Final Four promises to have many storylines, breakout stars, and tons of suspense

The 2014 NCAA Men’s Final Four culminates with probably the most wide open quartet of teams to reach the pinnacle of college basketball.

As you read through each of the thumbnail summaries that follow, please keep in mind that each of these schools has plenty of tools on offense, defense, coaching, and intangibles to cut down the nets come Monday night.

FLORIDA GATORS:  36-2 OVERALL RECORD, 18-0 IN SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE (FIRST TEAM IN SEC HISTORY TO FINISH REGULAR SEASON IN-CONFERENCE UNDEFEATED).  STUDENT ENROLLMENT 49,042.  FIFTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.

“I’m very proud to be a Gator boy.  And to see how much those kids went through, losing in the Elite 8 three years in a row and finally getting to the Final Four, it’s a testament to them and their coaches.”

— Former University of Florida center and proud alumnus Joakim Noah, member of the Gators’ back-to-back title runs in 2006 and 2007.

No question about it, pound for pound–these Gators have proven all year why they are the number one team in all of the United States.  Even after their slip-up to UConn in December, rattling off 30 wins in a row has been quite an achievement.  Billy Donovan knows exactly what to get out of his players and two of his prized seniors, forward Casey Prather and guard Scottie Wilbekin will have to come up huge on both ends if the Gators are to join Joakim Noah, Al Horfford, and Billy Humphrey as national champions.

THE GATORS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…

They make their free throws.  It may sound corny, but it sounds true.  Including their four tournament wins, their overall charity stripe average is at a meager 66.7 percent.  Not since the days of Shaquille O’Neal when he was blocking shots with regularity down at LSU from 1989-1992 have we seen a quality team muck things up from the line.  The SEC Tournament final in Atlanta proved to be a point of how hungry they could be, and with most media members predicting an all-SEC final with Kentucky, nothing is out of the question.

CONNECTICUT HUSKIES:  30-8 OVERALL, 12-6 DURING INAUGURAL SEASON OF PLAY IN AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE.  STUDENT ENROLLMENT 18,032.  FIFTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.

“Nobody believed in us but ourselves, our coaching staff and our fans. To finally be here, it’s a great moment.”

– Junior DeAndre Daniels after winning East Regional over Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.

Kevin Ollie has made a nice transition from the always testy Jim Calhoun era.  After the school completely missed out on the 2013 tournament due to poor APR scores as required by the NCAA, these Huskies shocked Florida to their last loss 65-64 on December 2 and parlayed that into a seventh seed with one outstanding talent.

America, meet Shabazz Napier.  No question, he might be better at this stage than Kemba Walker.  However, those Huskies back in 2011 had to win four straight elimination games in the Big East tournament just to qualify for the NCAA’s.  Then what followed was their rather impressive six game run, which culminated in a blowout of Butler in Houston for the title.  Honestly, they have other role players that like to share the ball than just having Napier pretend to be another famous UConn alum, in all-time NBA three point king Ray Allen.

With that in mind…

THE HUSKIES WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…

Both Ryan Boatwright and Amida Brimah avoid getting in foul trouble.  With the NCAA’s revised rules concerning chippy fouls in full display, their bigs would not be able to get into the proper spacing which could mean curtains against a very athletic team like Florida.  Also, the Huskies will have to take advantage of hitting their three-point shots.  Overall, the Huskies currently are shooting the rock from downtown at a 38.9 percent clip, nearly 3 points higher on average than Florida.

WISCONSIN BADGERS:  30-7 OVERALL RECORD, 12-6 IN BIG TEN CONFERENCE.  STUDENT ENROLLMENT 42,595.  THIRD FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.

“We want a national championship now…We have made it to the opportunity to get there, so why not go get it?”

– Forward Frank Kaminsky after his monster performance in helping stun top seed Arizona at West Regional in Anaheim, California.

A school record 16 wins in a row.  A rugged and rough Big Ten conference season.  Although Michigan and Michigan State grabbed a solid majority of the publicity both online and offline from Christmas onward, when the dust finally settled–it was Bucky Badger that emerged to the top.  And Bo Ryan, after 13 years at the helm has made his peak.  Will it translate to a national title?  They will have to play more than a superhuman effort to dethrone the Big Blue Nation come Saturday night.

THE BADGERS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…

Frank Kaminsky simply goes off.  I mean, if he hits over 75 percent of his field goals, and 45 percent of his attempts from three.  If Kaminsky goes, so go the Badgers.  Also, defensive rebounding in this game will be huge in a hope to keep the Cats astray.

KENTUCKY WILDCATS:  28-10 OVERALL, 12-6 IN SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE.  STUDENT ENROLLMENT 28,623.  SIXTEENTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.

“Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you’re going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me.  What we’re doing has never been done.  You can’t do this.  So you’re getting that hit.  If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here…That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?”

– Kentucky Coach John Calipari, in his attempts to sell Kentucky basketball to recruits.

“I am more relaxed, because I know I don’t have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots.  I’m not dealing with that anymore.  This team has been empowered now and now I can just coach basketball.”

– Coach Calipari, in quotes gathered in article by Shannon Ryan of the Los Angeles Times on UK’s roller coaster season.
They were the Preseason Number 1 team before Halloween.  And for a period of over two months, they looked more worthy for the CBI’s or the CIT than their one-and-done NIT appearance in 2013.
But here they are.  Rich Big Blue Nation tradition does have a pulse, and most of that is because of some very talented freshmen who have gelled together as a team at exactly the right time.  Albeit Willie Cauley-Stein’s freakish ankle injury gave many fans including famous alumnus Ashley Judd some concerns, this group of Wildcats play with a fury that has not been seen by many teams in years past.
THE WILDCATS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
They play their game, make huge stops defensively and hit the key shots when they are needed.  The Harrison twins are definitely a force to be reckoned with, and if they both shoot over 50 percent, UK might have a chance to reach the title game.  And with Coach Calipari taking over “The General” in Robert Montgomery Knight as the most polarizing coach in college basketball today, will this group actually do better than their current 3.0 GPA’s while they are in class?  Each of Coach Calipari’s previous Final Four entrants (1996 with Massachusetts and 2008 with Memphis) were later vacated after rules violations found by the NCAA left stains on each of their school’s legacies.
Does this mean that Coach Calipari will go elder statesman against the stoic Bo Ryan?  Or, does he have one more trick up his sleeve just so the refs will try to nail him with one more technical foul?
At least, the last word on Kentucky basketball should always belong to the 1990 graduate who majored in French:
“I love this team and I think for me the key is that we always have an answer…I really like that somebody said blue-chip talent, blue-collar work ethic, egos checked at the door.  I think that says it well about this team…Someone asked me what do I love about them.  Simply put, I love them because they are good.  I just love them because they are good.  They are great.”
Superfan Ashley Judd, in March 23, 2012 article on kentuckynewera.com
This Final Four will be a bit different in some respects on what we see on television.  More on that in the next blog.
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