Thanks to a good mix of David and Goliath, Day 1 of the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight on Saturday will make for some exciting and intriguing college basketball action.
No. 1 overall seed Florida is the odds-on favorite to win it all, but it will have to get past this year's Cinderella fan favorite in Dayton. No. 1 seed Arizona has reached the Elite Eight as well by hook or by crook and should receive a stiff challenge from No. 2 Wisconsin.
Every college basketball player aspires to reach the Final Four, and that accomplishment is just one win away for the four teams that will be competing on Saturday. Getting over that hump won't be easy, but all four squads have what it takes to reach the Final Four.
Dayton vs. Florida
With 29 consecutive wins to their credit, it's fair to say that the Florida Gators would be favored to win their Elite Eight contest regardless of their opponent. Enter No. 11 seed Dayton, and all doubt is removed.
The Flyers have enjoyed a spectacular NCAA tournament run that has included wins over power conference teams Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford, but Florida is playing at an entirely different level from every other team.
That means Dayton will have earned it if it finds a way to advance to the Final Four. There seems to be a strong belief that the Gators will waltz past the Flyers, but Dayton has proved itself time and time again. This could be one of the most emotional and hard-fought games of the tournament, and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports expects a great battle:
One thing that works in Dayton's favor is that elite teams tend to relax at times when they face lower-seeded opponents. Florida was far from impressive in a 12-point win over Albany in the round of 64, so the Gators are susceptible to some lapses.
With that said, Florida big man Patric Young insists that his team won't take Dayton lightly, according to David Brandt of The Associated Press (h/t Yahoo! Sports): "They've earned their spot here just as we have. We're going to respect them, just as much as they respect us. We know they're a good team. If they're here, they are going to be one of the eight teams left."
Senior leadership will be a huge factor for the Gators in this game, with Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather needing to exert themselves. Dayton, on the other hand, will need contributions from the top of its roster to the bottom.
Of the Flyers' 12 players, 11 of them scored in a Sweet 16 win over Stanford, and all of them played. If they can put together another team effort like that, then anything is possible.
Wisconsin vs. Arizona
In what looks to be the more evenly matched Elite Eight game on paper, No. 2 Wisconsin will do battle with No. 1 Arizona on Saturday. The Badgers and Wildcats took different routes to get to this point. Wisconsin crushed Baylor in the Sweet 16, while Arizona needed a late comeback to outlast a tough-minded San Diego State squad.
From a momentum perspective, it's difficult to argue that Wisconsin has the upper hand. The Badgers are banging on all cylinders right now, while Arizona is searching for answers in some respects. The Wildcats were able to survive on Thursday even with star guard Nick Johnson struggling, but it showed that they are far from bulletproof.
Baylor was a popular upset pick over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 due to their length and athleticism; however, the Badgers had little issue neutralizing those advantages. According to the Associated Press (h/t Fox News.com), Baylor head coach Scott Drew felt as though Wisconsin forced the Bears to change their style: "Wisconsin really played a great game, and we did a very poor job in making things tough,. They're extremely hard to pressure and rattle. ...Once we got behind, we had to do some things we wished we didn't have to do."
The Badgers are a tough team to come back against due to their flawless execution of head coach Bo Ryan's half-court offense. On top of that, the Wildcats have struggled against top-notch teams in the Elite Eight in recent years, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Arizona has the horses necessary to get the job done with Johnson and Aaron Gordon, but the Badgers seem to be playing better team ball at the moment.
As great of a story as Dayton has been to this point, all signs point to the clock finally striking midnight for Cinderella. The Flyers earned their victories over Ohio State and Syracuse but still got them by the skin of their teeth. Truth be told, neither the Buckeyes nor Orange were playing anywhere near the level that Florida is right now.
Dayton's impressive win over Stanford inspires confidence, but the Gators defense hasn't allowed 70 or more points in 10 games and held an offensively gifted UCLA team to just 68 points in the Sweet 16. Florida also has enough offense to get by with Wilbekin running the show, and that means curtains for the Flyers.
On the other side of the bracket, Wisconsin vs. Arizona promises to be much closer. Arizona is the more explosive and athletically gifted team, while Wisconsin has executed better and played much more consistently throughout March Madness.
The biggest X-factor in this game is that the Badgers have bigs who can step out and shoot the ball in the form of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. That impacts Arizona's entire defensive philosophy and will allow Wisconsin to dictate the flow of the game.
Also, if this contest comes down to free-throw shooting, then Wisconsin will have the advantage. The Badgers ranked 30th in the nation with a free-throw percentage of 74.4 percent during the regular season, while Arizona ranked 310th at 65.5 percent. With that in their back pocket, the Badgers will reign supreme.
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