With the Final Four scheduled for this coming Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the remaining teams have prepared for what could be their last game of the season. These two games — No. 1 Florida faces off against No. 7 Connecticut at 6:09 p.m. Eastern, and second-seeded Wisconsin plays No. 8 Kentucky at 8:49 p.m. Eastern — have the components of what tend to make intriguing match-ups. Before the tournament started, Florida and Arizona were the top overall seeds, with Wichita State a close second. Now, only one of those teams remains.
Technically speaking, Kentucky and Connecticut are “Cinderellas” for advancing this far with their respective seeds. However, they are far too talented to fall into the same category as a George Mason or Virginia Commonwealth. Both the Huskies and the Wildcats have pieces that a true Cinderella lacks, and they both come out of an elite conference, not a mid-major. And Kentucky and Connecticut have one more thing in common: They had high expectations at the beginning of the year but then struggled at times during the season. While this led to their middling seeds, the fact that both have played their best in recent weeks is a promising sign.
As the two contests draw nearer, how the teams’ individual players will match up is an ever-debated topic, as well as how the coaches will strategize and plot against each other. Either way, come Saturday, the best four teams in the nation — if you don’t believe that, then at least the last four teams standing — will meet in Texas, and it should result in an exciting race to the finish. Here’s a short preview of each game, and what to look for and expect in these two semifinals.
Florida vs. Connecticut
As the seventh-seeded team, the Huskies are the clear underdog. Florida has experience, veteran leadership, and just an overall edge in talent. But UConn has history on its side. The Gators, who are riding a 30-game winning streak, last lost on December 2. Their opponent? Connecticut. At the time, the Huskies were the 12th-ranked team in the nation, whereas Florida was just No. 15.
As the season has progressed, Florida, who faltered against Wisconsin before the Connecticut loss, took off and has yet to look back. The Huskies, though, finished 12-6 in the newly-formed AAC and didn’t look like much of a threat entering the tournament. But with point guard Shabazz Napier leading the way, you could never really count Connecticut out. The senior has almost single-handedly willed the Huskies this far. But he’ll have his hands full against the Gators. Florida’s starting backcourt of senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II has proved difficult to handle throughout the tournament. Defensively, the two have the ability to limit Napier and his backcourt-mate Ryan Boatright.
In terms of size, both teams have strong, athletic frontcourts. Florida has a deeper bench than Connecticut, though, and this could prove important if the Huskies’ big men find themselves in foul trouble. Six-foot-9 junior forward DeAndre Daniels and 6-foot-10 center Phillip Nolan will square off with the likes of Gator big men Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith. As both teams’ front courts established themselves in their Elite Eight contests, it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand in the battle for the glass.
In order to win, Florida will need to limit Napier’s amount of touches and influence. Connecticut’s success is directly correlated to his own success (e.g., see the difference between the first and second half against the Spartans in the Elite Eight). And for UConn to win, well, they’ll need to slow down the Gators in transition and try to keep the rebounding battle within reason. While Florida is extremely athletic, the Huskies have stymied their attack once — it’s just a matter of doing it again.
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
The two teams couldn’t have had two more dissimilar paths to this game — and, oh yeah, they also bring in two completely different styles of play. But if there’s one similarity between the Badgers and the Wildcats, it’s that both have elite coaches who can manage a game, no matter the opponent. The difference, though, between Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Kentucky’s John Calipari is that Ryan has the Badgers in their first Final Four since his arrival in Madison in 2001, and Calipari brought the Wildcats a national championship in 2012, just three years into his tenure.
While the two coaches are top in the game, they have compiled two very different rosters. Kentucky boasts a starting five of talented yet green freshmen. Wisconsin has a combination of upperclassmen mixed in with a few underclassmen, and neither will utterly impress you with their athleticism. And if the composition of the team’s starting five is invariably different, how the two teams play is even more so. Calipari runs his infamous dribble-drive offense, which ultimately means “put five athletes on the floor and let them penetrate and then either shoot or pass.” Calling it an offense is a loose term: It’s more of a style of play. Wisconsin runs a very slow system — sometimes agonizingly slow for opposing teams — and for non-Big Ten foes, this can be difficult to adjust to.
Come Saturday, how either team adjusts to the other’s style of play will be a deciding factor. If Kentucky can feed the ball down low to freshman forward Julius Randle like they did against Michigan, Wisconsin might be in trouble. And if the Harrison twins (both guards) start like they ended last week, Kentucky can beat anybody in the country. Those are big ifs, though. Wisconsin has stifled some pretty electric offenses in this tournament — think Oregon and Baylor — by using their grinding style of defense, and if these young guns at Kentucky get flustered early, they could be in for a long game.
On the offensive end, Frank Kaminsky has been the Badgers’ answer all tournament. The 7-foot center does it all — even more so than Randle, just not as athletically. In four tournament games, Kaminsky has 74 points and 24 rebounds (11 of which came in his double-double against Arizona in the Elite Eight). The Badgers don’t have a lot of athleticism or a lot of size, but they have just enough and play to a proven, efficient system in which they can beat anybody if they’re running on all cylinders. Kaminsky and the other Badgers all can shoot the 3-pointer, which sometimes spreads opposing defenses very thin. Saturday’s matchup won’t be won by the better offense — it will be whichever defense can get the most stops and play the best team-oriented game.