Expect great Final Four from Florida, Kentucky, Wisconsin and UConn
We are heading for a crazy, classic, all-time great Final Four. Mario Chalmers making a three, Gordon Hayward barely missing one -- that kind of great. It has to end this way, doesn't it? This NCAA tournament has been too good to finish with a few blowouts and anyway, who is going to run away with this?
Florida? Sure, the Gators have to be the favorite. They are the No. 1 overall seed, they haven't lost since Dec. 2 and they have won all four of their tournament games by double digits. And yet, this is not a dominant team in the conventional sense. As great as Patric Young, Casey Prather and friends have been, Florida does not have any sure first-round NBA draft picks. Fellow Final Four teams Wisconsin and Connecticut are the only teams to beat Florida this year, and Kentucky came within two points of doing so just two weeks ago. Again: Florida is a deserving favorite. But this is not the 1996 Kentucky team, ready to trample everybody.
Kentucky is theoretically the underdog: an 8 seed, seemingly hopeless before the tournament started, and so dysfunctional on the court that I wrote that Kentucky had no chance of winning the national title and didn't have a single UK fan offer to remove my teeth. I was obviously wrong, but who are we kidding? This is the most talented team in the tournament.
It is young talent, and a few weeks ago it was messy, confused talent ... but the talent is undeniable. Julius Randle will be an NBA All-Star, and a half-dozen or so of his teammates could play in the league. Most amazing: The freshmen-laden Wildcats are playing more like seniors in clutch situations than any other team in the tournament. Kentucky's last three wins -- over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan -- went down to the final seconds.
The Harrison twins played so poorly at times this year that Wildcats fans wished they would cut one-and-done into half-and-done. But Aaron Harrison put on one of the great clutch shooting shows in tournament history Sunday, making all four of his attempts in the last eight-plus minutes, including a game-winning three-pointer with under three seconds remaining and Michigan's Caris LeVert flying in front of him.
Wisconsin is the team you might want to dismiss, because it's Wisconsin, and besides, it's a football state.
Bo Ryan's program has a well-documented history of regular season excellence and postseason disappointment, and it was never a reflection on Ryan. The Badgers are (usually) the kind of team that (usually) fails to live up to its March seeding: with limited offensive talent but an overachiever's mindset, they rack up wins all year because they take every game seriously, but in March, the more talented teams are locked in and knock them out. This Wisconsin team is different. The offense is versatile and beautiful, the defense remains tenacious and the Badgers can play at various paces, against teams with different styles. Take away the tournament history and the name of the school, and this team is as good a bet as any to win the national title.
Then there is Connecticut, which is clearly the most surprising entry in the Final Four. It's been a long time since a team like this won the national championship. The 2011 Connecticut team seems close -- a surprising champ led by a veteran guard (Kemba Walker then, Shabazz Napier now). But that UConn squad was beaten up in a loaded Big East, got hot and won the conference tournament and entered the NCAA tournament as a 3-seed.
This UConn team is a 7-seed. The last team to win this tournament with a seed like that was sixth-seeded Kansas in 1988. This matters partly because seeds are a good (though not perfect) reflection of a team's play in the regular season, but also because a team with a lesser seed faces a tougher road. It's like starting a car race from the back. Connecticut beat a No. 2 seed (Villanova), No. 3 (Iowa State) and No. 4 (Michigan State, a popular championship pick) to get here. Now the Huskies must beat the No. 1 overall seed (Florida) to get to the title game, where they would either face a No. 2 (Wisconsin) or the most talented team in college basketball. The whole thing seems impossible, which is why, after the last two weekends, it wouldn't surprise me at all.