ESPN Stats & Information posted a statistic Sunday night that said only 612 of the 11 million brackets filled out on its website had all of the Final Four teams correct on their brackets. To those 612 people, I say: What in all of the world of worlds were you thinking?
As someone who spent way more time than is physically healthy on this tournament, nailing all four teams had to be based on some blind luck. Florida was a given; that much we can agree on. Wisconsin, even with all of Bo Ryan's March foibles, was certainly a plausible choice.
But landing Connecticut and Kentucky? That's not even fair.
This is the same Kentucky team that lost to South Carolina at the beginning of the month. That was swept by Arkansas. That so consistently floundered on the road and on neutral courts during the regular season that you couldn't help but wonder if John Calipari was going to lead a redux of last year—when a talented Wildcats team rolled over rather than competing in the NIT.
Connecticut, meanwhile, has exactly one reliable scorer. And it's the same team Louisville thrashed 81-48 on March 8.
These weren't exactly slam-dunk selections. Then again, with 11 million entries, there are bound to be 612 who say to hell with it and just throw up random nonsense. But if you're actually someone who picked that Final Four based on basketball reasons, please contact me on Twitter so that you can then make every difficult decision for me from now until my dying day.
Anyway. Basketball. Right. That stuff. Let's quickly check in with our four remaining teams' championship odds and offer an early preview of what to expect in our two national semifinal contests.
|2014 National Championship Odds|
All Your Bracket Essentials
Connecticut vs. Florida
When: Saturday, April 5, at 6:09 p.m. ET
Stream: March Madness Live
Spread: Florida -6 (Vegas Insider)
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, go ahead and light my bracket on fire as I curl up in the fetal position and weep. Fool me four times...OK, just stop it already, Connecticut.
The Huskies have been a team I've been wrong about since before the tournament. Their deeply flawed offensive strategy—featuring about 25 seconds of dribbling followed by an off-the-dribble contested jump shot by a 6-foot guard—led to some ugly, ugly basketball during the regular season.
I was roughly 98.9 percent sure that Villanova, flawed in its own right, would end UConn's tournament before the end of the first weekend.
Not only did Kevin Ollie lead his team to the Final Four, but he also made history along the way. No other seventh-seeded team had made the national semifinals since the advent of the 64-team format before Connecticut's win over Michigan State on Sunday.
What's interesting here is not all that much has changed. Connecticut's shot profile still features an abundance of terrible, terrible shots. For the exception of the Elite Eight, in which the Huskies benefited from a team-wide meltdown from Michigan State, they've just been falling.
Shabazz Napier won't ever be confused with Doug McDermott from an efficiency standpoint, but he's knocked down more than half of his shots over the last three games. Ryan Boatright has been...Ryan Boatright. DeAndre Daniels came up huge against Saint Joseph's and Iowa State but was largely average or worse against Villanova and Sparty.
Rarely, though, have things gone bad for everyone in the scoring hierarchy—allowing the Huskies to put up just enough points to advance. They're still 50th nationally in offensive efficiency. If the NCAA tournament would have implemented series rather than one-game eliminations, there is almost no way they're here—and that's kind of the beauty of the whole thing.
It's also why all logical signs point toward Florida being the favorite. The Gators were the top overall seed in the tournament, having won 30 straight games and boasting the strongest statistical profile of any remaining team by a solid margin. They're the only national semifinalist that ranks among the 20 best offenses and defenses in the country.
Scottie Wilbekin has emerged as a two-way leader, and I'm pretty sure Michael Frazier II hasn't missed a three since the Reagan administration. Billy Donovan has a settled rotation of seven players he trusts to go to war with. Nearly everything Connecticut has (veteran leadership, off-the-dribble scoring talent, brilliant defense) Florida has, only with better overall talent.
Connecticut has fooled me enough times to not count them out. There's just no justifiable way to pick them unless you want to pull the "team of destiny" card.
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
When: Saturday, April 5, at 8:49 p.m. ET
Stream: March Madness Live
Spread: Kentucky -2 (Vegas Insider)
Speaking of peaking at the right time. At different points during the regular season, Kentucky and Wisconsin looked like borderline bubble teams.
The Badgers started off 16-0, but subsequently lost five of their next six games—a streak that would ultimately keep them out of the race for the Big Ten Championship. Even losses to Nebraska and Michigan State down the stretch exposed their flawed defensive makeup, and only the basketball gods know how they came back against Oregon in the round of 32.
The last two games have been far more impressive. First, there was an utter beatdown of a Baylor squad with a markedly similar team profile. Then came a sterling defensive performance against Arizona in which Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon were held to 9-of-27 shooting, as Frank Kaminsky entered his name into the Most Outstanding Player conversation.
Aaron Harrison may not have entered the same conversation, but his game-winning three to vault Kentucky over Michigan in the Elite Eight has all the makings of a "One Shining Moment," umm, moment. Harrison's gutsy call to hoist a three with hands directly planted in his face gives John Calipari's squad three near-classic finishes in a row.
Kentucky's round-of-32 win over Wichita State still may be the best-played game of the entire tournament, possibly only eclipsed by its rendezvous with Michigan. Thrown in the middle was a five-point victory over Louisville in which the Wildcats came storming back from a seven-point deficit with five minutes to go.
The last two wins have come without center Willie Cauley-Stein, a defensive anchor whose ankle injury will likely keep him out through the tournament's completion. Calipari used five freshmen in his starting lineup on Sunday, and Kentucky became the first team since the Fab Five to reach the Final Four doing so—a rightful ending to a recruiting class to which it is so often compared.
As Calipari noted in meeting with reporters, this team took longer than even he expected to "get it":
Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out. It's not all them. They were trying.
Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, all that stuff. When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier.
Unlike the other matchup, there is not much separation between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Both are stellar offensive teams that struggle mightily at times with team-defense concepts. The Wildcats like to get out in transition more than any Bo Ryan team ever would, but not as much as you may think. Kentucky ranks 227th this season in adjusted tempo.
When in doubt this late in the Big Dance, it's typically best to go with the lower-seeded or more experienced team. The answer to both questions comes up in Wisconsin's favor, though don't rule out a fourth Kentucky instant classic.
All advanced metrics via KenPom.com unless otherwise cited.
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