I feel kind of bad about that encounter. I tried as hard as I could to explain the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team, but this tournament has defied my advice and likely ruined that nice lady’s bracket.
This has been an NCAA tournament full of upsets, and I have taken a great amount of enjoyment watching the numerous Davids slay their respective Goliaths. From Mercer to North Dakota State to Dayton and its improbable run, I have repeatedly found myself yelling at my TV, encouraging the underdog and loving every minute of it. Anyone who complains about upsets or his or her bracket being ruined is simply a curmudgeon. Tournaments like this one are what make college basketball great.
It has been said repeatedly this week that we could start this tournament all over again and end up with a completely different Final Four. While I think there is some truth to that, the one team that would surely still have a place in North Texas is the Florida Gators.
There are four really fun teams with a chance to be National Champion. Wisconsin has a terrific player in Frank Kaminsky, who will give Kentucky all it can handle. The Wildcats, who started the season No. 1 in the country, are finally coming together. Both the Harrison twins and Julius Randle have made John Calipari look like a genius again. Losing Willie Cauley-Stein, however, robs the Wildcats of their only shot blocker and will allow Kaminsky to again carry Wisconsin forward.
That means UConn and Florida will face off to play Wisconsin for the national title. As great as Shabazz Napier has been in this tournament, Florida sure looks like the team to beat. It seems only fitting that the 36-2 Gators, who have won 30 consecutive games, will get the chance at redemption for their two losses from earlier in the season. Napier was their undoing before, but Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators have won all of their tournament games by double digits. That momentum is going to continue and will propel the Gators to the title game.
This is a very good Florida team. Led by four seniors, it earned the No. 1 overall seed and has calmly dispatched each opponent placed before it. Their defense is their calling card, and Wisconsin will have to protect the ball even more than usual if it wants a shot at winning.
More than anything though, depth and experience will be what makes Florida a National Champion. All four of their seniors have played in two Elite Eights and Billy Donovan knows exactly how to make sure his team is prepared. I’m picking the Gators to extend their winning streak, and the Badgers will have to keep searching for their first championship since 1941.
But really, at this point, nothing would surprise me.
By MATT ROSENFELD
This is a little hard for me, as I’m still mourning the Michigan season. But the show must go on.
This is a weird Final Four. There’s a seven and an eight seed, but can any of us really say we’re shocked to see UConn or Kentucky make it to Arlington?
Florida has looked borderline unstoppable, giving up only 55 points per game in the tournament. This should come as no shock, since Florida has been dominant on defense all year long.
Lastly we have Wisconsin, which (as somebody that watches a lot of Big Ten basketball) I liken to the tortoise in the classic children’s tale about the tortoise and hare. At one point, the Badgers lost five of six in conference and their season looked gloomy if they didn’t turn it around fast, but Bo Ryan’s squad just kept going and ended the regular season winning eight of nine, and now they’re going to the Final Four.
In Saturday’s first game, I’ll take Florida over UConn. Do not get me wrong, I was thoroughly impressed with the Huskies’ run at Madison Square Garden. Shabazz Napier’s play right now is strikingly similar to Kemba Walker’s when UConn won the tournament back in 2011. He’s shooting 45 percent in the tournament, and now that my favorite player Nik Stauskas is gone, Napier is by far the most entertaining player to watch. And probably the most important thing that should not be overlooked, UConn beat Florida earlier this year.
All that being said, Florida is playing on another level. It has the perfect mix of senior leadership and tournament experience with Patric Young and Casey Prather to go along with freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who I think will surprise people this weekend. Florida is just too good on both ends of the floor right now for UConn to take this one.
The second game is a bit tougher, but I’m going with Kentucky over Wisconsin. I’m a big subscriber to the “experience is important” theory, but Kentucky, with its starting five composed of all freshmen, just seems to have it this year. When you shoot 63 percent from three in an Elite Eight game against the best offensive team you faced all season, when you shot 36 percent from three all year prior to that game, it’s your year. They are coming together, and they are scary.
Finally, in my All-SEC Championship game, I have Kentucky over Florida. Florida has beaten Kentucky three times this season. The last time, in the SEC Championship game, Kentucky was right there in a 61-60 loss. You know the saying “It’s tough to beat the same team twice.” Well, I don’t think a team as hot and as talented as Kentucky is going to lose four times to the same team, even if that team is as good as Florida.
So write it down, folks. John Calipari takes another group of one-and-doners to a National Title, Kentucky’s second in three years.
By ANTHONY PUCIK
ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR
This year’s March Madness has certainly lived up to its billing, but through all the surprise upsets and wild finishes, we are down to just four teams: UConn, Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Both games feature teams on similar streaks in the tournament. There is Florida and Wisconsin, two teams that lived up to expectations in the tournament and survived the multitude of upsets and Cinderella stories. Then, there is UConn and Kentucky, teams that played well during the season and came into the tournament with mid-level seeds and low expectations, but rose to the occasion and upset top seeded teams. They all now find themselves with a chance at the championship.
Let’s first start with Florida and UConn. My winner for the tournament all along has been Florida, although it’s hard not to pick UConn after the run it has had in the tournament. Florida has yet to have a real problem with any team it has faced up to this point and is on a great win streak. UConn had a difficult time against St. Joseph’s in the opening round, but it was able to upset two very offensive minded teams in Villanova and Iowa State and then go on to defeat a very defensively sound Michigan State team. While Florida might not be the most difficult challenge to UConn defensively this entire tournament, it is certainly the most well-rounded. Despite Shabazz Napier’s leadership and ability in the clutch, and the fact that UConn has beaten Florida already once this year, I think the Gators will be able to defeat the Huskies. Florida 70 – UConn 65.
The Wisconsin-Kentucky game might be even more interesting to watch. Wisconsin, much like Florida, handled most of its opponents very well. The only real struggle it had was against a very talented Arizona team, and the Badgers proved in the end that they were able to handle them. Kentucky, on the other hand, which felt that it was given too low a seed, has been impressive throughout the tournament.
After handling Kansas State with relative ease, Kentucky has put up a very impressive resume, knocking off then undefeated Wichita State, defending champion Louisville, and two seeded Michigan. Defeating Wisconsin would add another top seeded team Kentucky has beaten in this tournament, but I think the buck stops here for the Wildcats. I think the Badgers have proven that they’re a force to be reckoned with this year. They have played their best games against top 25 teams when the stakes were high, and I think they will do that once again against this red hot Kentucky team, but it will be close. Wisconsin 66 – Kentucky 64.
Now for the final: Florida – Wisconsin. This might be one of the most exciting games of the entire tournament, and there have been some pretty exciting games. Despite how well Wisconsin plays under pressure, I think I’m going to have to stick with my original pick before the tournament started. The Gators earn the victory 69-62 over the Badgers to win it all.