bench will be huge in their efforts of trying to beat Wisconsin.
The Badgers are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and for the first time under coach Bo Ryan. They destroyed Baylor in the Sweet 16 and then outlasted the top seeded Arizona Wildcats. Frank Kaminsky basically single handedly led the Badgers to victory, scoring 28 of the Badgers 64 points. Kaminsky's big game was even more important because Traevon Jackson struggled mightily shooting from the field against Arizona, hitting just 4 of 14 shots. His fellow guard Ben Brust also had a rough game but is typically one of the most consistent players the Badgers have on the offensive end. Ever since helping lead the Badgers back against Oregon, Josh Gasser has mostly been a non-factor offensively, but is solid on the glass. Freshman Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are the main options off the bench for Wisconsin.
With the run Kentucky is currently on and the absurd amount of talent they have, it is impossible for me to pick against them right now. The Badgers best hope is that their defense can frustrate the Wildcats young players, and guys like Jackson and Kaminsky have big games. Kaminsky will have to be hitting his shots from the outside, because athletically, he can't play against a guy like Randle. I don't feel like the Badgers have the firepower to take down Kentucky, and coach John Calipari will have the Wildcats in their second championship game in three seasons.
Prediction: Kentucky 72, Wisconsin 65