5 Biggest Questions for UConn in NCAA Tournament Final Four vs. Florida
The last time the University of Connecticut was in the Final Four, it won the national championship.
The 2014 version of the Huskies are just two wins away from capping off an even more spectacular, and improbable, run than the 2011 championship team, but to get there, they'll need to first overcome an old foe.
The Florida Gators have reeled off 30 victories in a row. In that stretch they've beaten Kansas, Memphis, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pitt and UCLA—not exactly the easy road to Arlington.
But their last loss came against the Huskies way back on Dec. 2 in Storrs.
Trailing 64-63 with under 20 seconds to play, Shabazz Napier—who else—missed a jumper, got his own offensive rebound and beat the buzzer with a clutch shot to give the Huskies an improbable 65-64 victory.
The two teams will get a chance to renew acquaintances on Saturday night, but the stakes will be much higher this time around. The winner will get a chance to cut down the nets on Monday night in the national championship game.
For that team to be the Huskies, they'll need to answer these five crucial questions.
Do the Huskies Have the Mental Edge?
The last time the Huskies and Gators met, Dec. 2, in Storrs, UConn came away with an improbable 65-64 victory after a Napier buzzer-beating jumper. That may seem like an eternity ago—and it's true that neither team is close to the same—but it could give the Huskies a bit of momentum.
Kevin Ollie's group knows it can beat the Gators.
But the Gators don't know they can beat the Huskies.
At least, they haven't yet this season.
Now, there were a lot of things that happened in that December game that might not be replicated.
Napier went off for 26 points, including the game-winner, that night. Given how he's played in March, you can expect that he'll be around that same scoring range again on Saturday. But who knows?
The Huskies also didn't get huge contributions from several players—Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels among them—who have been critical for them in the tournament. Daniels did drop 14 points and seven rebounds, but he's been significantly more dangerous during his team's tournament run.
The Gators didn't run a very deep bench—Kasey Hill sat out with an injury—and one of their star players, senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, missed the game-determining final three minutes with an ankle injury.
So, yes, there were a lot of individual factors that had a huge impact on that game. If any of them had gone the other way, it could've been Florida and not UConn emerging with the win that night in Storrs.
In reality, however, you could make that argument about hundreds of games during the course of any given college basketball season, and in the final assessment, the Huskies do hold a win over the Gators.
That won't count for anything on the scoreboard on Saturday night, but it might count for something in the locker rooms.
Can the Huskies Handle Patric Young?
It's fair to say that the Huskies know a thing or two about coming up against a potentially dominant big man.
Michigan State's Payne was clearly the best of that bunch, and the Huskies limited him to just 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting during Sunday's 60-54 victory in the Elite Eight.
But now the Huskies will have to contend with Patric Young.
Young, a 6'9", 240-pound power forward, is not going to play like Payne or most of the other big forwards the Huskies have seen thus far in the tournament. He doesn't traffic around the perimeter, and he'll spend most of his time attacking the glass on the offensive end.
That's going to be a nightmare matchup for Daniels, Phillip Nolan, Niels Giffey, or whoever draws that defensive assignment.
Whoever it is, they'll be in for a long night if they can't limit Young's touches or his ability to attack, particularly on the offensive boards.
Young went for 17 points and seven boards against the Huskies back in December. If he's around those numbers, or higher, this time around, it'll be difficult for UConn to win.
Does Napier Outduel Scottie Wilbekin?
The ultimate individual matchup in the Final Four features a pair of senior guards who are capable of slinging their teams on their backs and willing them to victory.
Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has averaged 22.3 points per game in the tournament. He's proven to be particularly good with the game on the line and has played his best basketball in the second half of close games.
He's the only first-team All-American remaining in the tournament, and as he goes, so goes his team.
Wilbekin, like Napier, is an experienced senior, and he is also one of the best closers in college basketball.
The Gators are the type of team that thrives in close games. They're highly experienced—four senior starters will do that for you—and they have no problem turning the ball over to Wilbekin in clutch situations.
He doesn't get near the credit, or attention, of Napier. But he's definitely the type of player you want to have the ball in a close game.
Napier, of course, hit the game-winning shot the last time these two teams met. But Wilbekin wasn't on the court for that shot after suffering an ankle injury with just over three minutes to play.
It would be very interesting to see how that type of situation—late in the game and close—would play out with both guys on the court.
How Will the Huskies Handle the Pick-and-Roll?
There are few players in the country better at running the pick-and-roll than Wilbekin.
The senior guard is one of the best in the nation at splitting the defense and driving to the basket off the pick. And when he gets to the rim, he's very tough to stop from scoring.
But Wilbekin isn't just a driver in those circumstances.
He's perfectly comfortable stepping back and shooting the ball from long range or driving and kicking the ball back out to one of the Gators' dangerous three-point shooters.
That's one of the things that makes him such a special type of player. He can be successful in different circumstances and with different looks.
The Huskies have done an excellent job against the pick-and-roll during the tournament, but this is definitely the deepest team they'll have had to face up to this point. The Gators are loaded with senior leaders, and they know how to make winning plays.
Effectively limiting their ability to score on the pick-and-roll is going to be crucial if the Huskies want to limit the Gators offense and advance to Monday.
Will the Huskies Get Enough out of Their Secondary Scorers?
Depth is a bit of a concern here for the Huskies.
Putting it simply, it's doubtful that they can win this game if Napier is anything less than 100 percent on his game. They just don't have the horses behind him—no disrespect to Boatright and Daniels—to beat a senior-laden Gators team without their star player carrying the offensive load.
The Gators are deeper, and they have more than one or two players who can beat you.
Wilbekin excels at the pick-and-roll, and he can drive to the basket or hit the open three.
Casey Prather is as versatile a forward as any in the nation, and he has such pure athleticism that he can beat you anywhere on the court.
Michael Frazier II loves to shoot the ball from deep, and he's particularly good at it, connecting on 45 percent of his shots from behind the arc on the season.
And then you have Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill coming off the bench.
That's a lot of weapons, and should Napier struggle, the Huskies could have a bit of a problem.
Daniels has had a tremendous tournament, and Boatright has been a great complement to Napier in the backcourt, but neither can carry the team on his own.
It has to be a total-team effort. Everyone will need to do their part, particularly on the offensive end.
Napier should get his points, but Daniels, Boatright and even an unsung hero or two—like Giffey, Lasan Kromah or Amida Brimah will need to get theirs as well.
All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for the Huskies, their run will end one win short of the national championship game.
It's often said that defense wins championships, and Florida is playing some of its best basketball of the season when it comes to stopping opposing teams.
The Gators have limited opponents to just 39.7 percent shooting from the field and 55 points per game during the tournament, and they should be able to take away UConn’s secondary scorers.
The Huskies have the best individual player in the game—Napier—but the Gators have the overall better and deeper team.
They just have too many weapons—Wilbekin, Frazier II, Prather, Young, etc.—and the Huskies will struggle to contain all of them, particularly in the frontcourt where Prather and Young are a lethal combination.
Napier will play his game. He'll do everything he possibly can do to complete his Kemba-like run, but in the end, he'll come up just short.
The Gators win and advance to the national championship game.
Prediction: Florida 68, UConn 64