Final Four Primer
Published on Tuesday, 4/1/14, at 1:45 p.m. Eastern.
By Brian Edwards
The 2014 NCAA Tournament field consisting of 68 teams has been reduced to four. Florida, the No. 1 overall seed, remains standing along with Wisconsin, Kentucky and Connecticut.
After missing out on the Final Four in three consecutive Elite Eight losses, Billy Donovan’s team is back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2007. UF went on a 15-1 run late in the first half to take control en route to a 62-52 win over Dayton as a 10.5-point favorite in Saturday’s South Region finals.
Scottie Wilbekin was the catalyst yet again. The senior point guard scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent the Gators to intermission with a 38-24 lead. It was the fourth time Wilbekin had ended the first half with a last-second bucket in the last six games.
At the under-eight television timeout, UF led the Flyers by 10 points. From our seats in the second row at FedEx Forum, I looked at my Dad and said, “We’ve been here before.”
In the 2011 South Region finals against Butler in New Orleans, Florida had a double-digit lead at the eight-minute mark. Likewise in St. Louis in 2012, the Gators were up 10 on Louisville with less than 10 minutes remaining. Both times UF failed to finish, getting sent back to Gainesville following gut-wrenching defeats.
This time around in Memphis, UF’s quartet of seniors wouldn’t allow any sort of collapse. Dayton did cut the deficit to single digits at eight, inspiring the raucous group of UD fans that made the trip into a frenzy. But Archie Miller’s team would get no closer.
Florida has now won 30 consecutive games and is the even-money favorite at 5Dimes to cut the nets down in North Texas on Monday. The offshore betting shop has Kentucky with the second-shortest odds (+330, risk $100 to win $330), followed by Wisconsin (+375) and UConn (8/1).
UF hasn’t lost since Dec. 2 at UConn on a buzzer beater from Shabazz Napier, who has led the Huskies to Dallas by doing his best Kemba Walker (circa 2011) impression. Napier led his team to wins over Iowa St. and Michigan St. in front of partisan UConn crowds at Madison Square Garden to win the East Region.
As of early Tuesday, most books had Florida installed as a 6.5-point favorite vs. UConn in Saturday’s lid-lifter at 6:05 p.m. Eastern. The total is 126.5, while the Huskies are +250 on the money line.
Kentucky and Wisconsin will collide in the other semifinal matchup. Most spots have the Wildcats favored by two with a total of 139.5.
UK is absolutely on fire with six wins in its last seven games. The Wildcats’ lone defeat during this stretch came in a one-point loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament finals. They have covered the number in seven straight contests.
John Calipari’s squad became the only team in NCAA Tournament history to beat three schools that were in the Final Four (Wichita St., Louisville and Michigan) the previous season. In all three instances, UK had to make big buckets at crunch time to win nail-biters.
Kentucky will most likely be without its best interior defender Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered a badly sprained ankle in Friday’s win over Louisville. Without Cauley-Stein, freshman big man Marcus Lee responded with a sensational performance in Sunday’s 75-72 win over Michigan in Indianapolis.
Lee had played just one minute in the first three NCAA Tourney games. He got 15 minutes of playing time against the Wolverines, producing 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
Aaron Harrison scored all 12 of his points from beyond the arc against Michigan. His step-back trey that was well defended got nothing but nylon with 2.6 seconds remaining to lift the ‘Cats to victory.
Wisconsin has Bo Ryan in the first Final Four of his stellar coaching career. Ryan is no longer the best head coach to never make a Final Four, and that dubious honor now belongs to Arizona’s Sean Miller.
Ryan led the Badgers past Miller’s top-seeded Wildcats in an overtime thriller late Saturday night in Anaheim. Wisconsin won a 64-63 decision as a 3.5-point underdog, hooking up money-line supporters with a +150 return. Frank Kaminsky led the winners with 28 points and 11 boards.
Like UK, Wisconsin has taken the cash in each of its four games in the Tournament. The Badgers took out red-hot Baylor in blowout fashion in the West Region semifinals.
There are storylines galore for this weekend. Donovan is gunning for the third national title of his storied career. There’s the possibility that it could come against Wisconsin, the only team besides UConn to beat UF this season.
Then again, it could come against Kentucky, which has dominated the Gators for decades but has already lost to them three times this year.
Ryan, one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball history, could finally have his moment in the spotlight this weekend.
Calipari, the target of so much criticism less than a month ago when his team was fading down the stretch, could earn a second national title for the ‘Cats, who only won one during Rick Pitino’s glorious eight-year tenure in Lexington.
UConn can win its fourth national title since 1999. If the Huskies do so, they will get it done behind a star player in Napier, who can join the likes of Danny Manning (Kansas, 1988), Carmelo Anthony (‘Cuse, 2003) and Walker (UConn, 2011) in carrying a team to a championship.
Saturday can’t get here any sooner.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
–After Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin withdrew his name from consideration late last night, Marquette moved swiftly to hire Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski. ‘Wojo’ replaced Buzz Williams, who left the Golden Eagles in March to take the Va. Tech job despite having to take a paycut. Williams was unhappy with the new Big East and didn’t like the uncertainty of not knowing who the school’s next president or AD would be. The school has interim replacements in both jobs right now.
–You can check out my breakdown of tonight’s NIT semifinals games here at VegasInsider.com.
–5Dimes has SMU as the +180 favorite to win the NIT. FSU has the next-shortest odds (+280), followed by Minnesota (+325) and Clemson (+340).
—Here’s a lot of great stuff on UF from long-time beat writer Chris Harry on his Harry Fodder Blog.
—Here’s the box score for the UConn-UF game on Dec. 2. UF freshmen Kasey Hill (sprained ankle) and Chris Walker (eligibility) did not play against the Huskies. Wilbekin missed the last five minutes with a sprained ankle.