This archived article was written by: Trahmier Burrell
Most brackets have been busted due to the plethora of upsets in the 2014 NCAA tournament, but the Final Four does still feature the No. 1 overall seed in March Madness, the Florida Gators. After falling short of the national semifinals in Elite Eight losses each of the past three seasons, coach Billy Donovan’s senior-laden squad has finally pushed through to the biggest stage in the Big Dance. Florida will face a tough Connecticut team that won the East Region as a seventh seed.
Speaking of lower seeds that made impressive runs, the Kentucky Wildcats shocked the NCAA world. Seeded eighth after an underwhelming regular season, Kentucky thrived in the underdog role and managed to make it out of the loaded Midwest. The Wildcats are tasked with taking down the Wisconsin Badgers to keep their stunning surge going.
Shabazz Napier’s ability to be clutch in big moments revealed itself early in the season, when his buzzer-beater beat the Gators in early December. It was one of Florida’s two losses as the 2013-14 campaign progressed. But this is a different Gators outfit than the one that lost that game. A perfect record through the SEC and an impressive jaunt through the NCAA tourney have Florida confirming its status as the prohibitive favorite to win it all. On the other hand, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin described how the early adversity the Gators faced, including the loss to UConn, made the dominance that followed even sweeter.
The Huskies have managed to grind their way here thanks largely to the play of Napier, who would be a strong candidate for the tournament’s most outstanding player if Connecticut were able to run all the way to the title.
It’s unlikely that Wilbekin or the rest of Florida’s quartet of seniors will let Napier get free as often as he did in the first matchup. Now that chemistry has been established and the Gators have settled in to play elite defense, the task ahead of Napier is going to be extremely difficult.
Credit the Huskies and coach Kevin Ollie for making the most of his maiden trip to the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin is a feel-good story in that Bo Ryan has finally gotten the program to the Final Four in his 13th consecutive NCAA tournament. The Badgers should be able to slow the pace down and execute well enough in the half-court offense to keep this one close. However, these Wildcats look borderline unbeatable and just beat three of last year’s national semifinalists in succession. An accelerated learning curve and heightened stakes have taken Kentucky to unexpected heights after its prior struggles, which will allow it to advance to the final in a close game that comes down to the wire.
No longer can the Wildcats play as if they have nothing to lose. They were the preseason top-ranked team, so by reaching the final, they would be living up to their expectations in a sense. Knocking off the current top-ranked squad would solidify their legacy as a truly great team, while falling short would make them an enigma in the history books and be considered a disappointment.
The dynamics should be fascinating if this title tilt occurs, but just as in the SEC final, Florida will find a way to gut it out despite the way Kentucky has proved capable in its most recent games to counter-punch in crunch time.