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Inside the Final Four: Is Kentucky the favorite?

dave1Following NCAA tournament victories over Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, there’s an obvious question to ask about Kentucky:  Are the Wildcats the favorite to cut down the nets in North Dallas?

For starters, the Kentucky team we’ve seen against the Shockers, Cardinals and Wolverines resembles – at least in part – the team we expected to see when preseason rankings were released last October .  Most projections considered UK a Top 5 team and potential No. 1 seed.  While the regular season had its share of bumps and bruises,  few doubted the Wildcats’ ability.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by UK’s ultimate arrival at the Final Four.

But what ignited the charge?

Most notably, the improved play from guard Aaron Harrison.  Look beyond the late-game heroics and you’ll find an impressive stat line.  In the three games against Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, Harrison averaged 15 points a game and committed just five (5) total turnovers.  Against Louisville and Michigan, he had only one turnover in each game.

While improved shooting (UK made 7 of 11 3-pointers against Michigan) has been important, Kentucky has done much of its damage on the backboards, out-rebounding its NCAA opponents 144-104 in four games.  Those numbers pay huge dividends.

Will Kentucky win the National Championship?  Hard to say.  A shot missed (or made) against Wichita State, Louisville, or Michigan could easily have sent the Wildcats back to Lexington.  But it’s hard to bet against them at this point.  They present obvious match-up problems.  And if UK were to play Florida in the title game on Monday, could the Gators beat the Wildcats for a fourth time this season?

Wisconsin

Until Michigan State healed up late in the season, the Wisconsin Badgers were arguably one of the Big Ten’s two best teams – minus a 10-12 day stretch.  While this isn’t Bo Ryan’s best defensive team, it’s by far his most potent.  And the Badgers’ firepower was certainly on display against Oregon and Baylor.  Wisconsin has made an average of eight (8) three-pointers in the NCAA tournament, including 11 against the Ducks.

But if you had to pick out one reason why the Badgers are at the Final Four, consider Frank Kaminsky.  His size and ability to stretch defenses creates problems.  He creates driving lanes and pick-and-pop opportunities.  Kaminsky poured in 28 points against a defensive-minded Arizona team in the West Regional final.  That followed back-to-back 19-point games against Oregon and Baylor.  No one had an answer.

We’ll see how Kentucky handles the Badgers’ flex offense – especially when it inverts and the guards post up UK’s younger defenders.

Florida

For three of the four teams in North Dallas, guard play has proven decisive.  Florida – the No. 1 overall seed – is no exception.  While the Gators have not traveled the toughest path to the Final Four, they have ridden the stellar play of point guard Scottie Wilbekin.  In games against Pittsburgh, UCLA, and Dayton, Wilbekin committed exactly one – ONE – turnover.  He was a perfect floor general against both the Bruins and Flyers.  He’s also scored in double figures all three games, including 21 and 23 against Pitt and Dayton.

Depth, balance, and defense have carried the Gators through a two-loss season.  But Wilbekin’s play the past two weeks is a major reason why Billy Donovan and Company emerged from the Elite 8.

In an ironic twist, Florida faces Connecticut – one of the two teams to beat the Gators.  They could also avenge their other defeat if they were to meet Wisconsin in Monday’s National Championship.

Connecticut

We can’t discuss guards without Shabazz Napier.  Kemba Walker references aside, Napier has delivered dagger after dagger for the Huskies. In his four NCAA games to date, Napier has averaged 23 points.  In key moments – at the most opportune moments – the ball is in his hands, and he’s made it count.  Even when the opponent knows it’s coming.  That’s the definition of clutch.

Let’s also not discount the emergence of DeAndre Daniels, who posted 27 points against Iowa State and has scored in double figures in every game in during the 2014 NCAA tourney.  Or the continued production from Ryan Boatright.

UConn might be the most overlooked team at the Final Four.  And that could be a mistake.  With the game on the line, is there another player you would want with the ball than Napier?

Final Thoughts

There are numerous story lines at this year’s Final Four – which makes for great theater.  But the games themselves bring equal intrigue.  Can Billy the Kid win a third National Championship at Florida?  Now that Bo Ryan has made it to a Division I Final Four, can his Badgers slow down the Bluebloods from Kentucky?  Can Shabazz Napier will his team into Monday’s title game?  Can the young Wildcats withstand the impending hype and continue playing as one unit?  After being mocked as a weak conference, could we see an all-SEC title game?

All of the scenarios are possible. Which means this weekend should be a lot of fun.

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