It’s the homestretch of March Madness, with the Final Four finally set after Kentucky’s thrilling win over Michigan on Sunday night. The last rounds of the Big Dance start Saturday at AT&T Stadium—yes, the $1 billion spaceship Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built that has no business hosting a basketball game, save for the gazillions in cash all those extra seats bring in.
When looking at the teams left standing, what first pops out is the seeding. A No. 1 seed (Florida) and a No. 2 seed (Wisconsin) made it out out of the South and West regions, respectively. But two lower-seeded teams made it to Texas, too: a seventh-seed out of the East, and a No. 8 seed out of the Midwest. But those two teams, UConn and Kentucky, aren’t exactly Cinderellas. Not when they’ve won two of the last three national championships (UConn took the title in 2011, and Kentucky won it all in 2012).
No Butlers, no VCUs, no George Masons, no Wichita States this season: In 2014, the Final Four belongs to basketball royalty. Except for Wisconsin, really. The Badgers last made the Final Four in 2000, and despite its 1941 national basketball championship, Wisconsin is still primarily known as a football school. But that can all change this year. The Badgers, who face Kentucky in one national semifinal game, are deep, fast, and for the first time in forever, actually kind of fun to watch. If we’re making predictions—and why not?—we see Wisconsin cutting down the nets next Monday night. As you prepare to make your own Final Four calls, here are four things worth considering.
Florida, which won back-t0-back national titles under coach Billy Donovan in 2006-2007, has won 30 straight games going into this year’s Final Four. That’s a remarkable streak, given that Florida doesn’t seem to have NBA-ready players like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer—standouts on those title teams—on this year’s roster. However, Florida plays an inside-out style that’s given teams fits all year. Inside, senior Patric Young, a 6’9″, 240 pound center, makes clever moves around the hoop with both hands. On defense, he finished third in the SEC in block percentage, and swatted away four shots against Dayton in Saturday’s regional final. Outside, senior Scottie Wilbekin was the SEC Player of the Year, and few players in college hoops are more creative off the dribble.
The last time Florida lost was on Dec. 2, to UConn, who the Gators will face in the other national semifinal.
The Shabazz Show
If there’s one team in the this year’s Final Four that represents that chaos of college sports, it’s UConn. The Huskies play in the American Athletic Conference, which in the first year of its existence is sending a team to the Final Four. Pretty heady stuff for a rookie league. The AAC was born after the basketball-centric schools from the old Big East, in which UConn used to play, decided to form their own conference, which is still called the Big East. The AAC has a football, and basketball, imprint that will weaken next year, when Louisville flees to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Rutgers decamps to the Big Ten.
Whatever: What’s important here is that UConn beat Michigan St. at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in what was essentially a home game. For years, UConn fans flocked to New York to support the Huskies in the Big East tournament, and the UConn fans gave the building a similar electricity on Sunday. So a team no longer in the Big East is going to the Final Four, in part because it was playing in the friendly confines of its former conference.
UConn is also coming off of academic probation. The Huskies were ineligible for the 2013 tournament because of poor academic performance. Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida released a report last week, detailing the Graduation Success Rates (GSR) of the Sweet 16 hoops teams. UConn’s graduation rate: eight percent. So how in the world is a school with an eight percent graduation rate coming off of academic probation? Because the NCAA has designed another metric, the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures whether current students are remaining academically eligible. So while a past cohort of UConn students failed to graduate at alarming rates, the current UConn students are maintaining sufficient enough grades to compete, according to the NCAA. But are these UConn players actually going to graduate? Is the APR a true measure of academic achievement?
Such debates, often involving mind-numbing acronyms like APR and GSR and AAC, always lurk in the shadows of college sports. For Final Four purposes, however, just know this about UConn: The team’s leading scorer, Shabazz Napier, has an uncanny ability to make shots with defenders draped all over him. Back in 2011, another UConn scorer, Kemba Walker—who now plays for the Charlotte Bobcats—carried the Huskies to a championship. Napier, who was a freshman on that title-winning team, seems to be having his Kemba Walker moment. That’s pretty terrible news for Florida.
The One-and-Doners Do It Again
Kentucky starts five freshmen. Of the three players who came off the bench during the Wildcats’ thrilling 75-72 win over Michigan in the Midwest regional final, two were freshmen. The other was a sophomore. Kentucky coach John Calipari, as he seems to do every year, assembled what’s called one of the greatest recruiting classes in college basketball history. In 2012, led by future NBA standout Anthony Davis, the Wildcats won the whole thing. Then poof, everyone went pro. This crop of freshman didn’t gel during the regular season—thus, Kentucky’s 8-seed. But the Wildcats peaked when they had to. Now, Calipari can test his one-and-done formula at another Final Four. Calipari’s sales pitch is simple: Come to Kentucky for a year, play with some fellow future NBA players, maybe win some games, and, most importantly, move on to the pros as quickly as possible. Million-dollar contracts, not diplomas, dominate the discussion.
To many moralists, Calipari’s act is despicable. But all he’s done is play the system. The NBA set the age-limit rule, disallowing players to jump straight to the pros, like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant had done in the past. Calipari has a history of mass-producing NBA players, assembling like-minded stars for their temporary campus stay, and melding them into a competitive team. If you’re a Julius Randle, the NBA-bound Kentucky forward, why not spend your only college season at the Final Four? It’s the Calipari way. Coach K wins the gold medals. But his one-and-done star, Jabari Parker, won’t be in Dallas. Duke couldn’t hang with Mercer.
Badgers Have Bite
Kentucky won’t roll over Wisconsin. Under coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers have always had a reputation for being one of those tough, grind-it-out Big Ten teams that will always finish high in the polls. But they just aren’t dynamic enough to win the whole thing. In other words, they’re kinda boring. No more: Wisconsin is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and the Badgers can pick up the pace. Against Kentucky, Wisconsin may try to slow things down a bit. Racing future first-round picks up and down the floor probably isn’t wise.
And if things go wrong for the Badgers, Ryan will scowl. You can do worse things on a Saturday night than watch Bo Ryan scowl.
This Final Four just has the right vibe. Now, let’s hope it lives up to expectations.
Another zany prediction: It will.