Saturday’s Final Four Signals the End is Near
The Final Four is one of my five favorite sports days of the year (the opening day of the NCAA Tournament is also one of them), but it’s bittersweet because there’s only one more day of college basketball left in the season after this. But there’s no point in shedding tears when we have a great doubleheader on our plate. For those who got stuck with a friend’s birthday, a wedding, or some schmo (definitely not Bro) having his kid’s birthday party on Saturday afternoon, I hope you have your cell phone with you to watch at least.
#1 Florida vs. #7 Connecticut – 6:09 p.m.
Florida hasn’t lost a game since December 2 and of course that game was against UConn. A lot has changed since that first meeting. Part of the reason Florida lost that game and hasn’t lost since was the absence of Kasey Hill (ankle sprain) and Chris Walker (NCAA investigation). Part of what makes Florida great is their well-rounded offense and depth, to which Hill and Walker contribute. It’s hard to shut them down because other players will rise to the occasion if one player is the defense’s focus. They’ve looked like the favorite to win the title since early February and have shown nothing in this tournament to make us think otherwise.
Connecticut, on the other hand, has had some ups and downs since that Florida victory. They were undefeated at the time, but stumbled for two months before finding their stride once the calendar hit March. They’ve notched three victories in a row as underdogs in large part due to the superior play of Shabazz Napier, but we all knew Napier was great. It’s DeAndre Daniels who has truly helped them lift their game to that next level. He’s looked more confident on the offensive end, leading to 17 points a game in the tournament compared to 12.5 points in the games before that. The junior is shining under the brightest lights like he was expected to as a highly sought after high school recruit.
Scottie Wilbekin is seen as one of the premier defensive guards in the country, compared by some to the elite Aaron Craft. Napier could have his hands full with Wilbekin, so it will come down to Daniels to raise his level again if UConn is going to win this one. I just don’t think Florida is going to lose a low-scoring affair against a team with similar talent. They’ve got the experience and coaching edge and need to be out-talented in order to go down. Revenge will clearly be on Florida’s mind as they take down the Huskies in the opener.
#2 Wisconsin vs. #8 Kentucky – Approx. 8:49 p.m.
Wisconsin also owns a win against Florida, along with wins against Saint Louis, Virginia, Iowa (twice), Michigan, Oregon, Baylor, and Arizona. Yet it’s the youthful talent of Kentucky that’s getting most of the spotlight as Saturday’s game approaches. This is a reverse of last year’s Wisconsin team. They’re fourth in the country in offensive efficiency and 45th in defensive efficiency after being 108th and first respectively last year. The Badgers didn’t have their best offensive game against Arizona, the best defense in the country, but they were able to score late in regulation and in overtime. Frank Kaminsky was an unstoppable force, killing it inside and outside on the way to 28 points. Kentucky’s front line has slightly more height and bulk than Arizona’s, but there’s no reason to think Kaminsky can’t be as successful. Will John Calipari look to shut Kaminsky down and have someone else beat him?
Maybe it took all of Kentucky’s freshmen’s NBA stock dropping to focus the team on playing for this year and not worry about the future. Or maybe it was Calipari dialing back the offense for Kentucky to score at least 74 points in two games against the 12th and 5th best defenses in the country before hitting a miracle shot against Michigan. The major advantage Kentucky has in this game is their size. They’ve got the height advantage at every position other than center and it’ll be interesting to see if Wisconsin, not the great defensive team of years past, can defense that height. Julius Randle could kill Sam Dekker inside. Should Bo Ryan decide to guard Randle with Dekker or Nigel Hayes and double team him when he sees the ball, it will leave James Young and Aaron Harrison open for three-pointers. Switching the defensive assignment to Kaminsky would get Wisconsin’s best offensive player in trouble.
Ryan is the better Xs-and-Os coach to Calipari, so he’ll need every trick in the book to win this one. Wisconsin got a little lucky against Arizona with Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson having bad games. Unlike Arizonia, Kentucky won’t get nervous should they be down in this game. They’re playing with house money and dying for a fourth crack at Florida. It’s amazing Kentucky has gotten this far, but there’s no reason to think it’s stopping now.
Vegas Best Bets:
Kentucky -2 over Wisconsin – It did take a Aaron Harrison three-pointer to get the cover against Michigan, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Hit me again.
UConn +10 over Florida / Under 130 (4-point teaser) – Florida’s going to slow the pace, which should keep the margin and total down. UConn struggled at times to score against a good Michigan State defense, which helps the under, but staying within 10 points shouldn’t be an issue.