The 2014 Final Four is set — a mix of established powers and well-heeled bluebloods.
Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin have NCAA titles in their histories, the first three with championships in the last decade. Wisconsin – the outlier – made the Final Four in 2000 and has 11 20-win seasons in the last 12 years.
Now, the fun starts.
Here’s a quick glance at what each team brings to Arlington, Texas, and why you should (or shouldn’t) adopt it as your favorite over the next eight days.
Florida (36-2) vs. Connecticut (30-8)
SOUTH REGION, NO. 1 SEED
SEC regular-season and tournament champions
Road to the Final Four: Def. 16. Albany, 67-55; def. 9. Pittsburgh, 61-45; def. 4. UCLA, 79-68; def. 11. Dayton, 62-52.
History: Two national championships (2006, 2007); Four previous Final Fours (most recent: 2007)
Star: Scottie Wilbekin, G, 6-2, Sr.
The son of a Gainesville, Fla. pastor, Wilbekin skipped his senior year of high school, graduating early to join the Gators in 2010. It has taken four years, two suspensions, and some tough love from his coach for the 21-year old point guard to reach his potential. Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year, tied a career high with 23 points against Dayton while not committing a turnover and holding the Flyers’ leading scorer, Jordan Sibert, scoreless. Suspended for the first five games of the 2013-14 season for his second violation of team rules, Wilbekin — as demanded by coach Billy Donovan — moved back home with his parents for his final year in college.
Coach: Billy Donovan (486-188 over 20 seasons, 18th at Florida)
Donovan burst into the national consciousness as a hard-nosed, smooth-shooting point guard for Rick Pitino at Providence, helping the Friars make it to the 1987 Final Four as a senior. But “Billy the Kid” is no longer, with streaks of grey mixed into his perpetually slicked-back hair. Donovan, 48, has already established himself as one of college basketball’s best coaches, winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Florida set a school record for wins this season, its 16th straight campaign under Donovan with 20 wins or more.
Be glad Florida is here… if the idea of one-and-done players is repugnant to you. Florida has four senior starters — Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young — and that’s not uncommon under Donovan. The coach has said that he isn’t opposed to recruiting short-term players, “as long as they’re a good fit.” But over the years, Donovan has convinced some of the program’s best players — David Lee, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons — to stay in Gainesville for multiple seasons. There’s been only one freshman leave Florida for the pros (Bradley Beal, 2012) since the NBA changed its early entry rule in 2006.
Be sad Florida is here… if you like underdogs. If No. 11 Dayton could have pulled an upset in the South Region final, it would have been only the fourth time an 11-seed had made the Final Four and the fourth time since seeding began in 1979 that the final weekend was without a No. 1 seed: 1980, 2006 and 2011. So much for Cinderella. Florida is the clear favorite of the remaining four, ranked No. 1 in both polls before Selection Sunday, entering as the tournament’s top seed and riding a 30-game winning streak.
EAST REGION, NO. 7 SEED
Tied for third in AAC regular-season, tournament runners-up
Road to the Final Four: Def. 10. St. Joseph’s, 89-81; def. 2. Villanova, 77-65; def. 3. Iowa State, 81-76; def. 4. Michigan State, 60-54.
History: Three national championships (1999, 2004, 2011); Four previous Final Fours (most recent: 2011)
Star: Shabazz Napier, G, 6-1, Sr.
Years from now, Napier might be looked at as the most important player in UConn history — more than stars Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton or Emeka Okafor. Napier isn’t the most talented player from that group. Far from it. But the fact that he stayed loyal to UConn’s program is significant, keeping it relevant after it was saddled with NCAA sanctions and a postseason ban for 2012-13, as well as the surprise retirement of long-time coach Jim Calhoun. For the teams in Arlington, Shabazz is the most important player for his team’s success, leading the Huskies in minutes, points, assists and steals.
Coach: Kevin Ollie (50-18 over two seasons, both at UConn)
Ollie was an assistant when Calhoun decided to retire after 26 years in Storrs, Conn. Naming Ollie the head coach, as part of a planned succession, was a risk. He had only two years of coaching experience before getting hired in September 2012, coming to Calhoun’s staff directly after a 13-year career in the NBA. Born in Dallas but raised in Los Angeles — where he graduated from Crewshaw High School — Ollie had deep ties to the Huskies, playing in 124 games from 1991-95. He served as a team captain in the final two seasons at UConn.
Be glad UConn is here … for SMU’s sake. It’s great for SMU that it is in the semifinals of the NIT. Truthfully, it’s a better fate than getting jettisoned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, getting more practice time and storing experiences from meaningful postseason games. With Louisville’s imminent departure from the AAC to the ACC, the perceived strength of the American will be bolstered by a team with a Final Four pedigree. It’s also worth noting that the Mustangs had two nine-point wins over UConn in conference play — which can’t hurt confidence for 2014-15.
Be sad UConn is here ... if you care about “integrity.” In 2011, the NCAA ruled that Connecticut’s basketball program had given more than $6,000 in inducements to recruits, made more than 300 improper phone calls and texts, used an NBA agent in recruiting and failed to “monitor and promote an atmosphere for compliance.” A single scholarship was docked for each of the next three seasons, as well as some recruiting days, but little else. The concept of integrity in college athletics is pretty sketchy. With deep-pocketed boosters, shoe dollars, shadow agents, heck, even the NCAA itself — it’s a messy business. But with UConn skating on a raft of infractions under Calhoun, it’s all a bit unsavory.
Wisconsin (30-7) vs. Kentucky (28-10)
WEST REGION, NO. 2 SEED
Big Ten regular-season runners-up
Road to the Final Four: Def. 15 American, 75-35; def. 7. Oregon, 85-77; def. 6. Baylor, 69-52; def. 1. Arizona, 64-63 (OT)
History: One national championship (1941); Two previous Final Fours (most recent: 2000)
Star: Frank Kaminsky, C, 7-0, Jr.
A year ago, Kaminsky was just another big man on Wisconsin’s bench, getting 10 minutes a game and averaging 4.3 points. Now, after breakout performances in the NCAA Tournament, he’s being talked about as a potential NBA prospect. Kaminsky scored 28 points, including six in overtime, with 11 rebounds and three 3-pointers in the regional final win over Arizona. “When we have a guy like Frank who is just such a dual threat, really can finish on the inside and step out from the outside, it really helps open up things for all of us,” guard Ben Brust said.
Coach: Bo Ryan (704-223 over 30 seasons, 13th at Wisconsin)
Just how NFL quarterbacks are judged on Super Bowl wins or thoroughbreds are measured by Triple Crown races, college basketball coaches are unfairly measured by Final Four trips. After three decades on the sidelines, Ryan gets his first Final Four. It’s more than deserved; he has the third-best winning percentage of any active coach with more than 600 wins, trailing only Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. The Badgers have made the NCAA Tournament in each of his 13 seasons, with six Sweet 16 appearances during that span.
Be glad Wisconsin is here … for Ryan and the Wisconsin faithful.
Ryan couldn’t hide his emotions when his team punched its ticket to Arlington, telling TBS sideline reporter Craig Sager after Wisconsin’s win over Arizona, “This is for Butch.” Both of Ryan’s parents died within the last 16 months; his father, Butch, had been his son’s biggest booster, traveling together each year to the Final Four as “bonding time.” The day of Wisconsin’s Elite Eight win would have been Butch Ryan’s 90th birthday. For Wisconsin fans, with their team long overlooked in the Big Ten by a handful of other programs, getting to the Final Four is sweet confirmation.
Be sad Wisconsin is here … if you like games to be decided by players, not officials. Official Tony Greene put himself in the spotlight for the second time this season, blowing his whistle to call Arizona guard Nick Johnson with an offensive foul with four seconds remaining in overtime. Sure, Johnson absolutely shoved off (and missed the shot), but Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser also initiated contact trying to hedge him out of the lane. It was the second dust-up for Greene, who called a similar foul against Syracuse’s C.J. Fair at the end of a tight regular-season loss to Duke, leading to Jim Boeheim’s histrionic ejection.
MIDWEST REGION, NO. 8 SEED
SEC regular-season and tournament runners-up
Road to the Final Four: Def. 9. Kansas State, 56-49; def. 1. Wichita State, 78-76; def. 4. Louisville, 74-69; def. 2. Michigan, 75-72
History: Eight national championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012); 15 previous Final Fours (most recent: 2012)
Star: Julius Randle, F, 6-9, Fr.
Fellow freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker might be selected earlier in the upcoming NBA Draft, but no first-year player has made a bigger impact than Randle. Regardless of class, he’s one of the fiercest rebounders in college basketball.
Randle is the nation’s leader in double-doubles, getting his 24th of the season with a 16-point, 11-rebound effort in the Midwest Region final against Michigan. This level of play isn’t a surprise. As a senior in high school, he came back from a broken foot to take an 11-19 Prestonwood (Plano, Texas) team to a TAPPS 5A state title.
Coach: John Calipari (596-176 over 22 seasons, fifth at Kentucky)
Calipari might be basketball’s Robert Johnson — selling his soul at the crossroads for national prominence. He’s one of two coaches to lead three schools to Final Four appearances. He’s also the only coach to have two trips — with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — subsequently vacated for a variety of NCAA violations. Since the NBA’s early entry rule change in 2006, no coach has been better at securing short-term talent.
Be glad Kentucky is here … for Texas’ sake. It’s easy to dislike Kentucky; I get it. With his penchant for one-and-done talent and his questionable NCAA past, Calipari isn’t particularly likeable. Kentucky fans? Someone printed “40-0” T-shirts at the start of this season, certain that their cadre of freshmen wouldn’t lose a game. And Ashley Judd —whether she’s clapping or sad, cheering or uninterested, you’re certain to see 1,000 cutaways to her during the Final Four if she’s in attendance. Boo. But Randle and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are Texans, cutting their teeth and winning state titles in the Lone Star State. That counts for something, right?
Be sad Kentucky is here … if you like fluid basketball. Kentucky’s lineup of youngsters is supremely talented. If you compare its players with nearly anyone else in college basketball, the Wildcats have better prospects up and down the board. But individual talent doesn’t always look great in a team concept. If the Wildcats don’t get a quick look in transition, or are pushed beyond the first option in an offensive set, they look like students in the beginner class at Arthur Miller — tentatively stepping through the paces of a fox trot. That’s why Randle — an elite offensive rebounder — and Andrew Harrison — a powerful guard who can get to the free-throw line — are so important. Those two can always get baskets, regardless of context.