Most brackets have been busted due to the plethora of upsets in the 2014 NCAA tournament, but the Final Four does still feature the No. 1 overall seed in March Madness in the Florida Gators.
After falling short of the national semifinals in Elite Eight losses each of the past three seasons, coach Billy Donovan's senior-laden squad has finally pushed through to the biggest stage in the Big Dance. Florida will face a tough Connecticut team that won the East Region as a seventh seed.
Speaking of lower seeds that made impressive runs, how about the Kentucky Wildcats? Seeded eighth after an underwhelming regular season, Kentucky thrived in the underdog role and managed to make it out of the loaded Midwest. The Wildcats are tasked with taking down the Wisconsin Badgers to keep their stunning surge going.
Here is a look at the latest bracket information, followed by predictions as to how the rest of the tourney will play out.
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|Saturday, April 5||Time (ET)||TV||Pick|
|No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 Connecticut||6:09 p.m.||TBS||Florida|
|No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Kentucky||8:49 p.m.||TBS||Kentucky|
Florida Exacts Revenge on Connecticut
Shabazz Napier's ability to be clutch in big moments revealed itself early in the season, when his buzzer-beater beat the Gators in early December. It was one of Florida's two losses, and Napier's heroics looked even better as the 2013-14 campaign progressed.
But this is a different Gators outfit than the one that lost that game. A perfect record through the SEC and an impressive jaunt through the NCAA tourney have Florida confirming its status as the prohibitive favorite to win it all.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin described how the early adversity the Gators faced—including the loss to UConn—made the dominance that followed even sweeter, per USA Today's Gerry Ahern:
"The struggles that we went through this year have just made it that much more fun and brought us that much closer together. Throughout the season, each game has just gotten more and more fun. I'm having the most fun I've ever had in my life right now."
The Huskies have managed to grind their way here thanks largely to the play of Napier, who would be a strong candidate for the tournament's most outstanding player if Connecticut were able to run all the way to the title.
SportsCenter's official Twitter account noted the similarities between Napier and former UConn star Kemba Walker, who keyed the Huskies' last run to a national title:
It's unlikely that Wilbekin or the rest of Florida's quartet of seniors will let Napier get free as often as he did in the first matchup. Now that chemistry has been established and the Gators have settled in to play elite defense, the task ahead of Napier is going to be extremely difficult.
Credit the Huskies and coach Kevin Ollie for making the most of his maiden trip to the NCAA tournament, but a determined Florida team will advance to the finals after coming up just shy in recent years.
Prediction: Florida 68, Connecticut 56
Kentucky Edges Wisconsin in Thriller
That young man above, Julius Randle, has been a constant star for the Wildcats amid a season of immense uncertainty. Randle's level of play hasn't changed much amid March Madness, which is a good thing, since he's posted double-doubles in every NCAA tourney game.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco compared Randle to Memphis Grizzlies star Zach Randolph:
Julius Randle is Zach Randolph— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) March 31, 2014
It's an interesting analogy, but Randle handles the ball even more like a guard than Randolph does and is a threat to knock down mid-range shots, which allows him to beat opponents off the dribble with ease. That was evident in Kentucky's 75-72 victory over Michigan on Sunday:
Which national title matchup do you want to see?
Now to bring it back around: Frank Kaminsky is a seven-foot matchup nightmare for most frontcourts, thanks to his three-point shooting proficiency and amazing array of post moves.
But what Kentucky proves against the Wolverines is that it can hang with a team that has versatility and spaces the floor as well as anyone in the country. The Wildcats have enough athleticism from their big men on the bench to thwart Kaminsky around the basket, and Randle is quicker than Kaminsky on the perimeter.
That will take Kaminsky off his game on both ends, while Aaron and Andrew Harrison, along with fellow first-year star James Young, use their superior talent on the wing to beat the Badgers to the basket. Kentucky should have no problem getting to the paint in this contest.
Renowned analyst Seth Davis noted how seeding doesn't really matter in the NCAA tournament, pointing to this particular semifinal as a prime example:
Kentucky's an 8 seed and Wisconsin's a 2. Shows you how much seed matters.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 31, 2014
Wisconsin is a feel-good story in that Bo Ryan has finally gotten the program to the Final Four in his 13th consecutive NCAA tournament. The Badgers should be able to slow the pace down and execute well enough in the half-court offense to keep this one close.
However, these swagger-packed Wildcats look borderline unbeatable and just beat three of last year's national semifinalists in succession. An accelerated learning curve and heightened stakes have taken Kentucky to unexpected heights after its prior struggles, which will allow it to advance to the final in a close game that comes down to the wire.
Prediction: Kentucky 70, Wisconsin 68
Gators Bring Title Back to Gainesville
Donovan would like nothing more than to send his unique foursome of seniors out by raising a banner to the Stephen C. O'Connell Center rafters. It should become a reality by next Monday.
Kentucky would pose an intriguing matchup, since it narrowly lost the SEC tournament final 61-60. The Wildcats fell behind by 16 points and nearly mounted an epic comeback, but it was not meant to be.
The defeat may have been a blessing in disguise in retrospect, because John Calipari's crop of freshman phenoms have figured out how to blend together. Big Blue Nation was put through a tough test of patience and frustration, but it's all going to be worth it if the renowned recruiting class of 2014 can bring the top prize to Lexington.
Unfortunately, it won't quite be in the cards for Kentucky. The adage of defense winning championships will hold true for Florida, who has Casey Prather, Wilbekin, Michael Frazier II and others all capable of creating their own offense and have the synergy and communication necessary to weather the intense pressure of this game.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out just how dominant the Gators have been thus far—coincidentally reminiscent of their potential powerhouse finals opponent:
Florida is 1st team to win 4 straight NCAA Tourn games by 10+ points since Kentucky in 2012... a team that won the title. (@eliassports)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 30, 2014
No longer can the Wildcats play as if they have nothing to lose. They were the preseason top-ranked team, so by reaching the final, they would be living up to their expectations in a sense. Knocking off the current top-ranked squad would solidify their legacy as a truly great team, while falling short would make them an enigma in the history books and be considered a disappointment.
The dynamics should be fascinating if this title tilt occurs, but just as in the SEC final, Florida will find a way to gut it out despite the way Kentucky has proved capable in its most recent games to counter-punch in crunch time.
Prediction: Florida 68, Kentucky 66