The road to this Final Four has been shocking and wild, but there is now some real potential that college basketball will wind up crowning a Cinderella national champ.
Florida is the only No. 1 seed remaining, the lone giant in a reduced field of giant killers. No. 2 Wisconsin took down Arizona, the No. 1 in the West bracket, to reach the Final Four, and No. 8 Kentucky dropped then-undefeated Midwest No. 1 Wichita State in the round of 32.
Meanwhile, the representative from the East, No. 7 UConn, was able to make it this far without facing a No. 1 seed—though it did beat seeds two through four in Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State.
All four teams have displayed the ability to beat the highest level of competition, and they each would only have to do it twice more to cut down the nets in North Texas.
March has been plenty mad already, but as we enter April, this tournament can still get madder.
UConn: 10-1 odds
As long as the Huskies keep capitalizing at the charity stripe, they're a serious threat.
UConn has been one of the best free-throw shooting teams in college basketball all season. The Huskies finished the regular season ranked ninth in free-throw percentage; the only tournament teams ahead of them were Providence and Oregon.
But their work at the line has gone gangbusters this March. Check out the uptick they have experienced over their four tournament games:
|UConn Per-Game Free-Throw Statistics|
Sure, small-sample-size alert, but if Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels keep putting pressure on opposing defenses and drawing fouls, the free-throw parade should continue.
The fouls are also a key part of Connecticut's success: Since the Huskies are always in the double bonus and making those opportunities count, defending them becomes that much more of a fraught assignment.
Florida has the bodies to check UConn, though. Scottie Wilbekin can contend with Napier's shot-making creativity, while Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith should be able to split the job of containing Daniels.
UConn will find ways to put points on the board and would go wild if it potentially meets a less-composed Kentucky team in the finals. But Florida will defend the Huskies with discipline, as could Wisconsin if they play, making UConn's title hopes still a long shot.
Wisconsin: 4-1 odds
The Badgers' floor spacing makes life hell for opposing defenses, especially those with bigs not used to guarding out to the arc.
That gives Wisconsin a chance to bridge the talent gap against a Kentucky team playing up to its preseason potential.
Frank Kaminsky is already a matchup nightmare for any opponent, but he will be particularly so if Willie Cauley-Stein can't suit up for Kentucky. Cauley-Stein has the wingspan and the athleticism to deal with the 7-foot sharpshooter, against which Julius Randle and Marcus Lee would have tougher times.
And this is not when you want to struggle against Kaminsky. He just dropped 28 points and 11 rebounds on Arizona, a team that seemed to have personnel capable of limiting the junior's offensive punch. But with his height advantage and nifty driving ability when defenders close out, he's a nightmare when he's on.
Plus, Wisconsin opponents have to deal with Sam Dekker, another forward with three-point range. So many shooters could be too much for the Wildcats to handle, though Florida would have issues with Kaminsky but not the rest.
Bo Ryan is at last in his first Final Four and has never had a team better equipped to win it all. The Badgers just have to knock down their shots.
Kentucky: 4-1 odds
Even so, Kentucky has just the same chance at winning it all as Wisconsin does.
The Wildcats have too much athleticism to let Wisconsin take full advantage of its spacing. Even if the Badgers pull the Kentucky bigs all the way out, Kaminsky and Dekker aren't adept enough drivers to take the more agile Wildcats off the bounce. Nor will the Wisconsin guards blow by Andrew or Aaron Harrison.
That argument basically boils down to talent winning out for Kentucky, but it sure has lately. The low seed is just a number at this point; in terms of what the Wildcats have shown us lately, they are definitely one of the best teams in college basketball.
Randle is a tank of a power forward, same as he has been all season, and now the Harrison twins are living up to their preseason hype as well. They're both shooting better from range, handling the ball with more care and giving Kentucky a balance it lacked for most of the season.
It's really not that complicated: John Calipari's hastily assembled superpower with shaky guard play floundered, but a superpower that has played a full regular season and developed effective guard play is now a juggernaut.
Kentucky may be on a surprising run, but the logic behind it makes perfect sense. In beating Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, Kentucky has proven no opponent is too strong for this roster. Even though Florida has beaten the Wildcats three times, it would not be a surprise for Kentucky to take a fourth meeting.
But there's the niggling fear that the 'Cats could revert to dysfunctional play at any moment, and Wisconsin is plenty good enough to capitalize if that happens.
Florida: Even odds
Here's Florida ahead of the pack, right where it has been all season, yet the Gators still aren't getting full credit for their greatness.
Things like the testament to Kentucky's talent above can obscure Florida's less flashy formula for success.
Wilbekin doesn't have Napier's propensity for one-man offense or huge scoring outputs, but the Florida point guard truly is the nation's best. He's a superb offensive quarterback and a heady defender, and if asked to hit a shot, he can do so from anywhere on the floor.
Patric Young is not the NBA prospect Julius Randle is, lacking the physical gifts to project as a high-quality pro. Still, he's 6'9", 240 pounds and plenty strong enough to bully Randle on the block and make the phenom's life miserable.
That's what makes Florida so tricky an opponent to gauge: the Gators won't just win, they'll specifically counter what their opponent wants to do to beat them.
What's UConn or Wisconsin or Kentucky going to take away from Florida? The leading Gator scorer, Casey Prather, averaged just 14.2 points per game in the regular season. Four Gators averaged in double digits, and seven clocked in at least 22 minutes per game.
There's a reason Florida hasn't lost with its roster at less than full strength, which it has been for more than three undefeated months.
This team will have to play two more tough games to win the championship, but it's the clear favorite against UConn and would have to be favored in the finals as well.