The field of 68 has been whittled down to the Final Four and we have four programs that certainly know about winning national championships. Florida, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Kentucky have combined to win 13 of them, and each is capable of capturing the prize this weekend in North Texas.
The Florida Gators are the tournament’s #1 overall seed and have won 30 in a row. Their last loss was to Connecticut at the buzzer in early December. This is Florida’s first trip back to a Final Four since the last of their back-to-back championships in 2007. Unlike that team laden with sure-fire NBA talent, this bunch is a more collective endeavor. Their defense is stifling. While there may not be anything this team does spectacularly, there is no area of weakness either.
Scottie Wilbekin was the SEC Player of the Year this season, and he leads this team from the point. His relentless nature and on-the-edge persona guide this team. Having overcome numerous off-court issues, Wilbekin’s maturation has been the key to Florida’s as they turned into the dominant team in college basketball this season. The Gators became the first to go 18-0 in the SEC, and they followed that up by winning the tournament as well. Florida lost only twice this season, to Wisconsin and Connecticut, and they could avenge both this weekend.
Wisconsin returns to the Final Four for the first time in 14 years, and their evolvement from a grinding team into a more athletic one is what has taken the Badgers to greatness. Always known for their toughness and tenacity, this Wisconsin team can score. They are led by Frank Kaminsky, a versatile player who can do it all. Finally they have athleticism to match the defense, and they are in contention for their first title in 63 years.
Connecticut is no stranger to this stage either. This run is shaping up a lot like their last title run just three years ago. Former Huskie, Coach Kevin Ollie has stamped his attitude on this team having them believe they can climb the mountaintop. Who could argue after their run through the regional? As in 2011, UConn has a player who can take over in all-American Shabazz Napier, capable of carrying the team by himself. But it is the emergence of his backcourt mate Ryan Boatright that has truly elevated the team.
This brings us to the X-factor. The Kentucky Wildcats were most everyone’s preseason pick to win the championship, but their growing pains were immense. The first Final Four team with five freshman starters since Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky struggled to find their roles and grow in Coach John Calipari’s system. But they are now playing together, and the talent is shining through. Having run a gauntlet of three of the most thrilling victories a team has had in the tournament over Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, the ‘Cats are seasoned. Julius Randle is overpowering inside, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison provide outside touch.
Kentucky is the most talented team; Florida the most dominant; Wisconsin the most consistent; and Connecticut the most dynamic. Any of the four could win. Florida knows their potential opponents, having played all three this season and owning three wins over Kentucky. The last of those was a 61-60 epic in the SEC Championship game where UK had the ball at the end but failed to get up a shot. Expect them to meet again, for the NCAA Championship. Florida makes it 4-4, cutting the nets down in Texas Monday night.