Three questions for each Final Four matchup
DALLAS -- They call this town Big D, but this weekend it's all about the Big Four. An exquisite season has been followed by a scintillating tournament, so it's only fitting that it should be capped off by a Texas-style celebration in a state-of-the-art football stadium with a humongous big screen hovering above the court.
This is the Final Four in HD. In Big D. Assembly not required.
I've always felt the Final Four is preceded by an appropriate level of hype. Unlike the Super Bowl, which comes at the end of an exhaustive two-week conversation about two teams that everybody already knows everything about, the Final Four hype covers six days and four teams, and it still feels fresh. We've got Kentucky's young'uns against the trio of upperclassman-dominated squads. Will age really come before beauty? We've got the kid who followed a legend at UConn in Shabazz Napier, the journeyman coach's coach at Wisconsin in Bo Ryan, and the two titans at Florida and Kentucky in Billy Donovan and John Calipari, respectively, who already own championship rings. We've got Frank the Tank (Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky), The Mandle (Kentucky's Julius Randle) and Bazz hoping not to play second fiddle to a seasoned band of Gators who have sat atop the rankings all season long.
Fortunately, your resident Hoop Thinker is once again on hand to select the three most important questions surrounding each semifinal. Questions, I've got. The answers will have to come from the players -- which is as it should be.
Here are my two sets of threes for the Final Four:
Florida vs. Connecticut
1. How will the Gators handle UConn's defense?
I know what you're thinking: I've got this backward. Florida is the team with the awesome defense, right? Well, yes and no. The Gators were arguably the best defensive team in the country this season, but in the NCAA tournament, the Huskies are getting after it as well as anybody -- or else they wouldn't be here. Exhibit A is junior guard Ryan Boatright, who has had seven steals in his last three games, the same number he had in his previous nine. That includes four thefts in the East Regional final against Michigan State. If Boatright and Napier can do as good a job keeping Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier in front of them as they did the Spartans' guards, then Connecticut will have a legitimate chance to win.
As for the frontcourt, the Huskies might not be very big, but they are tall. Their starting front line goes 6-foot-7, 6-9 and 6-10, and they bring 7-foot Amida Brimah and 6-10 Tyler Olander off the bench. The Gators, meanwhile, will counter with 6-9 Patric Young, 6-8 Will Yeguete and 6-8 Dorian Finney-Smith. Florida's big men are used to overpowering their opponents, but this may be one case where they will have to do some scoring away from the basket, where they are not quite as comfortable.
2. Will UConn keep cashing in its free throws?
Foul shooting has been Connecticut's calling card all season -- its 76.5 percent clip led the American Athletic Conference and ranked seventh nationally -- but even by those standards the Huskies have been otherworldly during the NCAA tournament. In their four games they have made 81 of 92 free throw attempts, with Napier leading the way (naturally) by sinking 25 of 27 (92.6 percent). During their two games at Madison Square Garden, the Huskies made 41 out of their 44 attempts. That is almost inhuman.
It's hard to imagine any team maintaining that pace, but if UConn is able to repeat that performance, both in terms of frequency and percentage, then it will be able to hang with Florida until the very end. (By the way, the Gators have made 74 percent from the line during the tournament, which is normally a solid number but in this game looks just okay.) Most of the close games in this tournament have been decided (or undecided) at the free throw line. If that is the case on Saturday, the advantage will go to the Huskies.
3. Will UConn's luck run out?
During its opening game against Saint Joseph's, Connecticut trailed by three points with under a minute to play. Brimah erased the deficit with a three-point play off an offensive putback, the Hawks' best big man fouled out early in overtime, and UConn survived. After getting past Villanova in the third round, the Huskies played an Iowa State team that was missing arguably its most valuable player in sophomore forward Georges Niang. In the regional final, they faced a Michigan State team that inexplicably wasted its size and strength advantage by attempting 29 of its 46 shots from behind the three-point line.
Just like Kentucky, the Huskies took advantage of all these opportunities, but make no mistake, they are playing at a level considerably above where they played during the regular season. You don't get to a Final Four purely on luck, but it helps. This is still the team that went 12-6 in AAC play and suffered a 33-point defeat at Louisville less than a month ago. UConn caught a wave and rode it to North Texas. On Saturday night it will be playing the best team in the country, and it will need some luck to earn another game Monday night.
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
1. How do you solve a problem like Kaminsky?
What, too Sound of Music for you? Play along, because three pointers, rebounds and post moves a-plenty ... these are a few of his favorite things. The only way to solve such a problem is to match it size for size and step for step. Easier sung than done.
I sing -- er, speak, of course, of Kaminsky, the Badgers' 7-foot junior center. While he was making beautiful music in the West Regional final, Arizona couldn't carry a tune. Sean Miller couldn't even keep his center, 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, in the game because he was so overmatched trying to stay with the Tank behind the three-point line. Kaminsky isn't the quickest player, but he is highly effective in using his long-range shooting prowess to create driving opportunities, which enable him to look like the point guard he used to be before his high school growth spurt. So the key to defending him is having a player who is big enough to bang yet agile enough to bother Kaminsky behind the arc.
Kentucky does not have a player with that skill set. It has four -- and that does not include 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who is doubtful because of a foot injury sustained during the Sweet 16 win over Louisville. This is bad news for the Badgers, because it gives Calipari lots of options to find the best way to keep Kaminsky in check. It also provides Kentucky with 20 fouls to give in the frontcourt.
2. Can Kentucky continue to execute its halfcourt offense?
We know that Wisconsin's halfcourt offense is a thing of beauty. Kentucky's typically is not. The Wildcats may be ranked ninth in the country in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, but they are 318th in assists per made field goals. In other words, they don't get their points through sharp cutting and precision passing. They rely on one-one-one moves, offensive rebound putbacks, free throws and fast breaks.
That's not going to cut it in this game. Wisconsin is notoriously stingy with the ball -- the Badgers led the nation this season in fewest turnovers per game -- and Kentucky does not force many turnovers. The 'Cats were ranked 301st in the country in defensive turnover percentage and 317th in defensive steal percentage. Wisconsin was 322nd and 284th, respectively, in those categories. Meanwhile, Kentucky was 227th in tempo while Wisconsin -- despite its reputation as being a more offensively-oriented team this year -- was 287th. Thus, it appears we are headed for a slow, low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game. First one to 65 wins.
That will put a premium on scoring in the halfcourt, which has been a problem for Kentucky at times. The low point came in a loss at South Carolina one month ago, when the Wildcats grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and made 33 free throws but still lost because they could only convert 27 percent of their shots. Though Kentucky is shooting the ball better during the tournament -- 39.7 percent from three, compared to 32.7 percent during the season -- its assist/field goals percentage is actually lower in the postseason. Possessions will be at a premium on Saturday night. If the Wildcats don't operate with maximum efficiency, they will have problems.
3. Will Kentucky's luck run out?
If there were any doubt as to the importance luck plays in making the Final Four, then the Wildcats' storybook path to North Texas should erase it. Their wins over Wichita State and Michigan came down to the final possession, and they didn't take the lead over Louisville until there were just 39 seconds left. Obviously, the 'Cats deserve a great deal of credit for their perseverance, but a bad bounce here or there would have meant someone else would be representing the Midwest region this weekend.
Is this really a team of destiny? We won't know until Saturday, but either way it seems we're headed for a dramatic ending. I think we deserve it, don't you?