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Previewing the Final Four teams: Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky

Scottie WilbekinScottie Wilbekin has averaged 16.8 points for the Gators in the NCAA tournament. Can he lead them to a national title? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

The Final Four teams are headed for Dallas soon. We examine each team's signature moment in the tournament and why they will or will not earn their final shining moment.

 

Florida Gators

By David Gardner

Best win

Before playing Florida in the Sweet 16, UCLA had beaten No. 1 seed Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament and then Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin by 17 points apiece in the rounds of 64 and 32, respectively. The Bruins certainly have more NBA talent than the Gators, but that didn't stop Florida from handing them a sound, 11-point defeat.

Why they will win the title

Under Billy Donovan, Florida has had a knack for ending teams' surprising runs in the NCAA tournament. The Gators put a stop to George Mason in the national semifinal in 2006, took down Florida Gulf Coast, aka Dunk City, in last season's Sweet 16, and eliminated 11th-seeded Dayton to advance to the Final Four this season. Connecticut is no Cinderella, but be honest -- if you're not from the northeast, you didn't have the Huskies going to Dallas in your bracket. In addition to being the only top-seeded team still standing, Florida is also ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's overall efficiency rankings, comfortably ahead of Wisconsin (6), Kentucky (8) and UConn (16). The Gators’ defense, which is No. 1 in the country in efficiency, has held each tournament opponent to less than one point per possession. The Gators’ balance on the boards (41st on offense, 42nd on defense) will also give them an advantage against UConn, especially, which is sub-200 in the country in offensive and defensive rebounding. They should have no trouble scoring against Wisconsin’s porous defense, and there’s no compelling reason to believe that Florida can’t beat a Kentucky team it has already defeated three times this season.

Why they won’t win the title

To win Donovan's third national title, the Gators will have to beat the team that handed them their last loss, UConn; and then either the only other team to beat them this season, Wisconsin, or the Kentucky team they'd have to beat for the fourth time in less than two months. The only time one team has beaten another four times in one season was Michigan State over Wisconsin in 2000, en route, ironically, to beating the Gators in the national championship game. Florida’s losses to UConn and Wisconsin were in December and November, respectively, when Florida was battling injuries and suspensions. But remember the wild buzzer-beater that Shabazz Napier pulled off in UConn’s win? Well, he’s been doing that kind of stuff all tournament long. He has the ability to take over a game and allow UConn’s X-factor, DeAndre Daniels, space to get his difficult-to-defend offensive game going.

Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is different in size but similar in impact to Napier. The junior center can spot up from three-point range or power his way into the paint. And Kentucky will have no trouble getting motivated for a potential fourth battle with Florida. There’s no doubt the Wildcats started playing their best basketball of the season in the SEC championship loss to Florida. They could provide a nice bookend to that run by ending the Gators’ title hopes in the national championship game.

Shabazz Napier UConn's title hopes begin and end with 'Bazz. Can he continue to have a Kemba Walker-like run in the NCAA tournament? (Elsa/Getty)

UConn Huskies

By Dan Greene

Best win

After a pair of tight wins in the first weekend and a victory over an Iowa State team missing one of its best players in the Sweet 16, last Sunday’s win over Michigan State -- a chic, Obama-endorsed title pick -- was the greatest test yet of the Huskies’ mettle. And though the game could have gone either way for most of it, UConn’s lithe forwards were able to neutralize the Spartans' muscular frontline while Shabazz Napier worked his magic on offense. That combo was the greatest proof yet that the Huskies are no fluke.

Why they will win the title

When Kevin Wiercinski was coaching Napier at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., and would discuss upcoming games or tournaments with colleagues at other schools, they often told him the same thing: “You have Shabazz and they don’t, and at the end of the day, that’s the difference.” In this tournament -- and often over the past two seasons -- that’s been the case for UConn coach Kevin Ollie too. Napier is as tough, driven and unfazed a player as there is in college basketball, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s extremely good at basketball too: Through the Huskies’ four NCAA tourney wins, the 6-foot-1 Napier is averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 45.2 percent from three.

But what’s really pushed UConn from solid to spectacular has been the emergence of his supporting cast. In addition to the usual quick scoring and pesky defense of fellow guard Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels has put together a string of strong performances as a stretch-four (he’s made 11-of-19 treys while averaging 17 points) while role players like Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah and Terrence Samuel have each chipped in when called upon. The result is a more well-rounded and balanced team than the Huskies seemed to be for most of the year, with a number of quality scoring options and a quick, aggressive defense that can compensate for its lack of brawn.

Why they won’t win the title

More than any of the other three teams in Arlington, the Huskies would be hard-pressed to win when their best player has a poor night. If Napier isn’t knocking down jumpers or penetrating the lane to collapse the defense and open shots for others, the rest of UConn’s offense will likely go down with him. And if his teammates’ shots aren’t falling from outside, the lane will clog and prevent him and Boatright from driving in the first place.

The biggest concern for UConn, though, will be just how formidable the teams standing between it and the program’s fourth national title will be. The Huskies were the last team to beat Florida, but the circumstances of that -- in Storrs, with Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill hurt and on a wild scramble at the buzzer -- won’t necessarily translate to Arlington. The Gators are balanced, experienced, talented and big enough to give UConn a heaping of trouble. And beyond the Gators, Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin’s stellar ball control could make for difficult matchups, while Kentucky’s sudden jelling into a sum equal to its supremely talented parts looks like a nightmare for any opponent. The Huskies’ improbable and impressive run nearly ended before it could begin against Saint Joseph’s in the round of 64, and then they just narrowly survived Villanova. If they try to walk a tightrope against the elite teams in Arlington -- and if Napier is suddenly human, or his complements are no longer up to the task -- they may survive no longer.

Bo Ryan Can Bo Ryan turn his first Final Four into his first national championship? (Jeff Gross/Getty)

Wisconsin Badgers

By Michael Beller

Best win

The Badgers played one of the best games of the tournament against Arizona, the top seed in the West Region, in the Elite Eight. Behind 28 points from Frank Kaminsky, they notched a thrilling 64-63 overtime win and gave Bo Ryan his first trip to the Final Four.

Why they will win the title

Wisconsin is the only team in the country to beat the regular season champions from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 this year. Before beating the Wildcats in the Elite Eight, the Badgers knocked off Florida, Virginia and Michigan during the regular season. They’ve been tested all year and have consistently passed.

Unlike past Wisconsin teams, this edition has featured one of the best offenses in the country all season, and currently ranks fourth in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com. The Badgers have also buttressed a defense that was their Achilles’ heel during the regular season, holding both Baylor and Arizona beneath 40 percent from the floor in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively. Kaminsky has been the breakout star of the tournament and is arguably the best player in the Final Four. Sam Dekker hasn’t done much since Wisconsin’s third round win over Oregon, and it’s hard to believe he’d be silent for three, or even four, straight games.

As for Ryan, he has happily removed himself from the “best coaches to never reach the Final Four” argument with the win over Arizona. The last time he had a week to prepare for an opponent, the Badgers beat down a Baylor squad that was coming off a 30-point rout of No. 3 seed Creighton. He should be able to devise a gameplan to limit Kentucky's Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and the Harrison twins, getting his team to the championship. Once there, the Badgers’ patient, surgical offense would prove a stiff challenge for either Florida or Connecticut.

Why they won’t win the title

The Badgers have been impressive in advancing to the program’s first Final Four since 2000, but they’ve yet to face a team that can take advantage of their lack of size on the perimeter. Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, Wisconsin’s starting guards who all play at least 31 minutes per game, stand 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3, respectively. Meanwhile, the Harrisons and Young are all 6-6. For all of Kaminsky’s offensive prowess, he can struggle defensively against bulkier players, and Wisconsin is thin on the front line behind him and Nigel Hayes. Randle and Johnson could take advantage of the Badgers inside, and the Wildcats' guards might be able to do the same after getting by their smaller counterparts on the perimeter.

Should the Badgers meet the Gators in the championship game, they won’t be playing the same version of the team they beat in Madison back in November. That one was without Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith, who were suspended. This one is at full strength and has won 30 games in a row. Additionally, Dekker was potentially Wisconsin's best offensive player during the regular season, but he has been absent in their last two wins. If they don’t get more out of him in Dallas, they will head home short of winning the school's first national championship in 73 years.

Andy Lyons Kentucky has jelled as a team since the SEC tournament and has already taken out plenty of giants in the NCAA tournament. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Kentucky Wildcats

By Zac Ellis

Best win

Kentucky knocked off the Midwest region's No. 4 (Louisville) and No. 2 (Michigan) seeds in its last two games, but its best win was still its round of 32 victory over previously unbeaten Wichita State. The Wildcats outrebounded the Shockers 32-23 as four of Kentucky’s freshman starters combined for 65 of the team’s 78 points.

Why they will win the title

Coach John Calipari’s team might be the best rebounding club left in the tournament. In its last three wins, Kentucky has outrebounded its opponents by an average of 9.3 boards per game. Julius Randle alone has boasted four straight double-doubles in tournament play. That advantage is especially obvious on the offensive end, where the 'Cats boast the country’s top offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom, at 42.5 percent. In fact, Kentucky has grabbed at least 10 offensive boards in each of its last three victories.

The Wildcats’ daunting road to Dallas shouldn’t be ignored, either. Kentucky disposed of the only unbeaten team in the country (Wichita State), the defending national champ (Louisville) and the defending runner-up (Michigan) en route to the Final Four. That’s a pretty stout list of victims. Next the Wildcats will have to get by a stellar offensive team in Wisconsin to reach the title game, but Coach Cal’s crew utilizes its own balanced effort on offense; they rank ninth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (118.0). Between Randle and the Harrison brothers, Kentucky has enough weapons to test any defense and keep rolling to Calipari’s second national title in three seasons.

Why they won’t win the title

Don’t count on the Wildcats to ice a game with free throws down the stretch. Kentucky connects on only 68.5 percent of its attempts from the charity stripe, which ranks 227th in the country. Against Michigan on Sunday, the Wildcats made only six of their 11 free-throw attempts. They don’t force many turnovers, either: Their opponents turn the ball over on 16.1 percent of their possessions. That’s 301st nationally, and Calipari’s young team might need to be a bit more aggressive against its Final Four competition.

Kentucky isn’t likely to reach the title game if it can’t handle Wisconsin’s seven-foot weapon, Frank Kaminsky. The big man has averaged 22 points per game in his last three games, and his ability to play both inside and out could present matchup problems for Randle and the the Wildcats' post defense. Of course, none of that will matter if the wrong Kentucky squad shows up in Cowboys Stadium. The 'Cats sparked a few red flags with questionable regular-season losses to South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Those three squads combined to go 24-30 in SEC play, and Calipari was openly critical of his coaching and his team’s direction at the time. Can Kentucky continue its recent strong play this weekend, or will this team again show its youth?

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