Redemption and Realization – A 2014 Final Four Preview

With a 30-game winning streak in tow, Billy Donovan's Florida Gators will have to defeat familiar adversaries in order to win a national title.
With a 30-game winning streak in tow, Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators will have to defeat familiar adversaries in order to win a national title.

Florida, UConn, Wisconsin, and Kentucky all took different paths to Cowboys Stadium, but their quests to win a national championship are tied in many ways

One of my favorite movie scenes that I remember is during the heavy climax to the action-packed 1999 film The Matrix. All hope seems lost as the reluctant hero Neo, believed to be the savior of the real world from the cyber evils, is seemingly killed by the cyber goon Agent Smith. Suddenly, as the bad guys are about to walk away victorious, Neo comes back to life and has gained all of the powers and abilities that his mentor (and eventual car pitchman) Morpheus had taught him throughout the film. In one sudden revelation, Neo had cracked the code of the Matrix and was fully equipped to dispose of Agent Smith and future baddies. At its very darkest moment, the promise had been fulfilled. The truth that no one, including Neo himself, would have originally believed had finally been realized. He was The One.

I always think of that eureka moment in that movie when I watch sports teams or individual players seemingly reach a higher plane of awareness and talents and begin to surpass average expectations. It happens in all types of sports, but in the NCAA Basketball Tournament this year, the quality of self-realization was more evident than ever. Certainly, there is a big difference between the organic, humanistic nature of sports and the deus ex machina that comes to the rescue many times as it did for Neo in The Matrix. College basketball is a real life drama dressed with jerseys and sneakers, but if the ball bounces the right way, the results and scenarios behind them can be just as fateful or sensational as you see in the movies.

Each team in the NCAA Final Four in Arlington, TX, this weekend has gotten this far thanks to a dramatic self-realization of what they could be capable of at their best. The roads to the Final Four were definitely put together in far different ways when you compare and contrast those for Florida, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. However, if you look closely at those paths, all four schools share a fair amount of continuity and connective elements on their way to the Final Four than meets the eye. There are plenty of teams that found their mojo come tournament time (some of whom did not make it to Cowboys Stadium), but one that got off the ground running the earliest has to be the Gators at the University of Florida.

There were a select number of teams that were predicted by the writers in the preseason as forces to be reckoned with, but the only one that really lived up to that billing for the entire season was Billy Donovan’s team. After overcoming injuries, an early suspension to  Scottie Wilbekin, and the eligibility entanglements of star recruit Chris Walker, Florida went on a run not seen in college basketball since Duke did it in 1999: An undefeated conference record on top of not losing a game since December 2nd. With a record-setting defense, a highly efficient offense and a boatload of senior leadership at all positions, Florida emerged as the only truly dominant team among the pack of elites that the writers had glorified at the start of the season.

This season as whole feels a lot like a culmination of the previous three years as Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather were all freshmen when Florida went to the Elite Eight in 2011. They lost a heart breaker in overtime to Butler last year, followed by another choke job to Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in 2012 and a blowout loss to Michigan last season. With only one game separating Florida from going back to the Final Four for the first time since Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer won it all in 2007, they had the door slammed in their face every time. NBA players like Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, Bradley Beal, and Erik Murphy all passed through Gainsville unable to pull it off… until this season. After coaching the USA Basketball Under-19 team to a gold medal over the summer, Billy Donovan cleaned up his collar shirt as impeccably as his team played on the court, and the results were more than satisfactory.

After a convincing run through the South Region in which no game was closer than 10 points, Florida was able to right a three-year wrong and get Donovan back to the Final Four while winning 30 games in a row. They are only the third team since 1979 to win that many consecutive games going into the Final Four and also ranked second all-time in points allowed in the tournament at 55.0 PPG. The star power is certainly lacking with this mountain solid Florida team as it is not inundated with NBA talents or human highlight reels, but it is their commitment to team success that has truly set them apart from the others. However, the Final Four may be providing the only two chips on Florida’s shoulders for them to wipe off. Amazingly, a #1 overall seed that is 36-2 and has realized their full potential will also have a shot at something even deeper: Redemption for past failures.

Florida’s only two losses this season were at Wisconsin back in November and at UConn at the beginning of December. Wilbekin was suspended for the Wisconsin game when they lost 59-53, and he also got injured late in the UConn game when a buzzer beater during a sloppy final possesstion beat the Gators by 1 point. Despite the endless amount of success and pats on the back Florida has received since then, a national championship victory could be even more redeeming if they can defeat both UConn and Wisconsin. Florida has gained redemption as a team that cannot get back to the Final Four, but they may have to redeem the only two warts on their nearly perfect resume. No team is as prepared and ready at the gate to run to a national title than Florida has been this season, and it seems fitting that their Final Four opponent in the national semi-final is the last team to actually beat them, the UConn Huskies.

Three years after his teammate Kemba Walker did it, Shabazz Napier is carrying UConn back to the Final Four.
Three years after his teammate Kemba Walker did it, Shabazz Napier is carrying UConn back to the Final Four.

The last time we saw the University of Connecticut in the Final Four, it was also in the state of Texas, but more easterly at Reliant Stadium in Houston back in 2011. It was in that postseason where I made my first guest appearance on the Place To Be Podcast with Scott Criscuolo, Justin Rozzero, and Scott’s brother Chris, a longtime UConn fan, to preview the Big East Tournament at the famed Madison Square Garden. It seemed like an aligning of the stars for dear Chris as superhero guard Kemba Walker carried the Huskies to a Big East Tournament title before going to Houston. It was there that UConn took down Kentucky in the Final Four before beating Butler to win the school its third national championship along with Walker’s Most Outstanding Player award. Unfortunately, that third title would turn out to be the last for legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who resigned due to declining health and mounting pressures from the team’s poor academic progress rate over the years.

The low APR numbers led to UConn becoming the first major college basketball program to be forced to sit out a postseason due to the newly etched academic standards. As Calhoun retired from coaching, the hand-picked successor was Kevin Ollie, a familiar face in the NBA but a surprising choice to replace a Hall of Famer. Ollie was a tough-minded guard who had played for Calhoun at UConn in the early 90’s before playing well over a decade in the NBA for several different teams. After retiring as a player in 2010, Calhoun hired Ollie as an assistant for the 2010-11 season, the same fabled season in which they won the national title. Although the team had no tournament hopes to look forward to, Ollie pushed UConn to a solid 20-10 record in the 2012-13 season. It was a shame that in the farewell tournament of the “original” Big East at the Garden, its surrogate school was not allowed to properly say goodbye.

However, as fate would have it, Ollie and the Huskies did get that formal salute to Madison Square Garden after all thanks to their success this season. Kemba may have been the overwhelming star of that 2011 national champion Huskies team, but he was helped out in many ways by a duo of sidekicks that helped give the team one of the best defenses in tournament history. One was a 6’8″ small forward and current member of the Oklahoma City Thunder Jeremy Lamb. The other player that came under Kemba’s wing was a small but feisty two-guard named Shabazz Napier. Although he only stands at 6 feet, Napier showed amazing defensive skills on steals and handling his dribble as he learned to be the leader of the team after Kemba went to the NBA. By his senior year, Napier was a bona fide All-American at the guard position and just like his former mentor three seasons before, Napier took a quantum leap in his last NCAA Tournament.

Virtually every statistical category for Napier rose as the games got bigger and bigger, leading Kevin Ollie’s Huskies back to the Garden for the Midwest Regional Final. Not only did they methodically take out an excellent Iowa State team, but they put a defensive vice grip on a talented Michigan State squad while Napier took over with clutch jump shots late in the shot clock to keep UConn ahead and defeated the Spartans in the Elite Eight. Just as Kemba and Napier had celebrated together after winning a Big East Championship in the Garden in 2011, Napier was celebrating with some sidekicks of his own in Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels as they walked off the Garden court with another trophy in their hands. With that win over Michigan State, Ollie became only the fourth head coach to make the Final Four in two seasons or less.

As they head into the Final Four in Cowboys Stadium, where it will air on Turner cable channels for the first time in history, UConn has a few more odds stacked against them than they did three years ago. Remember that the Huskies that year were the highest ranked seed left in the tournament while squeezing the life out of Kentucky and Butler. It would safe to say that the Florida team that they will be playing as the first half of the Saturday doubleheader is going to be tougher than either of those 2011 opponents in Houston, but UConn has made the almighty Gators see their own blood before. In fact, it was Napier who made a scrambling shot and ran off the court when they beat Florida 65-64 at Storrs. It can be argued due to Wilbekin’s late injury in that game that Florida has yet to lose at full strength, so we shall soon know whether or not the tables will be turned on UConn this time around.

Both teams are excellent on the defensive end, with Florida having a distinct advantage. What stood out in the Michigan State win was not just how effective Napier was at making big time shots down the stretch but also how befuddling Kevin Ollie’s defensive game plan was on a Spartans team that had been highly efficient on offense all year leading up to that game. It comes down the head of the two snakes to see who gets bit first as Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, battles Napier, the first ever American Conference Player of the Year, in a clash of elite college point guards. UConn is one of the best teams in the country in shot blocking thanks to Daniels and big man Amida Brimah, but it will be difficult to see how the pitbull guards at UConn will match up with the physicality and hounding nature of Florida’s front court.

Napier and the back court are known for their excellent rebounding skills, but if they get scraped off the boards by Florida, then game could quickly turn into what most analysts expect: A rock fight. UConn is keeping the spirit of the original Big East alive in a ways just like Louisville and Syracuse did when they reached the Final Four last year, but it will take more than the spirits of the past to get through Florida. They certainly have the star player to pull off something even more improbable: A sequel to Kemba’s title run that may be just as exhilarating as the original. Do not forget the fact that the Huskies are 6-1 all-time in the Final Four. As Napier comes to the realization that he may be The Next One to carry UConn to the promise land, nothing would be more redeeming for them than to win a national title after going on probation and losing a Hall of Fame coach.

One of the breakout stars of this year's NCAA Tournament is Wisconsin's star big man Frank Kaminsky,
One of the breakout stars of this year’s NCAA Tournament is Wisconsin’s star big man Frank Kaminsky,

Their 6-point win over Florida may have been in the embryonic second week of the regular season, but there is more than one big home win when it comes to the Wisconsin Badgers out of the Big Ten Conference. If I had told you back in January that Wisconsin would reach the Final Four, you probably would replied with a big fat “No duh!” The team went into early January with 16-0 record before hitting a pothole later that month in their conference schedule, losing 5 out of 6 games. You knew they were in a serious rut when they lost badly at home to Northwestern, the yearly door mat of the Big Ten. One run deserved another, though, as Wisky went on an 8 game winning streak before losing their final regular season game to right the ship.

A lot of the curing of ills for Wisconsin began with the sudden ascendance of their best player, center Frank Kaminsky. A former high school guard who underwent two growth spurts at a late stage, Kaminsky is a 6’11” junior center with smooth under-the-rim action in the deep post along with a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game and amazing shooting touch from the three-point line. Because of his height advances, Kaminsky almost seems like a guard in a big man’s body, but instead of limiting his range he has liberated it with some incredible offensive work. In one early win against North Dakota, he scored 43 points while going 6 for 6 from the three-point line. He may deceive you as just another slow white dude at Wisconsin because he looks like a gene-splicing of Ryan Kelly and Eric Montross, but he plays better than either of those guys ever did as big men.

What he did to Baylor and Arizona’s front courts in the tournament in Anaheim was nearly unfair, boosting his numbers to 23.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 3 BPG. Charles Barkley, who is not the easiest to impress when it comes to March Madness, was flat-out giddy talking about how good Kaminsky was when Wisconsin upset Arizona last weekend. He is certainly part of a pass-happy, all-encompassing swing offense in which the ball primarily goes to the open man regardless of who it is, but even a white-haired traditionalist like Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan was smart enough during the tournament to realize that Kaminsky was his go-to guy. While guards like Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, and Traevon Jackson play vital roles in Wisconsin’s excellent free throw and three-point game along with Sam Dekker’s athleticism, it is through the multi-skilled big man that most of the offense starts and eventually ends.

While Shabazz Napier was a known commodity among college basketball experts and expected him to step up in a big way come tournament time, Kaminsky’s journey is unique because it is that of a player who breaks out on the national spotlight and finds a new level of adoration during the tournament itself rather than the insignificant regular season. No wonder they quickly dubbed him on social media as the cult-like Frank the Tank. But what is impressive about Kaminsky, future NBA prospect Dekker, and all the other Badgers is how well-grounded they all are thanks to the prevalent and steady message of Bo Ryan. A coaching lifer since the early 1970’s, Ryan coached high school kids in Pennsylvania before moving permanently to the state of Wisconsin.

Bo Ryan won four Division III national championships in the 1990’s at Wisconsin-Platteville before serving as head coach at Milwaukee. Slowly but surely he gained steam in America’s Dairyland before he wound up becoming the head coach for the storied Badgers. Two years before Ryan took over in 2001, Wisconsin had reached its first Final Four in nearly 60 years under Dick Bennett before losing to Michigan State. Since the day he was hired, it has been a firm goal for Ryan to get the Badgers and its die-hard fans back to the Final Four while continuing to play the right way. Ryan would go to the Final Four every season with his father Butch, who had coached under-privileged children in Pennsylvania, as a yearly get-together. This past August, Butch Ryan passed away.

After a thrilling 64-63 overtime win over 1 seed Arizona thanks in large part to Kaminsky’s 28 points and 11 rebounds, Bo Ryan was clearly moved to tears as TNT’s Craig Sager asked him about his father not being to make the trip to the Final Four with his son after finally getting his team on the fabled court. Visibly choked up, Ryan pointed to the sky and said, “This one’s for Butch,” and then he celebrated with his team of almost-made-it’s who had finally made it. Wisconsin may have a really short profile on their sheet when it comes to Final Four history (given that this is their first appearance in 14 years and only their third overall), but they have an emerging star junior in Kaminsky to go with a master tactician in Ryan.

What is ironic about this year’s Wisconsin team is the fact that while Bo Ryan’s teams have always hung their hat on the defensive end, it is on the offensive end this year that has turned the Badgers into such a tough out. Their physicality and lunch pail-carrying nature still rings true as their defense, while not as good as previous years, remains in the top 50 while they are one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free throw line. What sets this team apart the most is their preciseness at the three-point line, where Ryan is not afraid to put five players on the court who can all shoot three’s, and gives them license to do so if the shot comes open either on a drive and kick from point guard Jackson or pick and pop from Kaminsky.

We all know about the rich history behind the other three schools when it comes to Final Four appearances and national championships (13 for them compared to Wisconsin’s lone title from 1941). But the lopsided history should not deter you from putting your money in on Bo Ryan’s squad to drop treys form the outside and show the nation once again what a great player like Frank Kaminsky can do in the right offense against the right opponent. Kaminsky may not have realized until much later than others what he was truly capable of in terms of leading his team, but sometimes it is better late than never, and that is certainly paying off for the 66-year-old head coach, who is looking for that one trophy.

Kentucky's five freshmen starters will be the first squad of its kind since Michigan's fabled Fab Five in the 1990's to reach the Final Four.
Kentucky’s five freshmen starters will be the first squad of its kind since Michigan’s Fab Five to reach the Final Four.

Wisconsin may be a pretty young team for their standards as they only have one contributing senior in guard Ben Brust, but it is safe to say that the Badgers have nothing on the youthfulness of their Final Four opponents in the later game on Saturday night, the Kentucky Wildcats. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how storied of a program Kentucky basketball is, but even for this place, the 2013-14 edition has quite the story to tell. Thankfully, they have one of the smoothest operators in college basketball in head coach John Calipari, a post-modern pied piper who can deliver any kind of tune that will lure McDonald’s All-Americans to play for Big Blue Nation.

For the first two years under Calipari, the one-and-done prospect experiment got the verdict of close but no cigar as John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins fell to West Virginia in the Elite Eight in 2010 while Brandon Knight and company lost to Kemba’s UConn Huskies in 2011. The third time was the charm thanks to an all-time lineup with Anthony Davis, Michel Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, and senior Darius Miller. The Wildcats won their eighth national title in 2012 while Calipari happily won his first. But as the expectations grew even wider in Lexington and high school phenom Nerlens Noel blew out his knee, Kentucky did not even reach the NCAA Tournament in 2013, leaving Calipari to turn to the future for a team that could get Kentucky back to the Final Four.

It seemed at first like the dream was on the verge of coming true last spring when Calipari brought in what was promoted by many as the greatest recruiting class since Michigan’s Fab Five back in 1991. As with any team that wild and young in the early going, the initial stages were a bumpy ride at times. They were dominated in the first half by Michigan State in the Champions Classic, they already got to play at Cowboys Stadium, where they were convincingly beaten by Baylor, and they lost on the road to North Carolina. Even after a home win over state rival Louisville, the struggles continued.  Kentucky lost twice to Arkansas and even lost late in the regular season to a putrid South Carolina team in a game where John Calipari got ejected.

Calipari reportedly said going into the SEC Tournament in Atlanta that he had a eureka moment of his own when it came to Kentucky’s postseason success, but many blew it off as another rich example of the pied piper blowing smoke. But if you watched the SEC Tournament, improvement was obvious. After a bad loss on the road to LSU then escaping with an overtime win a month later, the rubber match between the Tigers and Wildcats was not even close as Kentucky dominated them. Then they easily beat the Georgia Bulldogs before playing Florida. They had already lost to Florida twice beforehand, once at home where Florida took the lead late and won and the other time at Gainesville in the last game of the regular season where the Gators destroyed the Wildcats. This game seemed to be a repeat of those encounters as Florida built a 15-point lead in the second half.

Then the switch got flipped and John Calipari’s supposed eureka moment was realized.  Kentucky went on a torrid run with disciplined defense and deadly shooting from James Young and the much-maligned Harrison twins to cut the lead to 1 with the ball in the final possession. Florida made the stop and won the SEC Tournament by beating Kentucky a third time, but everyone who saw the game knew that Kentucky was nearing their peak. They had no favors done by the NCAA Tournament Committee as they were elected as an 8 seed in the Midwest Region. After beating Kansas State in the first round, their second round opponent were the best mid major in basketball that year, the undefeated Wichita State Shockers. Most big time games in the tournament are a lot of hype but nothing to show for it, but not this time. Wichita State and Kentucky put on a game so wonderfully played and full of amazing highlights that I could call it the best second-round game in tournament history without too much argument.

It was during that game, and against Florida in the SEC Tournament, that Kentucky seemed to realize their constantly referenced burden of potential that they had struggled to find in the regular season. After beating Wichita State 78-76 they faced off with two formidable opponents (2013 national title game participants Louisville and Michigan), and we had quite the dynamic: A team that had been voted #1 in the preseason by writers and coaches had been sworn off as an underdog. After putting Willie Cauley-Stein in the lineup, Calipari replaced him with Dakari Johnson to make an all-freshman starting lineup for the first time in his own career of one-and-done super teams. Never has Calipari had to depend so heavily on new arrivals to find their way together like this in the tournament, but that, they did.

After a hard-fought and spirited comeback to beat defending national champion Louisville 74-69, Kentucky then faced off against the last school to start a Fab Five in the NCAA Tournament, the Michigan Wolverines. Top prospect power forward Julius Randle was an animal inside all tournament long and did it once again against Michigan while Andrew and Aaron Harrison stepped up in a big way in the back court. In the waning seconds of the Elite Eight, it was Aaron who sank a three-pointer over Caris LeVert to put Kentucky up 75-72 and punch their ticket to Jerry’s World in North Texas. The celebration amongst the kids at Kentucky was more joyous and surprising than that of other elite Kentucky teams in the past, as they had gone down quite possibly the most difficult road in history for these diaper dandies to prove the doubters wrong (To illustrate Kentucky’s difficult schedule, they had beaten an undefeated 1 seed, a 4 seed with only five losses, and a 2 seed that had won the Big Ten regular season title).

During the tournament, it was Calipari, in typical salesman fashion, who laid down the classic quote in the locker room to his team. He told his squad with six freshmen and one sophomore in the rotation, “They built us up so that they could tear us down.” It did not have the same punch as Hoya Paranoia from John Thompson, but Cal’s words resonated with Kentucky’s players and built a fascinating “us against the world” personality that inspired them to play their best during the tournament. It is strangely exciting to see a team so heavily hyped fall on their face in the regular season, then like Neo in the The Matrix, finally figure it all out right before the end arrives. Just like Michigan’s Fab Five, who were a 6 seed before getting to the title game in 1992, Kentucky was underseeded and severely taken for granted  because of their inconsistent nature in the regular season.

Along with the eight national title banners hanging in Rupp Arena, Kentucky has some history on their side, too, because they are making history as we speak. The last two teams to beat an undefeated team in the NCAA Tournament like Kentucky did when they took down Wichita State have both won the national championship. They are also the first team to ever defeat the National Champion and runner-up from the previous season as they did in the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis. It is a rare breed for sure to have a team full of NBA-caliber players rudely counted out by the press and committee alike, and now Kentucky has the opportunity to do what even Michigan’s Fab Five never could do: Win a national championship with five starting freshman (The only other team in history to do it was Utah’s Blitz Kids in 1944).

Of all the possible match ups in this Final Four, we have yet to see two of them: UConn versus Wisconsin and this game between Wisconsin and Kentucky. It is certainly a clash of styles in many ways but do share similarities. Kentucky and Wisconsin’s go-to guys are both big men who like to park in the paint as Randle will battle Frank Kominsky. Both teams were tops in the country at free throws made per game, but Kentucky is a far superior rebounding team while Wisconsin definitely has the Wildcats beat in the three-point shooting department. James Young, however, is a flame thrower at the three-point line for Kentucky to fight fire with fire. The key will, as it has all year, come down to the Harrison twins as they battle experienced and physical guards such as Brust, Gasser, and Jackson. Both teams have limited depth as Kentucky plays Alex Poythress, Dominique Hawkins, and the athletically gifted Marcus Lee. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has three raw but solid back ups in Nigel Hayes, guard Bronson Koenig, and finesse forward Duje Dukan.

This will make for the most fascinating game for the casual viewers as the young Kentucky freshman attempt to spoil Bo Ryan’s 40-year dream of winning a national championship for the state of Wisconsin for the first time since Pearl Harbor. And even if Kentucky wins, Florida will not feel cheated by not being able to avenge their loss to Wisconsin. Kentucky is obviously the gold standard of SEC basketball in perpetuity, so for Florida to have to go through Kentucky a fourth time this season in order to win a third national title seems to have a lot of potential for redemption, as well. But after losing three times to the Gators, Kentucky has quite a bit redemption of their own to dish out on Florida if the chance does arrive in Arlington.

It is very hard to beat a really good team like Kentucky three times, and to beat them a fourth time with the national title on the line would be the toughest. Ask Oklahoma, who dominated the regular season in 1988 before losing in the title game to rival Kansas, whom they had already beaten twice but the third time wasn’t the charm. We still have that final possession in the SEC Tournament fresh in our minds, and if Kentucky faces off with Florida once again, will the Fab Five Wildcats combine realization with redemption and end Florida’s epic winning streak? Will it be mighty Florida, young and inspired Kentucky, scrappy UConn, or traditional Wisconsin? we will find out starting Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium when the Final Four in just two days’ time reveals who The One truly is.