For mostly fair reasons, the 2014 NCAA tournament has been viewed as lacking individual star power. There have been captivating contests on a near nightly basis and a plethora of surprising results, but for a season widely regarded as the most star-heavy in history, the household names are decidedly few as we hit the Final Four.
Gone are Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and essentially every meaningful freshman not currently on Kentucky's roster. Also imagining what it'd be like to play on college basketball's biggest stage—hell, they don't even have a video game to play anymore—is the sport's biggest star in Doug McDermott and four of the five AP All-America selections.
Not that the four teams remaining are without their notable stars.
Shabazz Napier and his Allen Iverson-esque (the super, super lite version) dribble-and-chuck game have hit a series of shots that defy physics and everything we know about "good" shots. Kentucky's Julius Randle was getting No. 1 overall pick buzz in November before tapering off a bit. Wisconsin has Frank Kaminsky, mostly anonymous to common fans heading into the tournament and now receiving NBA buzz. Florida has Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin, two kids who have seemingly been at Florida since Joakim Noah's heyday.
The lottery picks heading to North Texas are few and far between. But there are very good collegiate players here and guys who have performed infinitely better than the kids we came into the tournament hearing about.
With that in mind, let's check in on each tournament team's most likely Most Outstanding Player candidate and where and when you can watch the Final Four this weekend.
|Date||National Semifinals||Time (ET)||TV||Live Stream|
|Sat, April 5||(7) Connecticut vs (1) Florida||6:09 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live|
|Sat, April 5||(8) Kentucky vs (2) Wisconsin||8:49 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live|
|Date||National Championship||Time (ET)||TV||Live Stream|
|Mon, April 7||National Championship - TBD||9:10 p.m.||CBS||March Madness Live|
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Scottie Wilbekin (G, Florida)
This tournament run has been a long time coming for Wilbekin. Suspended indefinitely last June for a violation of team rules, the senior guard came into his final season in Gainesville at a crossroads. He had already been suspended once prior, missing three games in the 2012-13 season for another rules violation and nearly transferred out of the program.
Before the NCAA tournament, Billy Donovan recounted a fateful meeting he had with Wilbekin following the suspension, per Myron Medcalf of ESPN:
I said, 'Listen, Scottie, right now, this is not who we are here at Florida, this is not what we're going to do. And you know what? If you do not want to deal with the suspension and being suspended games and you would like to go somewhere else and just sit out a year and go play, I'm OK with that. I'm not looking to do anything to hurt you as a person. But we've now gone through this several times with you, and you've made some poor choices and poor decisions, and what we're doing right now is not working.
Whatever else was said in that meeting and whatever else Wilbekin heard from others, he obviously took it to heart. He came into the season not only advanced as a player but, for the first time, as a mature leader on the roster.
While Wilbekin showed that growth during the regular season, earning the SEC Player of the Year Award and third-team All-American honors, the past two weeks have been a culmination. In wins over Dayton and Pittsburgh, Wilbekin helped pick up a Gators offense that was otherwise struggling for production. He was at times the only productive offensive player against the Flyers, scoring 23 points in a game that saw Florida make just five field goals in the last 20 minutes.
The Gators received clutch performances in other games by Michael Frazier II and Casey Prather, but there was little doubt about who was leading the charge.
Such will have to be the case if Florida wants to cut down the nets again. Wilbekin will be tasked with spending much of his Saturday evening in Napier's back pocket, an assignment that has left some of the nation's toughest defenders flummoxed. If he's able to win the point guard battle and force Napier into a tough night, there's almost zero chance Connecticut can escape with another win.
Shabazz Napier (G, Connecticut)
Rerun that last sentence and apply it with a more positive spin. If this were a Most Valuable Player conversation, there would be little question that Napier was ahead of the competition. The diminutive guard is at times Connecticut's only source of offensive production.
He is also, at times, the reason the Huskies aren't able to score consistently. His shot-heavy style has resulted in 17 different games this season with a shooting percentage below 40. That's not great. But what's defined this Connecticut run is Napier's ability to avoid such mistakes; he's not been below 40 percent since the round of 64.
"I've been through a lot and I've succeeded in some of them and failed in some of them, many, many times,'' Napier told reporters after Sunday's Elite Eight win, perhaps embodying the spirit of his whole team. "But it doesn't hurt to try. You never know how successful you can be until you try.''
Napier's attempts were plenty successful the first time Connecticut and Florida met. Breaking the Florida pressure with his dribble and finding consistency in his three-point stroke, Napier scored 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting in a 65-64 Huskies win. He also hit the game's most important shot, burying a buzzer-beating jumper to put Connecticut over the top.
It's the type of victories Kevin Ollie's team has been getting all season. Ken Pomeroy ranks Connecticut the 30th luckiest team in the nation, a huge leap over any other team remaining in the Dance. Over time, these things tend to regress to the mean. Close victories become close losses and the Connecticuts of the world come back to earth.
If the Huskies hope to avoid that fate, they'll need another spectacular game from Napier. Florida is too strong on both ends of the floor for him to be anything short of spectacular, and neither Ryan Boatright nor DeAndre Daniels are consistent enough to engender any faith
It's the Shabazz Show. He'll help decide whether it gets canceled.
Frank Kaminsky (F, Wisconsin)
Let's start this off by being cantankerous: Kaminsky is not a first-round pick. Not in this class. And before you go writing this off as "of course he isn't," I've probably been asked more about Kaminsky than anyone on Twitter and email over the weekend. There is very little chance that he comes out a year early, regardless, but he's a guy I'd advise stay in school and hope the NBA enacts a two-and-done rule.
Digression aside, it's not hard to see why folks are foisting superlatives on Kaminsky. The 7-footer laid the wood on the best defensive team in the country Saturday night, outmaneuvering Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski en route to a 28-point, 11-rebound performance.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller tried myriad ways to stop Kaminsky, even benching Tarczewski at points down the stretch so he could switch all screens, and nothing worked. Kaminsky went to work instantly on smaller defenders in the post, stretched out Wildcat bigs beyond the three-point arc and rebounded about as well as someone the size of a tree should.
"Frank Kaminsky is the reason Wisconsin's in the Final Four," Miller told reporters after the loss. "Kaminsky made some great plays. He's a difficult match-up. Got to be one of the best offensive players who plays college basketball for sure."
Kaminsky made 27 of 46 shots during Wisconsin's final three regional matchups, playing an integral role in the Badgers' comeback win over Oregon and matching up inch for inch with Baylor's length. The inspired run isn't entirely out of nowhere. He's hit the 20-point mark seven times this season, including a 43-point breakout against North Dakota in November.
But this is by far his most consistent run of solid offensive play. This is just the second time all season he's gone on a run of 15 or more points in three straight games. Wisconsin doesn't necessarily need a nightly 20 points to have a chance against Kentucky, but Kaminsky has to at least play Julius Randle close to a draw. The Kentucky big man has 13 double-doubles in his last 15 games and hasn't missed a beat in his first NCAA tournament.
Marcus Lee's breakout against Michigan and Dakari Johnson's continued presence only heightens Kaminsky's importance. The Badgers can still win without an elite Kaminsky performance if their shots are falling from outside, but it'd sure help if he continued his breakout.
Julius Randle (F, Kentucky)
If you love reading narrative #hottakes, root for a Kentucky national championship. There are already newspaper columnists and editors crafting headlines as we speak. This grown-up Kentucky team coming back to where Randle grew up to ascend. Randle, matured after a year of seasoning under Calipari, ascends in front of his friends and family. Photographers are already raring to go with their picture of Randle hugging his mother as confetti comes down—especially after the Elite Eight.
Julius Randle's mom had to leave at halftime so she could return to Texas and go to work tomorrow. Randle: "I'm coming home to my mom."— Ben Roberts (@NextCats) March 30, 2014
Most folks are less cynical than I and probably enjoy that stuff. But, in the end, it's more often than not exposed by lazy writers needing an easy narrative rather than those who actually know the game.
Randle has been and continues to be very good at basketball. He underwhelms at times as a pro evaluator because of his tendency to drift in and out of games, and it seems at times he's actively avoiding the so-called "black hole" label. That's partially a product of coaching, partially a product of having so many players on this roster looking for their own shots and partially because dude is 19.
When you look at the stat sheet, though, Randle always finds a way to get it done. Sometimes there are empty numbers thrown in there, but 24 double-doubles don't lie. That's the second-most NCAA history for a freshman, behind only Michael Beasley's 28 during his one-year stop at Kansas State. For all of the disappointments that have littered Beasley's professional career, there's no question he had one of the dozen or so greatest freshman seasons in NCAA history.
This ain't bad company to keep.
Kentucky has enough talent to win without Randle going for 20 points and 10 rebounds. Every tournament game has seemed to feature one semi-random player breaking out and reaching the potential spoken about before arriving in Lexington.
Calipari relies on Randle to be his constant. If he can do that, Kentucky has a shot.
All advanced metrics via KenPom.com unless otherwise cited.
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