March Madness 2014: UConn's Blueprint to Beat Florida in the Final Four
Of all the teams that make up this year's Final Four, the most improbable of the lot is Connecticut. And it's not even close.
Though the Huskies' No. 7 seed was better than fellow national semifinalist Kentucky (No. 8), the expectations surrounding both teams were far different throughout the season. Simply put, UConn never looked like a Final Four contender, at least not until the NCAA tournament began.
But UConn can't just expect to sneak up on opponents any longer. That's impossible with the brightness of the spotlights that accompany a Final Four appearance. Now the Huskies have to outplay and outperform, which is something they did to get to this point.
Connecticut (30-8) faces its toughest test yet, squaring off with top overall seed Florida (36-2) at 5:09 p.m. ET Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
How can the Huskies end the Gators' 30-game win streak? Here's our blueprint for just how UConn can accomplish this difficult task.
For those who think it's impossible for Connecticut to beat Florida, let us remind you of one very important fact: The Huskies already have beaten the Gators this season.
UConn is the last team to beat Florida, actually, back on Dec. 2. Thanks to a last-second basket by Shabazz Napier—who got his own rebound after a miss just seconds earlier—the Huskies pulled out a 65-64 victory at home.
However, just because it happened back then doesn't mean it will happen again, especially if the Huskies figure prior success will automatically repeat itself.
Napier and his teammates are best off forgetting the overall result of that game and focus more on individual aspects of the upcoming contest, such as Florida's strong rebounding advantage or the fact the Gators didn't have Scottie Wilbekin down the stretch because of an ankle injury.
This is no doubt the approach coach Kevin Ollie has taken in regard to acknowledging the previous result, and its lack of importance is a key to UConn having a chance to repeat history.
Frustrate the Floor Leader
Scottie Wilbekin's off-the-court troubles have been well-chronicled during Florida's 30-game win streak and seemingly endless perch atop the national rankings. He was suspended from the team twice in a seven-month period, forcing him to miss the first five games this season.
But since coming back in late November, he has looked like a changed man, playing like the senior that he is and providing the Gators with the type of leadership and dependability that are expected of a veteran point guard.
For UConn to win, it will need to find a way to negate his influence, which is asking a lot since he's been the Gators' most consistent player during the NCAA tournament and has found a way to hit the clutch shot whenever it's necessary.
Wilbekin and Shabazz Napier will likely be matched up against each other, and while Napier isn't known as an adept defender, he does have the ability to infuriate defenders by hitting ridiculous shots. Wilbekin is one of the best defensive guards in the country, but if he can't shut down Napier, he might try to do too much on the offensive end, which if not successful could lead to a total breakdown of his play.
Embrace the Underdog Role
Connecticut began the NCAA tournament as a 75-1 shot to win the tournament, according to VegasInsider.com, and at 8-1 entering the Final Four, it's still considered the underdog to cut down the nets.
America loves an underdog, and the best ones make sure to embrace that role and use it as motivation to prove everyone wrong. UConn should follow this path, at least when it comes to dealing with the pressure and scrutiny that comes with the Final Four.
Florida has everything riding on this game, not the Huskies. The Gators are the No. 1 overall seed, have won 30 straight and have stifled every NCAA foe they've faced with a blend of shutdown defense and efficient offense.
If the Gators were to fall short of the title at this point, it would look like a major disappointment. And UConn knows this, so it will look to ramp up the stress on every possession.
Get some efficient baskets and make a few stops on defense, and the sizable crowd at AT&T Stadium will start to turn in UConn's favor. Like the Russians cheering for Rocky Balboa toward the end of his epic bout with Ivan Drago, the non-Gators fans will be in UConn's corner if it's still in the game late.
Keep on Shabazzing
Shabazz Napier is the leading scorer in the 2014 NCAA tournament, pouring in 93 points during Connecticut's four victories. He's also made (and attempted) more three-pointers than anyone else, hitting 14-of-31. Meanwhile his 25-of-27 effort at the free-throw line has been tremendous.
Napier has been the engine that's powered UConn's unexpected Final Four run, and there's no reason not to dance with the one who brought you at this point.
The senior guard's play the past three weeks has conjured up memories of former Huskies great Kemba Walker, another 6'1" point guard who put the team on his back at the start of the Big East tournament in 2011 and powered a drive to the national title.
Walker had different teammates step up to supplement his play as that tourney went on, as has Napier with the late emergence of junior DeAndre Daniels, but in the end the senior led the way.
UConn must ensure that Napier gets his chances to shine, which will mean trying to draw Florida's attention from him so he can get into a groove before unleashing his uncanny ability to make shots from anywhere.
Act Like You've Been There
Nothing can truly prepare a college basketball player for the Final Four. Until he's been on that stage, nothing compares.
Fortunately for Connecticut, it has three players who have danced across that stage as members of the Huskies' 2011 NCAA championship team.
Niels Giffey, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander were freshmen on that title squad, and all three played in the final. Olander started at center, though he only logged seven minutes and had two points, while Giffey and Napier played 24 and 27 minutes, respectively, off the bench.
None of them were particularly integral in UConn's 53-41 win over Butler—the trio was 3-of-12 from the field, but Giffey did collect six rebounds as a far different player than the three-point specialist he's become—but the simple fact they were there, and involved, speaks volumes.
Florida's roster is stacked with players who, until this year, had only known what it was like to come up short at the highest level via three straight Elite Eight losses. That means the Final Four may bring about some wide-eyed looks from Gators players—something UConn's veterans can take advantage of.