2014 NCAA Tournament: Reasons to Root for or Against Each Team in the Final Four
Are you like me, suddenly finding it hard to pick a team to root for in the 2014 NCAA Final Four? As a casual observer, is there one team that stands out as the team we should all be rooting for to win?
This feels like an odd Final Four. There are huge programs, big stars and great coaches, but there's not that one team everyone should root for like in past seasons.
Last year, casual fans had the pick of two great basketball stories, both on and, unfortunately, off the court. First, there was the gut-wrenching injury to Kevin Ware of Louisville which thrust him into the national spotlight—he was on Late Night with David Letterman before the Cardinals played a game in last year's Final Four—and gave casual fans a feel-good story to latch on to in Atlanta. Second, there was the Shocker of all tournament shockers, as Wichita State busted the bracket all the way to the Final Four.
2012 gave us the pick-a-side battle between Kentucky and Louisville—read: John Calipari and Rick Pitino—in the Final Four. In 2011, casual fans could choose between Butler and VCU to play the role of underdog, a role the Bulldogs reprised after nearly beating Duke in the title game the year before.
Casual fans of college basketball have had it pretty good the last few years. But this year? Nobody really jumps out at you.
Unless you attended one of the schools in the Final Four, or perhaps live in a state represented by the four teams competing for this year's championship*, it feels kind of hard to pick which bandwagon to hitch a ride on as this winding road to North Texas nears its end.
*There have been other Final Fours featuring all public colleges or universities, but this is the first year since 2002 where four state-named schools have reached the Final Four. The last featured Maryland, Kansas, Oklahoma and Indiana. This is the seventh time since 1979 the Final Four will feature four traditional "state" schools.
Kentucky. Connecticut. Wisconsin. Florida. Whom do you want to win?
Here is a quick primer on what to root for—or against—with each school vying to cut down the Final Four nets.
The Case for Kentucky
Many people seem to be making a strong case against rooting for Kentucky (and we shall get to that in a minute here), but there are a few cases to be made to root for the Wildcats this season.
First, the team plays a fun, exciting style of basketball that couples unrivaled athleticism with a developing understanding of the game. We are seeing young kids turn into grown men before our basketball-loving eyes.
It is amazing to watch how much better the talented freshmen that make up Kentucky's team have become as the Wildcats matriculated through the SEC season and into the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky was ranked first overall in the preseason because everyone expected these kids to be immediately great. When they weren't—when they had to learn how to win against good teams—people began to doubt them. There was a point in the season when some of us began to wonder if they would even make the NCAA tournament.
Now, two weeks after being criminally under-seeded—seriously, an eight seed?—Kentucky looks like the most dynamic team on the planet.
That has to be attributed to the coaching job of John Calipari, who, for all the reasons not to like him (more on that in a second), does an unbelievable job of cramming years of basketball knowledge into fledgling prospects, season after season. If Kentucky wins the national championship, there will have been no better coaching job from start to finish than what Calipari has done this year.
It also doesn't hurt, for sure, that the Wildcats are led by a host of one-and-done players who have NBA fans salivating. Julius Randle came into the season as one of the three most heralded recruits in the country, along with Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke. Wiggins and Parker didn't even make it out of the first weekend, while Randle is headed home to Texas to try to cut down another net at the Final Four.
Perhaps my bias is skewed as a fan of a team with a near lock to be a top-three pick in the NBA draft, but I've found myself falling in love with Randle as the tournament has unfolded. I doubt I'm the only one.
The Case Against Kentucky
At one point in the Elite Eight victory over Michigan, with Kentucky down 10 points, John Calipari stepped onto the court during a timeout to haggle with the referee. Sure, working the refs is part of the game for any coach, but are we sure—are we really sure—Calipari wasn't trying to sell the guy a used car to take home after the game?
"That was not a foul, ref! Now, what's it gonna take to get you into the '07 Subaru I have waiting outside for you?"
Calipari is the best recruiter in the country and truly one of the best teachers of the game in college basketball today. For Kentucky to be able to reload with a new crop of players every season or two and still compete at the highest level year in and year out is incredible.
But man, is that guy hard to root for. He's just so darn smarmy, and the problem with Calipari's smarminess is that he has really made no effort to hide any of it. (Maybe, in a way, that's better than those who go to great lengths to cover up how shady they are.) He is unabashed in the way he runs his program, and the string of fantastic one-and-done or two-and-done players is contradictory to the very notion of a "student-athlete."
I'm not trying to use Kentucky to start a debate about the NCAA, but it is clear that Calipari has very little interest in growing his players into well-rounded students that can succeed in anything other than basketball. He has just enough players on his roster who stay four years and graduate to keep within the confines of the APR while shuffling in NBA draft-worthy talent year after year like a sidewalk swindler playing three-card monte.
Will anyone ever forget the 2010 NBA draft? You know, the event Calipari called the "greatest day" in Kentucky basketball history?
That's why it's easy to root against him; he does and says whatever he wants and nothing sticks to him. He's covered in Teflon. Or, perhaps better stated, coated in grease.
And while Calipari isn't the only slimy coach relying on young talent to win a title, his program has become the best at it, so he, in turn, has become the harbinger for hatred of the one-and-done program between the NCAA and NBA.
Most coaches hate the idea of renting a player for one season over trying to build a program. The NBA certainly hates bringing in so much inexperienced talent, even if the owners and general managers can't help themselves from drafting all these players every year. (Note to NBA teams: If you don't like the one-and-done rule, stop drafting freshmen at the top of the draft.)
I don't believe Kentucky winning a title would be a referendum on the NCAA entirely, but I think the more Calipari wins with one-and-done players, the sooner the whole system will implode.
Come to think of it, maybe that's a good thing. Did I just make another case for why we should be rooting for Calipari and the Wildcats?
Well, at least there's one real reason to root against Kentucky. The guy who made national news because he got a tattoo that says the Wildcats are going to win the title? That's a bad thing. A bad, bad thing.
The Case for Connecticut
There is something about this particular Connecticut team, unlike teams in the past, that makes you want to root for it. A blue blood of college basketball, UConn was knocked down a peg or two at the end of Jim Calhoun's reign in Storrs thanks to some more off-court nonsense during the Hall of Famer's tenure.
Calhoun was one of those coaches whose propensity for winning glossed over a lot of issues that programs with less success probably wouldn't have been able to survive. Eventually, it caught up to UConn, and it was banned from the postseason last year after receiving APR scores that were below the NCAA threshold.
In just two seasons, Kevin Ollie has changed the perception of UConn basketball. Even with a few of the players Calhoun left behind—several left due to the imposed sanctions—there is a new energy that surrounds Ollie and the Huskies program.
From the Jeff Jacobs of The Hartford Courant:
"I was really taking my time," Ollie said Sunday after the Huskies stunned Michigan State 60-54 to advance to their fifth NCAA Final Four since 1999. "One step at a time, that's what you've got to do to get up to the top of the ladder. You can't skip no steps. The last two years we didn't skip no steps. We took one step at a time."
"The way this team played all through last year and right through today is just phenomenal," said Larry McHugh, chairman of the UConn board of trustees. "It's lost too often in today's society, but this shows the importance of loyalty of the players and Kevin."
Having gone to (and worked for) a former Big East rival in the past, it has always been hard to find any reason to root for UConn. Ollie is making that easier.
Oh, and one more case for UConn—Vegas. Per the AP, the Huskies would be a huge payoff for fans who dropped a little cash before the tournament began.
The Case Against Connecticut
You might think Shabazz Napier willing Connecticut to the Final Four would be another reason to root for the Huskies. Napier's ability as a leader has been well-documented, and his work ethic deserves praise. Here is a little of that from NJ.com's Brendan Prunty:
"These kids would follow him across the desert for a drink of water," former Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun said on the floor amidst the celebration. "Honestly. Shabazz is one of the great leaders — along with Kemba (Walker) and a few of the other guys we've had. I sat with Richard Hamilton during the game and he said, 'Coach, how special is he?' And I said, 'He's Kemba-special.' He's one of the great guards we've had."
He is a pretty special player. He's also amazing at the free-throw line, hitting 25-of-27 from the charity stripe in the tournament. In total, UConn has been amazing at the line, shooting 81-of-92 so far from the stripe (88 percent), which has helped secure each of its four tournament victories.
That should be a reason to root for UConn, right? Good guard play and solid fundamentals? Right.
Napier seems like he gets every call. He's developed this ridiculous head flop whenever he's touched on his way to the bucket and the referees bite on the acting job every single time. Surely, he's not the only one in college basketball to try to get a cheap whistle—DeAndre Kane of Iowa State was far more conspicuous when it came whistle-fishing in the Sweet 16—but Napier's penchant for getting those soft whistles makes it hard to root for that kind of basketball.
Effective? Sure. But cheap fouls are no fun to watch, and referees catering to that kind of on-the-ball flopping just creates bad basketball.
Moreover, and again I'll let my bias sneak back in, the UConn basketball faithful are some of the more entitled, self-reverential fans in college sports. Granted, the women's basketball fans are far worse than the men's at UConn, but anyone with a Huskies hoops affiliation has a general sense of superiority to the rest of you (read: us).
Surely, with all the success between the men and women over the years, they've earned the haughtiness, but it doesn't make a long trip on their bandwagon any more enjoyable.
The Case for Wisconsin
The case for Wisconsin is simple: The Badgers play great fundamental basketball.
This year's Badgers team is actually scoring a little more than past Bo Ryan squads, putting up an average of 73.5 points per game while holding opponents to 63.7 per contest, the third-best margin in the Big Ten behind Illinois and Ohio State.
The Badgers have likable players, too, from Traevon Jackson to Ben Brust to Frank Kaminsky, who is two Final Four games away from becoming the next great American big man in college basketball.
Truly, there may not be a player left in the tournament whose game is easier to love than Kaminsky's, as the seven-footer can play down low on the block or step out and drain shots from distance.
On the season, Kaminsky leads the Badgers in points, rebounds and blocks, is second on the team in field-goal percentage and fourth in steals. He is a matchup nightmare for most teams and will provide a great test for Kentucky's big men at the Final Four.
The Case Against Wisconsin
Look, I know the story about Bo Ryan going to the Final Four every year with his dad, and with both of his parents having passed away this year, I'm sure it will be emotional for him to finally get to this point in his long career without his father by his side. It's a story that will be told and told again over the next week. And that's nice for Ryan, who is a wonderful coach and, undoubtedly, a dedicated family man.
But if you think for one second that's the heartstring-puller that will attract casual fans, that's just silly. Somehow, the media thinks spinning the Final Four into Bo Ryan: Mister Softie is going to work for people?
Ryan is as gruff as they come. He is extremely tough on his players. Traevon Jackson recently told Fox Sports, "The situation here at Wisconsin is hard. It's tough. Mentally, you have to be able to handle this."
Ryan is like your cantankerous uncle who only shows up to family functions so he can complain the entire time that he can't smoke in the house and that it's too cold and why is this damn sofa so uncomfortable, did you find it on a street corner after a homeless person was done using it and can you turn the TV up louder because I'm missing that show about the thing just so I can be here with you ingrates.
Uh...where was I?
Oh, yes. Ryan is tough, rough and gruff. (It sounds better than it reads.) That quote from Jackson, by the way, came in a story about Jarrod Uthoff's return to Madison after one of the most high-profile and animus college transfers in history. Ryan may have been within the letter of the law in that case two years ago, but he did not endear himself to, well, anyone with the way it was handled.
As easy as it is to root for this year's team, it's hard to want to root for Ryan. But maybe I'm just not in on the gag. Chris Korman of USA Today suggests that people who don't want to root for Ryan just don't get him:
Ryan likes to be pretend he’s irascible. A Philly guy, he’s actually just blunt. You almost always get an honest assessment of his team when you ask him for one. He’s witty, too, but maybe that’s lost on the rest of the country because he coaches in the same conference as Tom Izzo.
Ryan is a great coach, and his style certainly gets the best out of his players. If the bluntness is just an act, then maybe his act is a little too old-school for school. Or, if Wisconsin wins a title, maybe it's not.
The Case for Florida
Billy Donovan is more than just a basketball coach. If he were just a basketball coach, Scottie Wilbekin would not be playing at Florida right now.
If he were just a basketball coach, Damontre Harris would never have been allowed back in the Florida program after multiple chances to get his act, and his life, back on track.
If Donovan were just a basketball coach, the group of seniors he has mentored all the way to the Final Four probably would have imploded well before this point in their careers, especially after getting so close three times before finally reaching their goal this season.
Well, one of their goals. Florida is two games away from winning another national title—what would be Donovan's third as head coach of the Gators—and it wouldn’t be possible if he were just a basketball coach. From Juliet Macur of The New York Times:
But beyond winning games and titles, a college coach’s job should be to change his players’ lives, to help them work through problems on and off the court. The task is to master basketball, but also to look beyond basketball, though that rarely happens.
In Wilbekin’s case, Donovan did just that. Unfortunately, there is no award for that accomplishment — though there should be. Donovan would have received the national title for it.
If you are a fan of reclamation and redemption, this Florida team is easy to celebrate.
The Case Against Florida
Conversely, if you aren't a fan of reclamation and redemption, there is every reason to root against Florida.
The ending, at least in Scottie Wilbekin's case, has been a happy one. Billy Donovan helped an immature and troubled player get his life back on track to the point where he is an upstanding member of both the Gators team and, presumably, the student body at Florida.
But Wilbekin needed more than a second chance, and he's not the only Florida player to require so much attention off the court.
At some point this season, Florida had to suspend four different players for various infractions or violations of team rules. In addition to Wilbekin missing five games to start the season and Damontre Harris being removed from the team before Donovan allowed him back with the understanding he would not play this season, both Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker served suspensions this year—the former for a violation of team rules and the latter for academic issues and NCAA violations before starting at Florida.
It's amazing, really, that Florida was able to hold itself together this season amid all the distractions. If you are not a fan of second (and third) chances, this Florida team is not for you.
It's also not for you if you like rooting for the underdog. Florida is the lone No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four, the fifth consecutive season that no more than one top seed has reached the final weekend.
On top of that, of course, is the realization that Florida knocked off Dayton to get to the Final Four, eliminating the last true Cinderella left in the Big Dance.
That makes the Gators the ugly stepsisters of the 2014 NCAA tournament—only everyone should expect the glass slipper to fit perfectly at the end of this story.
Oh, and one more reason to root against the Gators…if Florida and Kentucky both win on Saturday, the national title game will be an all-SEC affair. SEC fans are obnoxious enough from August through January. This would be insufferable.