DALLAS – Whatever team wins the national championship on Monday will do so as the sum of its parts, each unit flowing off each other and amounting to an undeniable whole. But that doesn't mean those parts, taken individually, are necessarily better than the other team's parts.
And one part – if it's powerful enough – might be able to carry a team to two more wins and a trophy.
Wisconsin, Kentucky, Florida and Connecticut bring varied strengths to North Texas for the Final Four this weekend. They'll rely on those strengths to carry them through, so here's a look at who has an edge over the rest of the field at AT&T Stadium:
It's a very close call with the backcourt the Huskies will face in the national semifinals, because Florida's Scottie Wilbekin can be the same game-changing, clutch force that Shabazz Napier is. But Napier's screaming tournament run cannot be ignored: The senior is averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds, 4.5 assists and two steals per game. Ryan Boatright's contributions, though, tips the scales in favor of UConn. It is not the 13.8 points per game, though that steadiness certainly helps; it is the rapacious approach on the defensive end and attacking the other team's point guard in the half-court setting that unnerves teams before their offensive sets even kick in. It's pressure that no other backcourt, not even the Gators', has approached yet.
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky (18.5 points per game during the tournament) may be crashing everyone's consciousness, but the Wildcats are crashing the glass in a dominant fashion that wears teams down. Kentucky has outrebounded its tournament foes by 10 boards per game, the best among the Final Four teams (Florida is second at plus-7.7). The absence of Willie Cauley-Stein (106 blocks) due to an ankle injury will hurt UK's ability to protect the rim, but Kentucky played without him during the Midwest Regional final and still outrebounded Michigan 35-24, thanks in part to an eight-rebound night from little-used freshman Marcus Lee. And we haven't even discussed Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9 brute who can get a shot any time he wants and is averaging 15.8 points and 12 rebounds per game in the tournament.
The impacts that Lee (10 points to go with those eight rebounds against the Wolverines) and Alex Poythress (14 points, seven rebounds combined against Louisville and Michigan) had for Kentucky during the Midwest Regional weren't indicative of consistent production. All four teams have fairly tight rotations at this stage and no one is getting a massive impact from its reserves, but the Gators get what they need from the non-starters. Dorian Finney-Smith, the SEC's sixth man of the year, has averaged 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds off the bench this season -- better scoring production than Florida gets from starter Will Yeguete. When Wilbekin has needed a respite from running the team during the tournament, Kasey Hill has been adept, with moderate point production (5.3 points per game in the tournament on 6-for-13 shooting from the field, plus 9-for-10 on free throws) and steady floor leadership (team-high 15 assists against just four turnovers).
Billy Donovan, Florida
Wisconsin's Bo Ryan can state his case by flummoxing Kentucky with a week to prepare, just as he did when his Badgers carved up an athletic, scorching-hot Baylor team in a West Regional semifinal. But Donovan has led his team to 30 straight wins while somehow ensuring that the edges remain sharp throughout. Having veterans with a title-or-bust mentality helps, but he's also a top tactician who has two national championships to his name already. He has a better sense than anyone, save maybe Kentucky's John Calipari, of how to steer his team through a few days of madness in North Texas and get the desired result.
Kentucky All four teams, of course, have won at least their past four games, and the Gators haven't lost since Dec. 2. But the young Wildcats might actually have the most momentum. After struggling late in the regular season, they have gone 6-1 in the postseason with the only loss coming to the top-ranked Gators by one point on a neutral floor in the SEC championship game. They also had the most impressive path to North Texas, beating the No. 1, 2 and 4 seeds, the latter two without Cauley-Stein, and doing so by making plays in crunch time. It's fair to wonder if Kentucky is finally reaching its potential with toughness that matches its talent, and Calipari has a group that believes in itself as it never has before. Connecticut likely has that same vibe, too, but the Huskies are maxing out to get this far. Who knows if Kentucky has yet another gear?