Final Four 2014: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch
After more than 5,000 regular-season games, 286 conference tournament games and 64 NCAA tournament games, we have arrived at the Final Four.
These are the stars, stats and storylines to watch when the last three games of the 2013-14 season tip off in Dallas on Saturday night.
Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin fought and clawed all season long and have won four straight tournament games to become the final teams standing.
How did they get here? Who are their key players? What is each team's blueprint to a title?
We're glad you asked.
Record: 36-2, No. 1 seed in South Region
Path to Arlington: 67-55 over No. 16 Albany, 61-45 over No. 9 Pittsburgh, 79-68 over No. 4 UCLA, 62-52 over No. 11 Dayton
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency
Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 279 in free-throw percentage at 66.8 percent
How they got here
We would say that the Gators were the team to beat in the SEC if not for that minor detail that they couldn't be beaten. Since a couple of early losses to Connecticut and Wisconsin, they have now won 30 consecutive games and went 21-0 against SEC competition.
Because of those two losses—and great starts to the season for Arizona and Syracuse—they didn't ascend to the top spot in the AP Top 25 until Feb. 24. But they have defended that ranking quite well.
Louisville and Michigan State may have entered the tournament as sexier picks to win it all, but it has been a while since anyone really challenged the Gators for their honor of "best team in the country."
As it was all season, Florida's defense has been nothing short of suffocating in the NCAA tournament. Billy Donovan's team has held its four tournament opponents to 55 points per game and 0.91 points per possession.
The Gators haven't forced a ton of turnovers—15.6 percent of their tournament opponents' possessions have ended in a turnover, compared to the national average of 18.3 percent—but have rather played shutdown defense, forcing poor shots without committing fouls.
Teams may have thought they were close to knocking off the No. 1 overall seed, but the proof is in the numbers, and the Gators defeated each of their tournament opponents by double digits.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Scottie Wilbekin had never been suspended for a still-undisclosed violation of team rules to open the season?
Wilbekin missed Florida's first five games, and one could easily argue that he was still a little rusty by the time the Gators played their eighth game of the season against Connecticut.
If they had Wilbekin all season, could we have had two undefeated teams in the tournament?
Florida may very well go on to win it all, but this could have been one of those once-in-a-generation seasons of complete domination.
Record: 30-8, No. 7 seed in East Region
Path to Arlington: 89-81 (OT) over No. 10 Saint Joseph's, 77-65 over No. 2 Villanova, 81-76 over No. 3 Iowa State, 60-54 over No. 4 Michigan State
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 4 in the country in free-throw percentage and have shot a ridiculous 88 percent in the tournament
How they got here
Over the first month of the season, the Huskies were the Cardiac Kids.
In opening the season 9-0, Connecticut won four games by either one or two points. The iconic moment during that stretch came—coincidentally enough—against the team it will face in the Final Four. Shabazz Napier hit the game-winning, buzzer-beating, putback floater to hand Florida its second and final loss of the regular season.
After that, the Huskies struggled off and on for three months. They were 0-5 against SMU and Louisville, including that 81-48 loss to the Cardinals in the last game of the regular season.
But thus far in the tournament, they have rediscovered the resiliency that carried them to that fast start in November. Not one of their four games was easy, but Shabazz Napier has carried them with clutch shooting and leadership.
As mentioned above, their free-throw shooting has been off the charts. Napier has made 25-of-27 from the charity stripe. Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah don't get there often, but they have combined to hit 10-of-10 freebies. Ryan Boatright has impressively hit 18-of-22 but has actually dragged down the team's percentage in the tournament.
Three-point shooting was also a gold mine in Connecticut's first three games, as the team combined to hit 46 percent of its triples. However, it was the defense that carried the Huskies in their Elite Eight game against Michigan State. They shot just 5-of-22 from behind the arc against the Spartans but forced 16 turnovers, scoring 18 of their 60 points off those mistakes.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Napier had transferred in light of Jim Calhoun's departure and Connecticut's ineligibility for last year's NCAA tournament?
Not only would some other team have lucked its way into two years with one of the best players in the country—imagine if he had gone to Providence or St. John's, which were both on the list of teams he was originally considering five years ago—but try to picture what Connecticut would look like without Napier.
Sans Napier, the Huskies can forget about Final Four of the NCAA tournament. They would've been lucky to even make the NIT.
Record: 28-10, No. 8 seed in Midwest Region
Path to Arlington: 56-49 over No. 9 Kansas State, 78-76 over No. 1 Wichita State, 74-69 over No. 4 Louisville, 75-72 over No. 2 Michigan
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage
Achilles' heel: Commit more turnovers than they force, ranking 301st in defensive turnover percentage
How they got here
If we had been able to pick our brackets in early November, most of us would have had Kentucky in the Final Four.
So what's the big surprise?
Not many of us truly expected Kentucky to go 40-0 this season, but 10 losses? Even for a team that went from preseason No. 3 to NIT last season, no one was projecting Kentucky to finish the season with a double-digit number in the loss column.
In addition to those 10 losses, Kentucky entered the tournament with just one win all season against a team who received a No. 10 seed or better—a grudge-match victory against Louisville in late December.
We knew Kentucky would be a dangerous No. 8 seed. Given the Wildcats' track record, though, you weren't really expecting them to win four tournament games unless you live in Lexington.
Yet, here they are, playing unquestionably their best basketball of the season. The shooting isn't always there, but who needs that when you're plus-40 in total rebounds and averaging 13.8 offensive rebounds per game?
After months of trying to finesse their way to victory, the Wildcats are finally embracing the advantage in sheer athleticism that they have against virtually any opponent.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if John Calipari didn't have the "veteran" leadership of sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein?
Last season, the Wildcats lost games, got down in the dumps and stayed there. They had some veterans in transfers Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow, but having played for NC State during the 2010-11 season hardly qualifies as experience in leading a team to success.
In what has become a super highway for one-and-done players to make the leap to the NBA, Poythress and Cauley-Stein stayed for (at least) a second year, knowing full well that they would be sharing playing time with a brand-new batch of highly rated freshmen.
They wanted another year to showcase their talents to NBA scouts, but to a certain degree, they also came back to take care of unfinished business.
Neither came anywhere close to leading the team in scoring, but they were the emotional leaders that this team needed to bounce back from disappointing losses to make this run.
Because of that emotional leadership, Kentucky just may be able to keep winning as Cauley-Stein likely plays the part that Mitch McGary has been playing for Michigan over the past few months: the ginormous cheerleader. There's still no official diagnosis on Cauley-Stein's ankle, but it seems unlikely that he plays next weekend in Dallas.
Record: 30-7, No. 2 seed in West Region
Path to Arlington: 75-35 over No. 15 American, 85-77 over No. 7 Oregon, 69-52 over No. 6 Baylor, 64-63 (OT) over No. 1 Arizona
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 2 in the country in offensive turnover percentage
Achilles' heel: Great as they are at preventing turnovers, the Badgers rank 321st when it comes to forcing them on the defensive end
How they got here
Wisconsin opened the season 16-0, defeating a then-ranked Illinois by 25 points in the last game of that stretch. In early January, the Badgers were ranked No. 3 in the country and truly looked like one of the primary contenders to win it all.
Then, the wheels came off. They lost five out of their next six games, shooting miserably from three-point range and routinely getting outworked on the glass.
But they have turned things around quite well since that midseason schneid, winning 13 of their last 15 games. Perhaps most important to that resurgence has been discovering the defensive intensity (0.93 points allowed per possession in the tournament) that put Bo Ryan basketball on the map in the first place.
With 1:23 remaining in the first half against the Ducks, Oregon's Ben Carter stole the ball from Ben Brust and hit Joseph Young for a transition three-pointer.
That was more than two and a half games ago, but it was the last time a team got a transition bucket on the Badgers defense. They don't have their usual best-in-the-nation adjusted defensive efficiency, but no one has been better at limiting fast-break opportunities—especially in the tournament.
As a result of that effort to prevent easy buckets, the Badgers don't typically corral a lot of offensive rebounds. Even after grabbing 13 of them against Arizona on Saturday night, they still rank 274th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.
But as long as Frank Kaminsky (22.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over his last three games) can avoid foul trouble and stay on the court, Wisconsin is a serious threat to win it all.
Biggest regular-season "What if?"
What if Sam Dekker had the breakout season we were all expecting when he was heralded as one of the best small forwards in the country before the year began?
Don't get me wrong, Dekker had a fine season. He has averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and has evolved into one of the better defenders in the country. But those aren't anywhere near the numbers I was expecting when I put him on my preseason All-American third team.
As a freshman, Dekker shot 39.1 percent from three-point range, but he struggled to find his long-distance stroke this year.
Storyline No. 1: Is Billy Donovan the greatest college basketball coach in the country?
It might seem blasphemous to vault the 48-year-old Donovan ahead of such legends as Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, but he's gunning for his third national championship in a span of nine years. At what point do we start legitimately putting his name in the same breath as those top-tier guys?
If Florida is cutting down the nets on April 7, he needs to start being included in any debate about the best college coaches.
Storyline No. 2: Can the B1G finally win another title?
In the 13 seasons since Michigan State won it all in 2000, we've had five national champions from the ACC, four from (what was once) the Big East, three from the SEC and one title for Kansas out of the Big 12. Despite being annually regarded as one of the best conferences in the nation, the B1G has been unable to turn that regular-season prowess into titles.
The B1G has now been represented in five of the last six Final Fours. Can Wisconsin finally get it back in the title scorebook?
Storyline No. 3: Can John Calipari lead another group of freshmen to a championship?
In 2012, Kentucky did the impossible and won the title with a bunch of first-year players. All those axioms about senior leadership winning championships went flying out the window.
But one year later, a highly touted Kentucky team fell flat on its face and missed the tournament altogether.
Calipari is looking to go best two out of three. A lot of coaches were hesitant to commit to the one-and-done model, but regardless of what happens over the final weekend of the season, it's becoming abundantly clear that it actually could be a sustainable approach.
Storyline No. 4: Can the Gators pay back the two teams that ruined their perfect season?
They'll definitely get Connecticut in the Final Four. They might get Wisconsin in the title game.
As you'll undoubtedly hear all week, the Huskies and Badgers were the only teams to beat Florida this season.
There's no question that Florida was not at full strength in the first month of the season. Neither Scottie Wilbekin nor Dorian Finney-Smith played in the loss to Wisconsin. Kasey Hill didn't play in the game against Connecticut, and the Gators were definitely still (sloppily) trying to find their legs.
With all involved teams at full strength, we'll finally determine once and for all who the better team is.
As long as they beat Connecticut, though, there will be no shortage of storylines in the championship game. Either it's a rematch again Wisconsin or a chance to improve to 4-0 against the team that was supposed to go 40-0.
Storyline No. 5: Where does Kevin Ollie rank on the list of young college basketball coaches?
It's never easy to replace a legend. It's even harder to replace a legend while taking over a team that is ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to low APR scores. But after a one-year hiatus from the madness, Ollie has Connecticut back and competing for a title.
Not bad for a guy who was still playing in the NBA less than four years ago.
Because of that 13-year NBA career, Ollie (41) is nowhere near as young as Brad Stevens (33) was when he took Butler to the Final Four. In terms of years of coaching experience, though, Ollie's sprint to the national semifinals is pretty incredible.
Stars to Watch
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 23.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG
Even if Connecticut comes up short in its quest for the title, Napier is making a pretty unarguable case for M.O.P. honors.
From Day 1 of this season, everyone has known that Napier is the man to beat on this team. (In his first four games of the season, he averaged 13.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG and 7.8 APG.) Yet, no one has figured out how to stop him.
Doug McDermott will win all of the regular-season individual player awards, but Napier is another one of the best four-year players that we've had the pleasure of watching over the past decade.
DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 17.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG
Incredible as Napier is, Daniels is one of the most critical cogs in the Huskies machine. He has become a reliable scorer and defender, and his presence in the paint against opposing big men will likely determine Connecticut's future.
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 15.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 1.8 APG
Freshmen were all the rage this season, but Randle's appeal fell by the wayside as Kentucky lost games and he struggled to match his early numbers against a very physical SEC.
No more Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins. Tyler Ennis and Aaron Gordon are watching the rest of the tournament from home. But Randle has been outstanding in the tourney, recording a double-double in each of Kentucky's first four games.
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Tournament stats: 16.8 PPG, 3.0 APG, 1.5 SPG
If you're playing against Florida and you're extremely lucky, Wilbekin will only make three or four plays in a game that leave you completely dejected, ending whatever rally you mistakenly thought you were putting together.
Wilbekin isn't the type of guy who needs to score 20 points in a game to hurt you—though it will absolutely cripple you if he does. When Florida needs a big bucket or a stop, Wilbekin always seems to find a way to execute.
Patric Young, Florida
Tournament stats: 8.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.0 BPG
Much like Wilbekin, Young doesn't need to stuff the box score in order to beat you. He is a monster in the paint, single-handedly erasing the phrase "easy bucket" from the opposing team's vocabulary.
Young is rather prone to foul trouble. When he isn't forced to play timidly, though, he is almost impossible to beat.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Tournament stats: 18.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG
Kaminsky's tournament got off to a slow start against American, scoring just eight points and committing four fouls in 20 minutes of action.
In Wisconsin's last two games, he has been a one-man wrecking crew. Debunking the myth that Wisconsin has no interior defense, Kaminsky blocked six Baylor field-goal attempts in the Sweet 16. And against what was supposedly one of the best interior defenses in the nation, he scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to eliminate Arizona in the Elite Eight.
Underrated Players to Watch
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Tournament stats: 6.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG
Fans of Wisconsin and the Big Ten know all about the 6'7" freshman who could be the National Sixth Man of the Year, but he hasn't gotten anywhere near enough recognition on the big stage.
Playing against Baylor in the Sweet 16, Hayes scored 10 points and grabbed three offensive rebounds that led directly to seven points for the Badgers.
He makes all of the hustle and defensive plays that coaches love to see. Despite averaging just 17.7 minutes per game, he led the team in steals this season. And his defense against Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was one of the big keys to Wisconsin making it to the Final Four.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Tournament stats: 8.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.0 APG
If Hayes isn't the Sixth Man of the Year, it's only because the honor goes to Finney-Smith instead.
Will Yeguete is the Gators' fifth starter, but Finney-Smith typically comes into the game after the first TV timeout and ends up playing more than Yeguete. The Virginia Tech transfer is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field on the season but ranks right up there behind Scottie Wilbekin on the list of Gators with a tendency to deliver the dagger.
He didn't make a single field goal on Saturday night against Dayton, but Finney-Smith grabbed three offensive rebounds in a span of three minutes as the Gators salted away the game. He finished the night with more offensive rebounds (six) than Dayton had as an entire team (five).
Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 6.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 66.7 FG percentage
Every once in a while, injuries are a blessing in disguise.
Johnson had occasional flashes of brilliance throughout the year but never quite evolved into that reliable post presence that made him one of the top-rated recruits this past summer.
Based on how well he has played in the two games since Willie Cauley-Stein's ankle injury, it's not hard to argue that he was playing too tight—constantly worried about making a mistake and getting pulled, which inevitably led to more mistakes.
Now that he's the lone healthy 7-footer on the roster, he's playing looser and asserting himself more on the offensive end. If we alter the above stat line to only reflect the last two games, Johnson has averaged 11.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG and a 73.3 "shooting" percentage.
Lasan Kromah, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 4.5 PPG, 1.3 SPG
Between Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey's three-point shooting, there aren't a whole lot of points to hand out to the rest of the Huskies' rotation.
Kromah makes up for not getting many points by playing shutdown defense at the other end of the court.
He's that type of glue guy who doesn't usually take many shots but will occasionally break out for 12 points and four steals like he did against Villanova. If the Huskies deploy him against a guy like Michael Frazier II or Finney-Smith, he could be a real difference-maker.
Florida's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Florida, the following four things will happen, and the Gators will win it all.
1. Michael Frazier II will make at least three three-pointers.
Frazier struggled to find his shot in Florida's first two games of the tournament (3-of-13 from beyond the arc), but he was on fire against UCLA in the Sweet 16. Frazier made five of his first six three-point attempts Thursday night, scoring 15 of the Gators' first 46 points.
Frazier hit at least three triples in 18 of his final 23 games before the tournament, including that insane 37-point game against South Carolina in which he shot 11-of-18 from downtown.
2. Florida will limit its opponent to less than one point per possession.
The Gators have held 11 consecutive opponents below that threshold. Since Feb. 25, they are allowing just 0.88 points per possession on defense.
3. Kasey Hill will record at least five assists.
When Florida's criminally underrated backup point guard dishes out at least five assists, the Gators are 9-0. In eight of those nine games, Florida won by double digits—with the one exception being the overtime win over Arkansas in which Casey Prather didn't play and Scottie Wilbekin was dealing with a bad ankle.
Even though the start of his season was delayed, it has been a grind for Wilbekin. He has averaged 34 minutes per game and was seen on the bench with a bag of ice on his knee near the end of the third-round win over Pittsburgh.
If Hill can play well enough to allow Billy Donovan to give Wilbekin occasional respites—his 15-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio thus far in the tournament would seem to suggest that he can—it would go a long way toward keeping Wilbekin fresh for the moments when he is needed the most.
4. Wilbekin will be Wilbekin.
Like Peyton Siva on Louisville's 2013 championship team, Wilbekin does it all. He technically wears No. 5, but it might as well be 9-1-1. His is the number the Gators dial in case of emergency.
Even if the first three things on this list fail to transpire, Florida will always have a fighting chance as long as Wilbekin is doing what he has done all season long.
Connecticut's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Connecticut, the following four things will happen, and the Huskies will win it all.
1. DeAndre Daniels continues to have a hot hand.
Daniels was quite hit-or-miss throughout the season. In his final four games of January, he had 23 points and 11 rebounds in a big road win at Memphis, had three points and four rebounds in a home loss to Louisville, threw up a 31 and 12 in a blowout win over Temple and had just seven points and five rebounds in a win over Rutgers.
He has been much more consistently good as of late. Daniels has at least 11 points in eight consecutive games and has really evolved into a reliable defender at the other end of the court.
As long as he doesn't revert to one of his disappearing acts, Connecticut will have a shot against anyone.
2. Connecticut will dominate the turnover battle.
The Huskies had a very average turnover margin during the regular season. Their aggressive guards created a lot of steals but also committed more than their fair share of turnovers.
Thus far in the tournament, however, they are plus-18 in the turnover category.
On the season, they have committed a turnover on 17.2 percent of their possessions but have cut that rate to 13.8 in the tournament. That percentage would rank them sixth in the entire country if maintained for the season.
3. Connecticut will keep getting to the free-throw line.
The Huskies have made 81-of-92 from the free-throw line in the tournament. That's not even fair.
4. Trust in Shabazz Napier.
Napier has averaged 23.3 points per game and has scored 30.3 percent of Connecticut's points in the tournament.
That isn't quite as absurd as the 26.8 points per game and 37.0 percent of Connecticut's points that Kemba Walker scored in carrying the Huskies to the Final Four in 2011, but it's still pretty incredible.
I don't typically condone hero ball, but Napier is averaging 1.82 points per field-goal attempt over his last three games. Every now and again, Connecticut just needs to get that man the ball and get out of his way.
Kentucky's Blueprint to a Title
If all goes well for Kentucky, the following four things will happen, and the Wildcats will win it all.
1. They will continue to grab offensive rebounds in bunches.
As we mentioned on a