Articles By David Fox
Alabama is coming off the kind of disappointing season most teams would envy.
The Crimson Tide were No. 1 and undefeated until Nov. 30 and reached the Sugar Bowl. But the glaring number here is 0-2, as in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to finish the season.
The theme of spring practice in Tuscaloosa has been to rediscover the magic that started to fade, players say, well before the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. The two-touchdown loss to Oklahoma was the culmination of the complacency that Alabama feared going back to spring 2013.
As spring 2014 comes to a close, Alabama coach Nick Saban is not only looking for a change of attitude in his team, but also some key personnel moves, starting with the replacement of quarterback AJ McCarron.
Follow @DavidFox615 for updates from Alabama and @BradenGall for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.
Also follow Athlon on Instagram for images from the Iron Bowl rivals.
Alabama won’t have a true picture of who will replace career-leading passer and two-time national championship quarterback AJ McCarron until the fall when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Credit senior quarterback Blake Sims, though, for making the most his spring in the spotlight. Alabama coach Nick Saban has praised Sims’ “command” of the offense. This will be Sims’ final audition before competing for the job yet again when Coker arrives. Coker, a Mobile, Ala., native, competed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season at Florida State. Coker is still finishing his final semester in Tallahassee before he’ll be eligible immediately at Alabama.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on the same team
Saban has been generous in his praise of Henry, who was one of the breakout players of bowl season with 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Oklahoma. He and incumbent T.J. Yeldon are both on the Crimson team for first-stringers on offense. That means Yeldon and Henry will both run into the No. 1 defense. Both are capable of being a feature back — and a star feature back, at that — so the rotation and 1-2 punch will be worth watching.
The unveiling of Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator
One of the more intriguing coaching moves of the offseason was the addition of Kiffin to the Alabama staff as offensive coordinator. By Alabama policy, Kiffin shouldn’t be as much as a lightning rod as an assistant in Tuscaloosa. Alabama assistants do not conduct media interviews. That means the Alabama offense will have to speak for the former Tennessee and USC coach. Receivers, including Amari Cooper, have said Kiffin has a knack for getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. But Kiffin is also one of a dwindling group of college coordinators who embrace the kind of pro-style offense Saban wants to run. How will that manifest itself on A-Day?
The attendance battle with Auburn
Everything is a competition with the Iron Bowl, so why not put the spring game attendance figures head to head. During the Saban era, Alabama has demolished Auburn in spring game attendance, at least until last season when the Tigers set a school record with 83,401 at their spring game. Alabama’s spring game attendance has leveled off to sub-80,000 (by the way, how many coaches are wishing they had a 78,000 at their spring games?). Maybe the added mystery — a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator — and good weather will draw more Alabama fans for the scrimmage. Remember, Alabama set a record in the 2011 spring game, another game after a non-championship year.
|Spring Game Attendance|
The fan reaction
Perhaps no fan base in the SEC has had quite the swing in emotions. Alabama went into the Iron Bowl undefeated with hopes of a fourth national championship in five seasons. Then came the Kick Six. Then came the flop against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Hiring Lane Kiffin was puzzling. Is this a fragile fan base? With Auburn on top as well, no state will have a more interesting offseason than Alabama.
The state of the secondary
The secondary is the biggest question on the defense with positions open at spots not manned by safety Landon Collins. This brings up the classic question for spring games — if Sims has a good day passing is that good for him or bad for the defense and vice versa.
Trey DePriest steps up
The defense also needs its quarterback with C.J. Mosley gone. Middle linebacker and multi-year starter Trey DePriest takes over at signal-caller on the defense. He’ll also need to shepherd a young linebacker corps.
Nick Saban, having fun?
The tradition at Alabama, as it is for a handful of schools, is to treat the winning team in the spring game to a lavish dinner while the losing team receives, let’s say, more standard fare. In the case of Alabama, it’s steak with wait service for the winning players and coaches and buffet-style franks and beans for losing team. Saban, the “commissioner” of A-Day, always gets steak. “The players say I have to choose a team because they get tired of me being over there eating steak and not being on team,” Saban said. “But it’s not just the steak. It’s the tablecloth, the roses on every table, waitresses waiting on you. The other side of it is paper plates, one pot, beans, paper towels, plastic silverware.”
Related: What might get under Saban’s skin?
Saban’s not above sending a message through the media, particularly when he’s unhappy. When asked why running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny, two of the tree running backs on the White team, were absent from the open portion of practice, Saban tone ticked up for a bit: “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do in school this week, so I sent them to study table for four hours and they didn’t come to practice,” Saban said. “If they don’t stay over the for four hours, the probably won’t play in the spring game. There’s no update, just a fact. ...
“I’d rather do it now than during the season. You know, all these players need to learn that they have a responsibility and obligation to do the right thing for themselves.”
Freshman offensive lineman Cam Robinson
In a mild surprise, freshman Cam Robinson will play left tackle with the first-team offense on Saturday while Brandon Greene, his competition, will be with the second unit.
See the sights
Colleague Braden Gall ran down a few of the sights he’s looking to take in at A-Day over at Auburn including Toomer’s Corner and tailgates. I’ve covered games at most SEC programs, but Bryant-Denny is a glaring blind spot on my stadium resume. I’m looking forward to taking a stroll around the stadium to check out the national champion coach statues. There has to be a line for taking photos with the Bear and Saban, right?
From the beat:
AL.com reporter Andrew Gribble joined us to talk about what he’s seen around Alabama spring football.
Athlon Sports: A major point at spring practice this season has been rediscovering the edge and attention to detail that derailed last year’s national championship hopes. How much as that been an issue this spring?
Andrew Gribble: I think they realized they lost their identity at some point last season. Many of the players said that happened before the Auburn loss. That’s been the key talking point from Saban and the players. I think he’s been pleased with what they’ve been able to do. The attitude has been better this year. I think they’re still looking for leaders because they lost a few big ones. The vibe has been back on the right path. That’s been the key theme. Last year, they talked about avoiding complacency. That never really happened this year.
Athlon: How has the messaging been different from Saban compared to years past?
Gribble: He entered this year saying they were going to start over. That’s been the theme, and he’s been pretty positive with many of the players. He’s been more open with the quarterback competition than he was with the McCarron and (Phillip) Sims one. He’s been pretty transparent on that. He’s been very high on praise for Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry and guys like that. There’s been moments when he’s been more positive than in past years.
Athlon: What has been the reaction to Lane Kiffin’s hire, both from the team and the fan base?
Gribble: The fan base has bought into it. I think they were skeptical initially. But I think they kind of trust that Saban knows what he’s doing. The players have really responded well to him. Amari Cooper especially has talked about how the offense is simpler and playmaker-friendly. That’s good news for all the running backs and Cooper and O.J. Howard. Kiffin has a good track record with quarterbacks and they recognize that. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard a lot about tempo. They’re not going to look like Oregon anytime soon, but there are going to be situations where they pick up the pace a little bit.
Athlon: How much will the quarterback situation change when Jacob Coker gets here?
Gribble: They’re not going to have an answer by the end of spring, and Coker is the main reason for that. It’s kind of clear that Blake Sims has emerged as the top guy for this current group. He’s had a good spring. The players really like him. He worked with a quarterback coach over spring break, so he’s gotten a lot better. But Jacob Coker wouldn’t have signed with Alabama if he wasn’t going to compete. I think he’s still the frontrunner because he has the skills that Alabama likes in its quarterbacks, and he’s mobile, too. It’s really going to get started once fall camp starts. Saban’s said it could go into the season. I don’t know if it’s going to last that long, but he said the same thing with McCarron even though it was pretty clear McCarron was the guy.
Athlon: What are you looking for in the spring game, especially since most of practice has been closed?
Gribble: Quarterbacks obviously is the big one. The quarterback who has been No. 2 to Sims, Cooper Bateman, is going to be on the other side. He’s going to be able to throw a lot. The offensive line, it looks like a true freshman, Cameron Robinson, is going to be with the first team at left tackle. That’s following in the footsteps of Andre Smith in 2006. Secondary is a big issue. The loss of (cornerback) Eddie Jackson was really significant. He was emerging as one of the top corners. I don’t know how much they’re going to do with special teams. Alabama has one kicker now (Adam Griffith), and he’s been inconsistent. He didn’t have many opportunities last year, but he’s going to have to be the guy this year. Outside of what happened in the Iron Bowl, Alabama has been very good on field goals since 2011.
Athlon: How might the Yeldon/Henry tandem play out?
Gribble: I think Henry is going to be very involved in the offense, but Yeldon is very good. I think the ideal situation for Alabama is going to be to replicate what they had in 2012 with Yeldon and (Eddie) Lacy. They both split carries through the season, and when they got to Georgia and Notre Dame, they were fresh and had huge games. Maybe last year, Yeldon carried the ball a lot and he may have run out of gas. Having those two is a good option for them. It’s a good problem to have. I think (Kenyan) Drake is involved as well because he brings a different element with his speed. But Henry has received the most praise of anyone from Saban. He’s had a great spring, and he knows how to play running back now. Last year, he just knew how to run the ball.
The debate concerning preseason rankings has started around the Athlon Sports offices, and we’re giving you an inside look at all the things that will shape the 2014 countdown.
Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan take you inside the process of the rankings meeting as they talk through the teams in the ACC.
Will anyone challenge Florida State in the Atlantic? Will Louisville be a factor in Bobby Petrino’s return? And how do we sort out the mess that is the Coastal Division?
The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email [email protected].
When UCLA and Stephen F. Austin met in the Sweet 16, the game represented two of the success stories for first-year coaches.
UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose hire received lukewarm reviews, advanced the Bruins to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. Meanwhile, Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood became one of the top first-year coaches in NCAA history by going 32-3.
Those two coaches were in the minority, though. Of the 42 new coaches on the job in Division I in 2013-14, only four reached the NCAA Tournament. The other two to join Alford and Underwood in the field lost in their first games in the Tournament — one of those losses was not a surprise (Jeff Jones at No. 15 seed American) while the other was one of the major upsets of the round of 64 (Craig Neal at New Mexico).
The NCAA Tournament didn’t tell the entire story for first-year coaches as two men making their debuts won the NIT (Richard Pitino at Minnesota) and the College Basketball Invitational (Jimmy Patsos at Siena).
These coaches shouldn’t graded completely after one season, but the new hires for 2013-14 were quite the mixed bag. Here’s how the most notable first-year coaches fared:
Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin enjoyed its best season as a Division I member in the first season for Underwood, a longtime Frank Martin assistant. Stephen F. Austin was one of the top defensive teams in the country on the way to an 18-0 record in the Southland and a win over fifth-seeded VCU in the NCAA Tournament. Underwood’s 32 wins in his first season is the third-most in Division I history and his 91.4 percent win rate ranks sixth. Underwood's next task is to maintain the foundation laid by Danny Kaspar, who left for Texas State before last season.
Steve Alford, UCLA
Alford didn’t put UCLA back where the Bruins probably should be — in national title contention — but he delivered on a number of fronts. UCLA reached the Sweet 16 and won the Pac-12 tournament, both for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, Alford offered up a more exciting brand of basketball. UCLA ranked 13th in offensive efficiency on KenPom and topped 80 points per game for the first time since winning the national title in 1995. Now, he’ll have to add two big-time recruits, Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney, to a roster that will be hit by NBA Draft defections.
Tubby Smith, Texas Tech
Texas Tech went 6-12 in the Big 12, but Smith gave the Red Raiders some much-needed stability after the Billy Gillispie fiasco. The six wins in a tough Big 12 shouldn’t be shrugged off, either. That’s two more league wins than the last two seasons combined. Texas Tech defeated four NCAA Tournament teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas) and put a scare into league champion Kansas.
Mike Brennan, American
Brennan engineered a 10-game turnaround from 10-20 to 20-13 in his first season. The Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 before a lopsided loss to Wisconsin. Well-schooled in the Princeton offense, Brennan played for Pete Carril and served as an assistant under John Thompson III at Princeton and Georgetown.
Jeff Jones, Old Dominion
Old Dominion had been one of the most consistent teams in the Colonial before falling apart at 5-25 in Blaine Taylor’s last season. Jeff Jones, the former coach at Virginia and American, stepped in to rebuild in Conference USA. The veteran coach led the Monarchs to a 9-7 debut in C-USA and an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. The roster included no seniors among its regular rotation, so Old Dominion could be back in NCAA Tournament contention in 2014-15.
Jimmy Patsos, Siena
Siena can be one of the top mid-majors as Fran McCaffery and Paul Hewitt proved during their tenures. Patsos, one of the most colorful characters in coaching, has the Saints back on that trajectory. In his first season, Patsos turned Siena from 8-24 to 20-18 and CBI champions, ending a streak of three consecutive losing seasons in the MAAC.
Chris Collins, Northwestern
The record wasn’t drastically improved from the end of the Bill Carmody era, but Collins injected some energy into the Northwestern program. The Wildcats finished 6-12 in the Big Ten, but that tally included road wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, plus a win over Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern loses only one senior, but Drew Crawford a big departure.
Bobby Hurley, Buffalo
Buffalo won between 18 and 21 games from 2008-09 to 2011-12 before slipping to 14-20 last season. Hurley, the former Duke point guard, stepped in during his first season as a collegiate head coach and led Buffalo to a first-place finish in the MAC East. Buffalo finished at No. 100 on KenPom.com, the highest ranking for any MAC team.
Will Wade, Chattanooga
Wade, a former VCU assistant, installed at Chattanooga what he calls “Chaos,” a homage to VCU’s “Havoc.” The Mocs improved from 8-10 in the Southern to 12-4 in his first season. Wade’s team gave the home crowd reason for excitement: Scoring is up by more than six points per game and the Mocs went 11-2 at home.
Casey Alexander, Lipscomb
Alexander is on his second quick turnaround in the Atlantic Sun. In his first season at Lipscomb, the Bisons improved from 7-10 in the league to 10-8 as they won eight of their final 11 games. At Stetson, Alexander led the Hatters from a 9-20 (6-12 A-Sun) season in his first year to 15-16 (11-7 A-Sun) in his second. Alexander was a player and long-time assistant at crosstown rival Belmont, so he knows how to build a winner at this level.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Minnesota had the same Big Ten record (8-10) in Pitino’s first season as the Gophers had in Tubby Smith’s last. The Gophers also traded a round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament for an NIT championship. Is that progress? Maybe. The real answer may be next season when Pitino has a veteran-laden team in a Big Ten that may have only one Final Four contender (Wisconsin).
Craig Neal, New Mexico
The Lobos quietly had one of their best conference seasons in school history, setting a school record with 15 Mountain West wins and a conference tournament title. Perhaps the passing of the baton from Steve Alford to his longtime assistant Neal was a little too smooth, down to the early exit from the NCAA Tournament against No. 10 seed Stanford.
Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast
Nothing could have topped the 2013 run to the Sweet 16, but Florida Gulf Coast proved it could remain a factor despite losing its coach. The Eagles actually improved their Atlantic Sun record by one game (from 13-5 to 14-4) in Dooley’s first season and earned a bid in the NIT by winning the Atlantic Sun.
TOOK A STEP BACK
Brandon Miller, Butler
Personnel losses meant this was going to be a difficult season even if Brad Stevens were still the coach. Miller’s first team went 4-14 in the Big East and endured the first losing season at Butler since 2004-05. Miller will try to continue to rebuild around Kellen Dunham, but Butler’s foray in a major conference could continue to be rocky.
Andy Enfield, USC
The Trojans went 2-16 in the Pac-12 in Enfield’s first season, but at least USC was better than its 6-26 overall mark in 2011-12. USC will rely on newcomers Kaitin Reinhardt (transfer from UNLV) and Darion Clark (transfer from Charlotte) and two four-star freshmen to put a more competitive team.
Eddie Jordan, Rutgers
Jordan’s tenure started with the revelation that he never finished his undergraduate degree at Rutgers. It didn’t get much better from there. Rutgers finished at 5-13 in the American, the same conference record as Mike Rice’s final team in a more competitive Big East. Rutgers’ final game, a 92-31 loss to Louisville in the American tournament, was the worst offensive performance by any team during the season at 42 points per 100 possessions. Up next is the Big Ten.
The NCAA Tournament ended with one winner and 67 losers in the bracket, but not all of those results are created equal.
Kansas’ loss in the round of 32 isn’t exactly the same as Mercer’s, for example.
The true winner, in both the men’s and women’s tournament, was the school in Storrs, even though both programs took different paths to get there. UConn cemented itself as one of the most unlikely national champions, Kevin Ollie as a star in the coaching world and Shabazz Napier as one of the most legendary players in Huskies history.
Ollie wasn’t the only coach to establish himself as young up-and-comer in coaching. Dayton’s Archie Miller surely will be on the radar for major programs after his team’s run to the Elite Eight.
Elsewhere, Bo Ryan reached his first Final Four and the SEC found some basketball bragging rights, making them two of the bigger winners in this year’s field.
The Big 12 and Doug McDermott weren’t so lucky.
Winner: Kevin Ollie’s status
When the NCAA Tournament started, the coaching legacy discussion revolved around Billy Donovan cementing his status as a Hall of Fame coach or Sean Miller or Bo Ryan reaching their first Final Four. Kevin Ollie notching his spot among the national elite coaches was not one of the popular talking points. Now, the storyline that emerged after this Tournament may be the most interesting of all. What’s in store for Ollie in his coaching career? At 41, Ollie is younger than Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and Roy Williams when they won their first national championships. He’s already at a national power, but UConn’s conference alignment has taken a step back in the American compared to the Big East. And with his credibility in the NBA, Ollie may be a popular target there. Possibilities abound, including a long tenure at his alma mater.
Loser: The freshman class
Kentucky alone saved the star-studded freshman class from being a complete washout. Julius Randle and the Harrison twins carried Kentucky from a No. 8 seed to the title game and likely boosted their NBA Draft status. Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins may be top-three picks, but their NCAA Tournament legacy is forgettable. Parker went 4-of-14 from the field in a round of 64 loss to Mercer, and Wiggins scored four points in a loss to No. 10 seed Stanford in the round of 32. Kansas’ Joel Embiid was a no-show with a back injury, and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis was bounced in the round of 32 by No. 11 seed Dayton. Arizona’s Aaron Gordon had a solid performance in the Tournament ... until he ran into Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in the Elite Eight.
Winner: Bo Ryan’s legacy
In a matchup with Arizona’s Sean Miller, another great coach without a Final Four appearance, Ryan was the one who was able to check the box of reaching the final weekend of the Tournament. And more may be in store for Wisconsin. Shooting guard Ben Brust is the only major departure from Wisconsin next season, meaning the Badgers will have the look of a national title team.
Loser: Doug McDermott’s stat line
McDermott completed one of the greatest careers in college basketball history as the fifth-leading scorer of all time and a three-time consensus All-American. But the National Player of the Year struggled in his lone NCAA Tournament game, a loss to Baylor. The Bears held McDermott to 15 points in his third NCAA exit before the Sweet 16. McDermott scored 15 points or less only three times as a senior and 15 times in his final three years.
Winner: Kentucky’s transformation
By one count, Kentucky played in three of the top four games of the NCAA Tournament. Decades from now, this year’s Tournament may be remembered for Shabazz Napier and UConn’s title run from a No. 7 seed, but also for the excitement Kentucky brought. And to think this team underachieved for most of the season. Kentucky defeated three teams from last year’s Final Four, including undefeated Wichita State and rival Louisville. And that was before facing Wisconsin in the Final Four. Every step of the way, Kentucky defeated a team good enough to win the title before running into Napier and UConn. Oh, and the Wildcats had a flair for the dramatic.
Loser: Wichita State’s opportunity for credibility
Notice that says Wichita State’s opportunity for credibility not credibility in and of itself. The 35-1 record and a toe-to-toe battle with the eventual national runners up may be enough to make fans forget about all the hand-wringing about the Shockers’ schedule. But at the same time, Wichita State was unable to advance into the second weekend, and that will be enough for detractors to doubt Wichita State’s season.
Winner: Archie Miller’s job prospects
If not for Ollie, Miller might be the biggest coaching superstar to emerge from this NCAA Tournament. The 35-year-old led Dayton to wins over NCAA stalwarts Ohio State and Syracuse on the way to the Elite Eight. Sure, Dayton got hot for two weeks, but the Flyers also defeated Gonzaga and nearly knocked off Baylor in the Maui Invitational. With his bloodlines, Miller may already have been a major coaching prospect, but this Tournament sealed it. The question is if and when he might make the jump. Dayton can be the flagship program and the Atlantic 10. With administrative and fan support and a good recruiting base, there’s no reason for Miller to jump at the first opportunity. Could he prove to be as difficult to pry from Dayton as Shaka Smart has been at VCU. Remember, it took the Boston Celtics to pull Brad Stevens away from Butler, too.
Loser: The selection committee’s handling of the AAC
On Selection Sunday, the American Athletic Conference was a clear loser. Louisville, a top-three team in the rankings, was hammered with a No. 4 seed. UConn received a No. 7, Memphis received a No. 8. SMU didn’t even make the field. The Huskies won the national title, Louisville fell in the Sweet 16 to eventual national runner up and rival Kentucky, and SMU reached the NIT championship game.
Winner: The SEC’s bragging rights
Eleven SEC teams didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament field. Three SEC teams didn’t make it out of the NIT quarterfinals. Is that going to stop SEC fans from bragging about two Final Four teams and three in the Sweet 16? No way. Kudos to Kentucky and Tennessee playing to the level their talent suggested. It almost made us forget that teams like Arkansas, Missouri and LSU didn’t do the same.
Loser: The Big 12’s bragging rights
The Big 12’s batting average was not nearly as high as the SEC’s. Only two of the league’s eight teams with NCAA Tournament bids reached the Sweet 16. Two teams lost to double-digit seeds with Kansas falling to No. 10 Stanford and Oklahoma falling to No. 12 North Dakota State. Iowa State played two games without one of its top three players before losing to UConn in the Sweet 16. Texas and Oklahoma State lost to higher-seeded teams. Baylor carried the banner for the league before losing by 17 to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.
Winner: The Atlantic Sun
Between Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer, the Atlantic Sun is 3-2 in the last two NCAA Tournaments. Not bad for a league that lost its top program, Belmont, two years ago.
Injuries are part of the season, but a few deprived a few teams from being at their best in the NCAA Tournament — Joel Embiid at Kansas, Georges Niang at Iowa State and Willie Cauley-Stein at Kentucky. Kansas and Iowa State were teams with Final Four potential with all their pieces in place, and Cauley-Stein could have been a difference-maker in the title game.
Winner: Johnny Dawkins’ job security
The Stanford coach seemed to be on an NCAA Tournament-or-bust trajectory. He did more than what could be expected by taking a No. 10 seed to the Sweet 16 thanks to wins over New Mexico and Kansas. Stanford’s first NCAA Tournament trip since 2008 isn’t the only reason Dawkins can breathe a little easier: Mike Montgomery retired at rival Cal.
Loser: Another vote of confidence in BYU
For the second season in a row, BYU was a questionable selection in the NCAA Tournament. Only a wild comeback against Iona in the First Four last season prevented BYU from going one-and-done the last two seasons. Once in the 64-team field, BYU lost by 19 points to Oregon in 2014 and 20 points to Marquette in 2013.
Winner: Harvard’s momentum
For the second consecutive season, Harvard upset a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1946, and now it has reached the field in each of the last three seasons. Harvard could ride that momentum into 2014-15, already showing up on a few early top 25 lists. Not only does Harvard return its top three scorers, the Crimson also held onto coach Tommy Amaker, who has led the turnaround.
Loser: Mark Gottfried’s game management
Little was expected of NC State this season, but the Wolfpack were one of the last teams in the field and won a game in the First Four. Mark Gottfried kept fans wanting more though. His team flopped in the round of 64 against Saint Louis by losing a 14-point lead in the second half to lose in overtime. NC State shot 54.1 percent from the line, and Gottfried kept his star player, T.J. Warren, on the court, vulnerable to foul out when NC State needed to stop the clock. Warren fouled out with 27.9 seconds left.
Winner: Steve Alford’s reputation
Let’s give credit where it’s due. The Alford hire at UCLA wasn’t an unqualified success, and it’s still unclear if he’ll be able to match Ben Howland. Still, Alford answered a few questions by advancing to the Sweet 16. His teams at New Mexico and Iowa had been eliminated by double-digit seeds in four of his last five trips to the NCAA Tournament. Avoiding upsets to No. 12 Tulsa and No. 13 Stephen F. Austin is what he’s supposed to do at UCLA, but he deserves credit for reversing an ugly trend.
Loser: The Big East
During the course of the season, the Big East looked at times like it could be a two-bid league, so it’s probably a positive development that four teams made it. None, however, made it to the second weekend when No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 seed Creighton lost in the round of 32. There’s no shame in No. 11 seed Providence losing to North Carolina, and Xavier was in a virtual coin flip game against NC State in the First Four. Making matters worse, though, was the departure of Buzz Williams from Marquette to Virginia Tech. In essence, one of the top coaches for one of the new league’s flagship programs left for one of the worst jobs in the ACC. Not a great week for the league.
When Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian heard the question about one of his receivers, Miles Shuler, the Wildcats quarterback sighed in relief.
“Awesome, a football question, great,” Siemian said.
Northwestern’s spring practice will come to a close Saturday, but Wednesday was another clear indication what happens on the field for the Wildcats continues to be the secondary story in Evanston.
Siemian on the Big Ten spring football teleconference reiterated his stance against unionization on Wednesday. Northwestern players filed for employee cards in January, but Siemian said he will vote against forming a union, a plan set in motion by Siemian's former teammate, Kain Colter.
“We filed for employee cards; it doesn’t mean a union is right for this university or this school,” Siemian said. “I think that distinction needs to be made. Just because you’re an employee, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a union is the right avenue.”
Siemian, who split time with Colter at quarterback the last two years, faulted himself for not gathering information as much as he could when he and a majority of his teammates signed employee cards in efforts to form a union. The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled members of College Athletes Players' Association are employees and may unionize.
"This all began with the best intentions."
-Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian
“This all began with the best intentions,” said Siemian, a fifth-year senior. “I’m treated far better than I deserve here. Introducing a third party or somebody else — our main goals when this began, there were issues with the NCAA we thought we could address and that was one of the ways we could do it.”
Goals declared by CAPA include increased stipends, guaranteed sports-related medical coverage, improving graduation rates, allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships and more.
Siemian said those goals were not addressed with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald or athletic director Jim Phillips before the move to unionize.
“To say ‘I don’t trust you enough to help us out to address these changes,’ I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Siemian said. “I can only speak for myself, but I feel pretty confident there are other guys on the team that feel pretty similar to me.”
Fitzgerald opened his portion of the teleconference with a request to speak only about football topics. He said his comments Saturday — when he urged Northwestern players to vote against unionizing — stood on their own.
“Out of respect to our players and out of respect to our program, what I said on Saturday is enough to be said,” Fitzgerald said.
That same day, four Northwestern players including Siemian said they were against forming a union.
Four is hardly the 50.1 percent majority vote from Northwestern players required to create a union. However, Fitzgerald, when prompted, gave a ringing endorsement for Siemian’s “leadership.”
Of the four players on record against a union, all are upperclassmen and three are returning starters.
“There’s no question that Trevor is our leader,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s a lot of great leadership now being demonstrated in our locker room. From what I’ve seen from when we got back in January, it’s that there’s no doubt that this is Trevor Siemian’s football team.”
Siemian acknowledged the strange circumstances around Northwestern, including the vote at the end of April that could have a lasting impact in college athletics.
“You’re not going to have everyone on the same page,” Siemian said. “You have different religions, different political views, but at the end of the day you’re teammates. Everyone’s had each other’s back and it’s just a mature locker room.”
For a few minutes and for a small sliver of the college football world, the national championship game was of secondary concern.
In Lincoln, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini sat down to watch the BCS championship game between Florida State and Auburn and fired off this Tweet to his cat-loving doppelganger.
@FauxPelini ok enough is enough... I want my cat back. You've had her long enough!— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) January 7, 2014
Pelini is not a coach known for his sense of humor, so this public acknowledgement of his own parody account came as a shock. The spur-of-the-moment post garnered more than 10,000 retweets.
“I was aware of it — I don’t know how you couldn’t be aware of it,” Pelini said on Wednesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “My wife reminds me of it all the time. I was just sitting around one night thought, what the heck?
“I was surprised how viral it went. I was surprised to see the amount of attention it got.”
It wasn’t the last time Pelini showed he’s just like the rest of us when he’s not in the heat of football season. The Cornhuskers coach, who has been quite vocal with football officials, slyly complained about officiating during Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament loss to Baylor.
Can I get fined if I comment about basketball officiating?— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) March 21, 2014
Now that the NCAA Tournament is complete, the Athlon editors can take a deeper look at the upcoming college football season. The rankings discussion for the preseason magazines is in full swing as spring practice is in its final weeks.
Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan take you inside the process of the rankings meeting as they talk through the teams in the Big Ten.
Who can challenge Ohio State? Will Michigan State continue to be a contender for the title? Can teams like Michigan and Nebraska return to power house status?
The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email [email protected].
The 2014 national championship was not a good one for the numbers people.
A No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed reached the national championship game, a development that in some ways rendered the regular season moot. UConn also didn’t fit the statistical profile of a team to win the national championship, falling short of efficiency ratings that have been the trademark of every national champion for more than a decade.
This was even a loss for the numbers kept for the NCAA. Only a year after a postseason ban due to poor academic numbers, UConn was on college basketball’s biggest stage — and the Huskies’ best player made sure we took note of the NCAA’s questionable way of tracking academic performance.
We’re still going to look at all the key numbers anyway, the figures that proved this was one of the most unlikely national championship runs in NCAA history.
No. 7. UConn’s seeding on Selection Sunday, lowest to win a title since 1985.
Kentucky would have matched No. 8-seed Villanova’s title in 1985, the first year the field expanded for 1985. Still, UConn is the first team seeded this low to win a championship since Rollie Massimino’s team upset Georgetown 29 years ago.
No. 18. UConn’s rank in the final AP poll of the regular season.
While NCAA Tournament seeding aims to reflect the body of work for a season, the AP poll tends to reward recent performance and momentum. The Huskies ranked 18th in the final AP poll prior to the Tournament, marking the lowest rank for an eventual champion since Danny Manning and an unranked Kansas team won the title in 1988. UConn is the first team outside of the top 10 to win a title since 2003 Syracuse.
21.2. Points per game in the NCAA Tournament for Shabazz Napier.
How close did Napier come to matching his point guard predecessor, Kemba Walker? Pretty darn close. Napier scored 22 points in the championship game to raise his average to 21.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, 2.3 less than Walker during his championship run in 2011. The raw numbers were lower for Napier, but the 2014 Most Outstanding Player was a more efficient guard during his run to the title.
|Kemba vs. Shabazz|
|Kemba Walker, 2011||Shabazz Napier, 2014|
|23.5||Points per game||21.2|
|6.0||Rebounds per game||5.5|
|5.7||Assists per game||4.5|
|1.5||Steals per game||2.5|
|43-of-107 (40.2 percent)||Field goal shooting||38-of-82 (46.3 percent)|
|32-of-69 (46.9 percent)||2-point field goals||18-of-39 (46.2 percent)|
|11-of-38 (28.9 percent)||3-point field goals||20-of-43 (46.5 percent)|
|44-of-49 (90 percent)||Free throw rate||31-of-33 (94 percent)|
|45.3 percent||Effective field goal rate||58.5 percent|
|54.8 percent||True shooting percentage||65.8 percent|
7-0. Kentucky’s edge in McDonald’s All-Americans over UConn on Monday.
The Huskies became the first team since 2002 Maryland and only the second since 1979 to win a national title without a McDonald’s All-American. Granted, UConn has a McDonald’s All-American on the roster in Rodney Purvis, who sat out the season after a transfer from NC State.
3. Players with two national titles from UConn.
This isn’t exactly 2006-07 Florida when every key player returned to win back-to-back titles, but the list of players with two titles in the 64-team era is a short one. Shabazz Napier was an up-and-coming freshman on UConn’s 2011 title team. Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were seldom used in 2011, but became valuable role players in 2014.
31 points. Margin of defeat for UConn against Louisville on March 8.
The Huskies became a No. 7 seed in part because of an 81-48 loss to Louisville on March 8. Before UConn, no eventual national champion lost a game by 30 points during the regular season. Only seven national champions endured a 20-point loss during the season, according to Patrick Stevens of d1scourse.com.
For those wondering, the full list of national champs who lost by 20+ (which will probably take three tweets) ...— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) April 8, 2014
2014 UConn (lost 81-48 to Louisville) | 1965 UCLA (lost 110-83 to Illinois) | 1993 North Carolina (lost 88-62 to Wake Forest) ...— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) April 8, 2014
1985 Villanova (lost 85-62 to Pittsburgh) | 1975 UCLA (lost 103-81 to Washington) | 1991 Duke (lost 96-74 to North Carolina) ...— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) April 8, 2014
2002 Maryland (lost 99-78 to Duke). Seven champions total with a 20-point loss to their name prior to the NCAA tournament.— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) April 8, 2014
0-2. Record for the NCAA champion against the NIT runner up.
Perhaps this is yet another sign UConn’s title is a shock or a sign that Selection Sunday snub SMU should have been in the field. Either way, NIT runner-up SMU twice defeated UConn during the regular season. The Mustangs defeated the Huskies by nine points in each game at home and on the road.
39. UConn’s rank in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings on offense.
If the seeding, the record against SMU and the Louisville rout weren’t enough to make UConn an unlikely national champion, UConn bucked the trend in advanced statistics, too. Every national champion since 2003 ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. At least until UConn. UConn ranked only 39th nationally in offensive efficiency on KenPom, making the Huskies the least-balanced national champion in at least 11 years.
8-of-25. UConn’s performance from the field in the second half against Kentucky.
Perhaps this speaks to UConn’s defense, the Huskies’ hot start in the first half (50 percent from the field) or Kentucky’s free throw shooting. In any event, UConn shot 32 percent from the field in the second half, including 5-of-16 from 2-point range and still won.
62.5. Free throw shooting rate by John Calipari teams in national title games.
John Calipari has led three teams at two programs to the national championship game, and two included subpar performances from the free throw line. On Monday, Kentucky went 13-of-24 from the line, reminiscent of Memphis’ 12-of-19 performance, including 1-of-5 in the final 1:15, that allowed Kansas to force overtime for the 2008 title. Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky team went 15-of-21 from the line in the championship game against Kansas.
97.5. Free throw shooting rate by Kentucky’s opponents in the Final Four.
Kentucky’s failures at the free throw line were only magnified by their opponents’ success. The Wildcats didn’t foul late against UConn as the Huskies went 10-of-10 from the line. Two days earlier, Wisconsin went 19-of-20 from the line and still lost to Kentucky.
87.8. UConn’s free throw shooting rate in the NCAA Tournament.
Not to belabor the point on free throws, but the Huskies missed only 14 free throws in the entire NCAA Tournament, going 101-of-115 from the line. By the time UConn got to the Final Four, Florida and Kentucky knew better than to send UConn to the line. The Huskies attempted at least 20 free throws in each of their first four games of the Tournament before attempting 23 total in the Final Four.
5. Freshman starters for Kentucky.
That number didn’t surprise anyone, but it’s a notable mark for the Wildcats. Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson became the first all-freshman starting five in the title game since Michigan did it in 1991.
2. Coaches in their first or second season to win a national title.
UConn’s Kevin Ollie joined Michigan’s Steve Fisher in 1989 as the only two coaches to win a national title in only their first or second year as a head coach. Fisher, now at San Diego State, won his title when he replaced Bill Frieder in 1989. Frieder had accepted the Arizona State coaching job after the 1989 season but was fired by athletic director Bo Schembechler. Frieder's replacement Fisher went on to win the national championship.
889. UConn’s four-year Academic Progress Rate as of 2011.
Napier’s mention of the postseason ban probably wasn’t the image the NCAA wanted in the afterglow of a national championship. UConn is a year removed from NCAA sanctions due to poor performance in the Academic Progress Rate, which the NCAA uses to measure athletes’ progress toward earning a degree. UConn dipped below the required four-year score of 900 from 2007-08 through 2010-11 and missed the 2012-13 Big East and NCAA tournaments.
The 2014 national champion has been crowned, so now it's time to take a quick look ahead at next season.
Consider this a quick snapshot of the 2014-15 season. A handful of developments still need to happen before there’s a clearer picture of the season ahead.
McDonald’s All-American Myles Turner has yet to commit, and he’s down to a handful of power players — Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, SMU and Duke.
NBA Draft early entries also have a deadline coming up before may. Prospects can enter the draft any time before April 27, but those who declare and do not hire an agent must withdraw by April 15 to retain their eligibility.
1. Arizona (33-5, 15-3 Pac-12, Elite Eight)
Undecided: F Aaron Gordon, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, G Nick Johnson
Top players returning: F Brandon Ashley, G T.J. McConnell, C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York
New arrivals: G Kadeem Allen (junior college transfer), G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, F Stanley Johnson, F Craig Victor (freshmen)
The best case is that Gordon is the only player to leave for the Draft. Hollis-Jefferson is Arizona’s next best prospect, and he’s a fringe lottery possibility. If Johnson returns to team with McConnell and York in the backcourt. Stanley Johnson, the No. 3 prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings, could step into Gordon’s shoes. He’ll be a more well-rounded offensive threat.
2. Wisconsin (30-8, 12-6 Big Ten, Elite Eight)
Gone: G Ben Brust
Top players returning: F Sam Dekker, G Josh Gasser, F Nigel Hayes, G Traevon Jackson, F Frank Kaminsky, G Bronson Koenig
The Badgers stand to lose only the sharpshooting Brust from a team that was one possession from playing for the national title. The Badgers always seem to have players waiting in the wings, so more minutes from rising sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig could make this an improved team from one that won 30 games in 2013-14.
3. Kansas (25-10, 14-4 Big 12, Round of 32)
Gone: F Tarik Black, C Joel Embiid, F Andrew Wiggins
Top players returning: F Perry Ellis, G Conner Frankamp, G Brannen Greene, G Frank Mason, G Wayne Selden, G Naadir Tharpe
New arrivals: F Cliff Alexander, G Kelly Oubre (freshmen), F Hunter Mickelson (Arkansas transfer)
Most teams would have trouble recovering from the departures of talent like Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Kansas has a knack of grooming the next group while, of course, recruiting at a high level. Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden could become stars. The freshman class has only two players (for now), but both are top-five prospects in the 247Sports Composite. The Jayhawks also are in the running for top-five prospect Myles Turner.
4. Kentucky (29-11, 12-6 SEC, national runner up)
Gone: None yet
Undecided: C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Aaron Harrison, G Andrew Harrison, F Dakari Johnson, F Alex Poythress, F Julius Randle, G James Young
Top returning players: F Marcus Lee
New arrivals: G Devin Booker, F Trey Lyles, C Karl Towns, G Tyler Ulis (freshmen)
The outlook will be more complete when John Calipari’s group sorts out who will — in his words — succeed and proceed to the NBA Draft. Expect major losses after a run to the title game, but if any of the veterans from this year’s team return, Calipari may have fewer the headaches he had during the season. This freshman group isn’t the historic group that singed a year ago, but Trey Lyles and Karl Towns are impressive big men. Tyler Ulis should be a solid point guard.
5. Duke (26-9, 13-5 ACC, Round of 64)
Gone: G Andre Dawkins, G Tyler Thornton
Undecided: F Rodney Hood, F Jabari Parker, F Rasheed Sulaimon
Top players returning: G Quinn Cook, F Amile Jefferson, F Semi Ojeleye, C Marshall Plumlee
New arrivals: G Tyus Jones, C Jahil Okafor, F Justise Winslow (freshmen)
Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood have not declared, but either returning would be a surprise. The Blue Devils return their point guard and best offensive rebounder to go with the No. 1 freshman class. Center Jahlil Okafor is the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports Composite while Jones is the No. 2 point guard.
6. Michigan (28-9, 15-3 Big Ten, Elite Eight)
Gone: F Jordan Morgan
Undecided: F Mitch McGary, F Glenn Robinson III, G Nik Stauskas
Top players returning: G Spike Albrecht, F Jon Horford, G Zak Irvin, G Caris LeVert, G Derrick Walton
New arrivals: F Kameron Chatman (freshman)
Michigan has three key players pondering a jump to the draft with Nik Stauskas the closest to being a lottery pick. Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton emerged late in the season, so they could be breakout candidates in 2014-15.
7. Wichita State (35-1, 18-0 Missouri Valley, Round of 32)
Gone: F Cleanthony Early, G Nick Wiggins
Top players returning: G Ron Baker, F Darius Carter, C Kadeem Coleby, G Tekele Cotton, G Fred VanVleet
Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a big loss, but the Shockers return one of the top backcourts in the country in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
8. North Carolina (24-10, 13-5 ACC, Round of 32)
Gone: F James Michael McAdoo, G Leslie McDonald
Top players returning: G Isaiah Hicks, G Brice Johnson, F Kennedy Meeks, G Marcus Paige, F J.P. Tokoto
New arrivals: G Joel Berry, F Justin Jackson, G Theo Pinson (freshmen)
The foundation of the Tar Heels will be juniors Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and J.P Tokoto, but the Tar Heels have standout sophomore and freshman classes to fill out a team that will challenge for an ACC title.
9. UConn (32-8, 12-6 American, national champion)
Gone: G Niels Giffey, G Lasan Kromah, G Shabazz Napier, F Tyler Olander
Undecided: F DeAndre Daniels
Top players returning: G Ryan Boatright, C Amida Brimah, G Omar Calhoun, F Phillip Nolan, G Terrence Samuel
New arrivals: G Daniel Hamilton (freshman), G Rodney Purvis (NC State transfer)
UConn is understandably curious what life will be like post-Shabazz Napier. If DeAndre Daniels returns, this is a team that will challenge for the AAC title. Adding Rodney Purvis, a decorated recruit who averaged only 8.3 points at NC State, may keep the Huskies in the mix.
10. Florida (36-3, 18-0 SEC, Final Four)
Gone: F Casey Prather, G Scottie Wilbekin, F Will Yeguete, C Patric Young
Top players returning: G Michael Frazier II, G Kasey Hill, F Dorian Finney-Smith, F Chris Walker
New arrivals: G Eli Carter (Rutgers transfer), G Chris Chiozza (freshman), G Brandon Francis (freshman), F Devin Robinson (freshman)
For a team that lost a group of seniors that played in four consecutive Elite Eights, Florida is well-positioned to stay competitive. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, who didn’t become eligible until midseason, were five-star recruits. Michael Frazier II can still shoot lights out. The Gators will need more from Dorian Finney-Smith.
11. Virginia (30-7, 16-2 ACC, Sweet 16)
Gone: G Joe Harris, F Akil Mitchell
Top players returning: G Justin Anderson, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, G London Perrantes, F Mike Tobey
New arrivals: G Devon Hall (redshirt), G B.J. Stith (freshman)
The Cavaliers lose their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, but they may be built to last under Tony Bennett. Malcolm Brogdon emerged as the Cavs’ MVP, and London Perrantes was an underappreciated point guard. Virginia also redshirted its top recruit, Devon Hall, last season.
12. Villanova (29-5, 16-2 Big East, Round of 32)
Gone: G James Bell
Top players returning: G Ryan Arcidiacono, G Dylan Ennis, G Josh Hart, G Darrun Hilliard, F Daniel Ochefu, F JayVaughn Pinkston
Leading scorer James Bell is gone, but the Wildcats have two other scorers who topped 14 points per game, plus point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who was on the fringe of double figures. Nova will miss his 6.1 rebounds, but the good news is that Doug McDermott is gone from Creighton, one of four teams to beat the Wildcats last season.
13. SMU (27-10, 12-6 American, NIT runner up)
Gone: G Nick Russell
Top players returning: G Keith Frazier, F Markus Kennedy, G Ben Moore, G Nic Moore, C Yanick Moreira
New arrivals: G Emmanuel Mudiay
SMU responded to its Selection Sunday snub by reaching the NIT title game. The Mustangs have a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament next season with little drama. SMU adds the No. 2 recruit and No. 1 point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, to a team that loses only one significant contributor. That gives SMU two five-star guards in Mudiay and Keith Frazier.
14. Louisville (31-6, 15-3 American, Sweet 16)
Gone: F Luke Hancock, G Russ Smith, F Kevin Ware
Undecided: F Montrezl Harrell
Top players returning: G Wayne Blackshear, G Chris Jones, G Terry Rozier
New arrivals: F Shaqquan Aaron, G Quentin Snider (freshmen)
Like a few other teams, Louisville is in rankings limbo. If Montrezl Harrell returns, the Cardinals could be a top-10 team. A major question will be how Chris Jones and Terry Rozier fill the shoes of Russ Smith in Louisville’s first season in the ACC.
15. Michigan State (29-9, 12-6 Big Ten, Elite Eight)
Gone: G Keith Appling, G Gary Harris, C Adreian Payne
Undecided: F Branden Dawson
Top players returning: F Matt Costello, F Kenny Kaminski, G Travis Trice, G Denzel Valentine
The losses of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are major, but Michigan State has enough returning to be competitive in the Big Ten, especially if Branden Dawson returns to school. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine thrived in their roles, but they’ll need to be the No. 1 or No. 2 option next season.
16. Texas (24-11, 11-7 Big 12, Round of 32)
Top players returning: G Javan Felix, G Demarcus Holland, F Jonathan Holmes, F Connor Lammert, C Cameron Ridley, G Isaiah Taylor
The Longhorns were one of the surprise teams of 2013-14, turning Rick Barnes from a hot seat coach to Big 12 Coach of the Year. With no seniors on the 2013-14 rotation, Texas will be expected to contend for the Big 12 title in 2014-15.
17. Iowa State (28-8, 11-7 Big 12, Sweet 16)
Gone: F Melvin Ejim, G DeAndre Kane
Top players returning: F Dustin Hogue, G Naz Long, G Monte Morris, F Georges Niang, G Matt Thomas
New arrivals: F Jameel McKay (Marquette transfer), F Abdell Nader (Northern Illinois)
Losing Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane will hurt, but Georges Niang’s value was clear in the Elite Eight loss to UConn. Monte Morris was a sure-handed point guard as a freshman, but he’ll have the ball in his hands more with Kane gone. As usual, transfers will play a key role for coach Fred Hoiberg.
18. Oklahoma (23-10, 12-6 Big 12, Round of 64)
Gone: G Cameron Clark
Top players returning: G Isaiah Cousins, G Buddy Hield, F Ryan Spangler, G Jordan Woodard
New arrivals: F Khadeem Lattin (freshman)
Even without Cameron Clark, this will be a veteran team with rising juniors Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler leading the way. OU went 12-6 in the rugged Big 12 behind a freshman point guard, Jordan Woodard, who will have a year of experience.
19. VCU (26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10, Round of 64)
Gone: G Rob Brandenburg, F Juvonte Reddic
Top players returning: G Jordan Burgess, G Treveon Graham, G Melvin Johnson, G JeQuan Lewis, G Briante Weber
New arrivals: F Michael Gilmore, F Terry Larrier, F Justin Tillman, G Jonathan Williams.
What little bulk VCU had is gone with the departure of 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic. The Rams will try to make up for it with three freshman 6-7 or taller, all ranked in the top 100.
20. Kansas State (20-13, 10-8 Big 12, Round of 64)
Gone: G/F Shane Southwell, G Will Spradling
Top players returning: G Marcus Foster, F Thomas Gipson, F Wesley Iwundu, F D.J. Johnson, F Nino Williams
New arrivals: G Justin Edwards (Maine transfer), C Stephen Hurt (junior college transfer)
Losing those two seniors will hurt. Kansas State, though, will have one of the top point guards in the Big 12 in sophomore Marcus Foster. The Wildcats will need to prove something in a hurry. K-State lost its last four and six of its last nine.
21. Syracuse (28-6, 14-4 ACC, Round of 32)
Gone: G Tyler Ennis, F C.J. Fair
Undecided: F Jerami Grant
Top players returning: F Rakeem Christmas, F DaJuan Coleman, G Trevor Cooney, F Tyler Roberson
New arrivals: F Chris McCullough (freshman)
Point guard will be an issue for Syracuse as Jim Boeheim’s last two floor generals, Tyler Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams, left earlier than anticipated. The return of Jerami Grant may be the difference between Syracuse contending for the ACC or the NCAA Tournament bubble.
22. UCLA (28-9, 12-6 Pac-12, Sweet 16)
Gone: G Kyle Anderson, G Zach LaVine, F David Wear, F Travis Wear
Undecided: G Jordan Adams
Top players returning: G Bryce Alford, F Wanaah Bail, F Tony Parker, G Norman Powell
New arrivals: G Isaac Hamilton (ineligible last season), F Kevon Looney (freshman)
The Bruins will be hit hard by the NBA Draft, but they will add a McDonald’s All-American in Isaac Hamilton, who was ineligible last season after backing out of his letter of intent to UTEP. Norman Powell and Tony Parker will need to take lead roles.
23. Ohio State (25-10, 10-8 Big Ten, Round of 64)
Gone: G Aaron Craft, G LaQuinton Ross, G Lenzelle Smith
Top returning players: G Shannon Scott, F Sam Thompson, C Amir Williams
New arrivals: G Keita Bates-Diop (freshman), F Anthony Lee (Temple transfer), G D’Angelo Russell (freshman), G Kam Williams (redshirt)
Despite a leadership void without Aaron Craft, Ohio State will have the roster to contend in the Big Ten. Anthony Lee will be eligible immediately after transferring from Temple, where he averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. A solid freshman class plus two guard Kam Williams returning from a redshirt year will keep Ohio State interesting.
24. Nebraska (19-13, 11-7 Big Ten, Round of 32)
Gone: G Ray Gallegos
Top players returning: G Terran Petteway, F Walter Pitchford, G Shavon Shields
Nebraska returns almost anyone from a fringe NCAA Tournament team. Did the Cornhuskers’ late-season wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin signal a team ready for more?
25. Colorado (23-12, 10-8 Pac-12, Round of 64)
Undecided: G Spencer Dinwiddie
Top players returning: G Askia Booker, F Wesley Gordon, F Xavier Johnson, F Josh Scott, G Xavier Talton
The Buffaloes’ ranking depends almost entirely on the return of Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado is a top-15 team with him, a Pac-12 also-ran without him.
Also considered: Dayton, Gonzaga, Harvard, Memphis, Minnesota, Oregon
The Hungry Huskies outdueled the new Fab Five for one of the most unlikely NCAA championship runs in Tournament history.
UConn defeated Kentucky 60-54 for the Huskies’ fourth national championship Monday, as a traditional power won the title in untraditional ways.
UConn started as a No. 7 seed, the lowest-ranked team to win a title since 1985. Kevin Ollie, a coach short on experience, defeated three national championship coaches in three games. And Shabazz Napier, who had a lower recruiting profile than just about anyone he faced Monday, was the best player on the floor for three weeks.
Here’s how the Huskies sealed the championship:
Game MVP: Shabazz Napier, UConn
Napier scored 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting to lead the Huskies. While he wasn’t always sharp, taking ill-advised shots and having his pocket picked at a key moment, Napier helped hold the Harrison twins to 15 points and 6-of-16 shooting.
Telling stat: 54.2. Kentucky’s free throw shooting rate
For the second time in three trips to the national title game, coach John Calipari watched his team struggle at the free throw line. In a game Kentucky lost by 6, the Wildcats have to look at 11 missed free throws as one of the main reasons they lost Monday. The game might not have been close if James Young didn’t go 8-of-9 from the stripe.
How UConn won:
The Huskies answered every time Kentucky attempted to swing momentum. Kentucky closed the first half on a 16-5 run, and UConn needed more than nine minutes to get from the 30-point mark to the 40-point mark. Young ignited Kentucky with a monster dunk, but UConn, despite an ankle injury to Ryan Boatright, eventually stopped the bleeding. With a long 2-pointer by Boatright, UConn took a six-point lead with 4:12 to go, a basket that turned out to be the dagger.
How Kentucky lost:
The free throws hurt, but Kentucky trailed 30-15 to start the game. For a team that thrived so much in close games, Kentucky needed the remainder of the first half and the start of the second just to make the game competitive. Kentucky never led or tied this game after digging itself into an early hole.
Quote to note:
“Ladies and gentlemen, these are the Hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you banned us.”
-Napier with CBS’ Jim Nantz during the trophy presentation.
The NCAA barred UConn from the NCAA Tournament last season due to poor performance in the Academic Progress Rate.
Highlight of the game:
Prepare to see history.
Whatever happens in Monday night’s national title game, either Kentucky or Connecticut will become one of the most rare champions in the NCAA Tournament.
With 11 titles between the two, the Wildcats and Huskies aren’t in a spot they’ve never been, even in the last five years. But both have taken a path to the title game that, while not unprecedented, puts each school in exclusive company.
Consider the following:
• UConn is a No. 7 seed and Kentucky is a No. 8. Either would be the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship since No. 8 Villanova upset Georgetown for the title in 1985, the first season the field expanded to 64 teams. A No. 7 seed has never reached the national title game.
• Neither team played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. UConn was banned from the postseason due to poor academic progress. Kentucky missed the Tourney and lost to Robert Morris in the first game of the NIT.
• If UConn wins, the Huskies will have the most lopsided loss on their schedule of any national champion in NCAA history. No eventual champion lost by 30 points during the course of the season. UConn lost its regular season finale 81-48 to Louisville.
• If Kentucky wins, the Wildcats will have one of the worst losses by any eventual national champion. Kentucky lost 72-67 to South Carolina, a team ranked No. 113 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. The only other national champion in the last 10 years to lose to a lower-rated opponent was 2005 North Carolina, which lost its opener to No. 124 Santa Clara. This year’s Kentucky team has four losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 50. Four of the last 11 national champions never lost to a team outside of the top 50.
• Kentucky and UConn both went 0-3 against teams that won their respective conference tournaments. Kentucky went 0-3 against Florida while UConn went 0-3 against Louisville. Ironically, Kentucky knocked out UConn’s nemesis, Louisville, in the Sweet 16 while UConn knocked out Florida in the Final Four.
This pair in the title game, though, counts its low points as the moments that turned the season around.
Of the loss to South Carolina, coach John Calipari — who was ejected in that game, by the way — said the embarrassment and criticism that followed brought his team back together.
Since then, Kentucky lost twice, both times to No. 1 Florida.
“I just knew that we had the talent and it was just a couple of things missing,” guard Aaron Harrison said. “We trusted coach and he just put it all together for us. We just went out there and just started fighting and playing harder and playing for each other.”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie also called his team’s most embarrassing defeat as the wake-up call.
“I'm glad that happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach,” Ollie said. “I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort.”
Time: 9:10 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: UConn 68-65
Braden Gall: Kentucky 74-69
Mitch Light: Kentucky 68-62
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 73-72
The Huskies have been a defensive menace. Florida and Michigan State both have sure-handed offenses, but UConn made them look out of sorts in the Final Four and the Elite Eight. The Huskies backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have been sharp on both ends of the court.
How Kentucky got here:
None of the concentration or emotional lapses that plagued Kentucky through the regular season have taken place in this Tournament. John Calipari hasn’t had to worry about his team staying cool under pressure for weeks. It also helps that Aaron Harrison has become the most clutch performer in the Tournament.
Key matchup: Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright vs. the Harrisons
Kentucky and UConn continue to be proof that great guard play is the key to advancing in the Tournament. Before Selection Sunday, Napier already was one of the top players in the field, and he’s delivered. Just as important as his play in the offensive end, Napier caused Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin fits in the semifinal. Napier and Boatright held Florida’s point guards to 4-of-15 from the field, one assist and seven turnovers. On the other side, Aaron and Andrew Harrison have been spectacular. The semifinal game against Wisconsin wasn’t Aaron’s best, but he took a well-guarded NBA 3-pointer for the second game in a row to win the game. Will Napier and Boatright be able to disrupt Kentucky’s physical guard duo?
Player to watch: Julius Randle, Kentucky
The guards have been key for Kentucky, and the dramatics have made it all too easy to forget that Randle is the Wildcats’ most dominant player. He’s averaging 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in the Tournament, though Wisconsin is the only Tournament foe to keep Randle from getting a double-double. On Saturday, Florida’s Patric Young sparked the Gators in the second half against UConn’s front line. Randle is a tougher matchup.
X-Factor: DeAndre Daniels, UConn
Daniels has a versatile offensive game and is UConn’s only real threat on that end of the court. He was arguably the Huskies’ MVP in wins over Iowa State (27 points, 10 rebounds) and Florida (20 points, 10 rebounds). Daniels can drive to the basket or take the 3. He’s also a solid free-throw shooter (78.7 percent).
UConn will win the national title if...
The Huskies get to the free throw line. Saturday was the first time in the Tournament UConn didn’t get to the free throw line 20 times. The Huskies still went 10-of-13 from the line in the win over the Gators. Altogether, UConn is shooting 77.1 percent from the free throw line in the Tournament.
Kentucky will win the national title if...
The game is close. UConn can play in pressure situations. The Huskies wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t. But Kentucky thrives in close games. In this Tournament, there’s no reason for Kentucky to doubt itself in crunch time. The Wildcats were 2-8 in games decided by five points or less during the season, but they’ve won four in a row that way.
Let’s take a moment and be thankful this season didn’t turn out for Kentucky the way many predicted.
How boring would all this be if Kentucky were a top seed, a team whose trip to the national championship game felt like a formality?
Instead, Kentucky has given the NCAA Tournament one of the most thrilling runs in NCAA Tournament history. Five games decided by seven points or fewer, the last three on late 3-pointers by Aaron Harrison.
The Wildcats will go to the national championship game as a No. 8 seed to face seventh-seeded UConn. Either way, the national champion will be the lowest-seeded team to win the title since No. 8 Villanova won it in 1985, the first season since the field expanded to 64 teams.
And, no, it’s not enough that Kentucky has defeated three teams from last year’s Final Four, one of which was undefeated and another the Wildcats’ chief rival. It’s not enough that Kentucky defeated a Wisconsin team that missed one free throw all night.
The story had to be better. Aaron Harrison bailed out his twin, Andrew, who had fouled Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson on a 3-point shot. Jackson made two free throws to give the Badgers a two-point lead.
Aaron, though, made sure his brother wouldn’t live in Kentucky lore as the player who cost the Wildcats a shot at the title. With the game on the line, Andrew passed to Aaron, who hit an NBA-range 3 to beat Wisconsin with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Game MVP: Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
He scored only eight points, fewest among Kentucky starters, but it’s tough to pick anyone else for this spot. Harrison has hit three consecutive game winners, each one as impressive as the last. Against Michigan, it was a contested 3. Against Wisconsin, it was an NBA-range 3 with a hand in his face. A 4-for-14 night is rarely this satisfying.
Telling stat: 8, points by Frank Kaminsky
Wisconsin got offense from unexpected sources — 11 from Bronson Koenig, 8 from Duje Dukan — but the key matchup in the game went into the favor of Kentucky. Kaminsky was held in check for most of the game. While he was 4-of-7 from the floor with four offensive rebounds, Kaminsky didn’t attempt a shot from 3-point range and finished with eight points.
How Kentucky won:
The Harrison shot will be remembered, but a Kentucky timeout set the Wildcats on a run that ultimately won the game. Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker hit a 3-pointer in the first minute of the second half to give the Badgers a seven-point lead. After a timeout, Kentucky scored the next 15 points over a little more than 3 minutes. Wisconsin answered, but the run set Kentucky in motion to win the game.
How Wisconsin lost:
It’s far too lazy to blame the free throw Traevon Jackson missed in the final minute. Jackson was at the free throw line thanks to a mistake by Andrew Harrison, who fouled the Badgers point guard during a 3-point attempt. It also was Wisconsin’s only miss of the night. Not many teams go 19-of-20 from the free throw line and lose, especially while their opponents go 14-of-21. Instead, Wisconsin lost because it struggled in the paint, even against a team missing its best offensive rebounder. Kentucky grabbed 11 offensive boards and outscored Wisconsin 46-24 in the paint. The results aren’t shocking, but they did determine the game.
Key for Kentucky in the national championship game:
Injured or not, Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin struggled against UConn’s guards. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright can disrupt opposing guards as well as anyone. The Harrisons were a combined 7-of-22 against Wisconsin. Even if Aaron was the hero again, he’ll be put to the test against the Huskies.
If all hope looks lost for UConn in the national championship game, don’t believe it.
Don’t say UConn is finished. Don’t change the channel. Don’t leave the arena.
Against Florida, the Huskies clawed through an opponent and dire expectations again and not for the first time in this Tournament. UConn trailed by 16-4 Saturday to a team that had won 30 in a row, but the Huskies continued their improbable run to the national championship game with a 63-53 win over Florida.
A dozen points with nearly 30 minutes to play is nothing. Remember, UConn trailed by 3 with 50 seconds to go in the round of 64 against Saint Joseph’s before winning in overtime. This is a team that lost by 33 to Louisville in the final game of the regular season, a team that was swept by SMU.
But this is a team that seems to thrive on doubts, led by a coach who was on a one-year contract until Dec. 2012.
UConn responded by holding Florida to a season-low 53 points and becoming the first team to top a point per possession against the Gators since Feb. 22.
Game MVP: DeAndre Daniels, UConn
The Huskies aren’t a one-man team despite all the praise that goes to UConn. For the second time in this Tournament, Daniels was the focal point of the Huskies’ offense. The junior scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds while shooting 9-of-14 from the field. Napier scored 13 points, but caused problems for Florida on penetration while bottling up Scottie Wilbekin.
Telling stat: 3 assists for Florida
Florida had its lowest-scoring game of the season in part because of bad shots and ineffective point guard play. The most embarrassing number there was three assists for the Gators, four fewer than Florida’s lowest total of the season.
How UConn won:
UConn fell behind 16-4 early but switched to a small lineup three ball-handling guards — Napier, Ryan Boatright and Terrence Samuel. The change sparked a first-half run and helped shut down Florida’s guards. The Huskies had six steals, including four from Napier.
How Florida lost:
The Gators’ point guards were ineffective. Wilbekin had his worst game of the season, and freshman backup Kasey Hill couldn’t fill in. TBS reports indicated Wilbekin struggled with cramps and had his knees iced in the bench. In any event, Wilbekin, who carried the Gators through the first two weeks, was a mere 2-of-9 from the field with three turnovers and couldn’t get past Napier all night.
Key for UConn in the national championship game:
Is there anything UConn can’t do? The Huskies just shot 55.8 percent against the best defensive team in the country and needed only three baskets from Napier to win by 10. The Huskies played lights out defensively and shot 10 of 13 from the field. UConn probably doesn’t want to try its luck by falling behind by 12 again, but who is going to pick against the Huskies anymore?
Kentucky may be the best-positioned No. 8 seed to play for a national title, but 1985 Villanova Big Blue Nation is not.
Rollie Massimino’s 1985 Villanova team is the lowest-seeded program to win the national title, a feat Kentucky can match if the Wildcats can beat Wisconsin and then win Monday night.
But unlike that Villanova team that spent most of the season lurking in the shadows, this year’s Kentucky started at No. 1. With the future pro talent John Calipari added to the roster this season, a trip to the Final Four seemed to be inevitable ... at least until reality set in before December.
The Wildcats lost six games in an underwhelming SEC (and yes, the SEC can have two Final Four teams and be underwhelming at the same time). That makes Kentucky an underdog by seed and record but certainly not by talent and reputation.
The underdog story may be Wisconsin, a No. 2 seed that started the season 16-0. Bo Ryan, 66, is making his first trip to the Final Four as Wisconsin seeks its first national championship since 1941. While Kentucky is awash in McDonald’s All-Americans, Wisconsin has none.
“Frank Sinatra, wasn't that the song? We did it our way?” Ryan said. “Everybody's doing it their way. If you're a coach and here's the landscape, you do it the best way you can. I was always told you can only coach one team.”
Time: Approx. 8:50 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr
Announcers: Rob Bromley, Rex Chapman
Announcers: Wayne Larrivee, Mike Kelley
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Wisconsin 75-71
Braden Gall: Kentucky 78-74
Mitch Light: Wisconsin 68-66
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 75-74
Junior Frank Kaminsky was an All-Big Ten performer during the course of the season, but he may be playing himself into NBA Draft consideration this year or next. Kaminsky is the rare 7-footer who can take an outside shot, drive to the basket and score in the post. He’s averaging 16.8 points per game in the Tournament.
Related: Florida-UConn Game Preview
How Kentucky got here:
Kentucky is making shots, pure and simple. Guard Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points per game in the Tournament after averaging 14.1 during the regular season. Kentucky is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range during the Tournament after averaging 33.2 percent during the season as a whole.
Related: Opposing coaches scout the Final Four
Key matchup: Kentucky’s frontcourt vs. Kaminsky
Kaminsky already outdueled Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, so it’s clear he can handle top talent. Kentucky, though, will be another test with the 6-9 Julius Randle and 7-foot Dakari Johnson in the frontcourt. Can Kaminsky’s versatile game continue to thrive against some of the top forwards in the country?
Related: 10 Amazing Stats about the Final Four teams
Player to watch: Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein doesn’t want to be declared out for the Final Four, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll play. Cauley-Stein averages nearly three blocks per game and is Kentucky’s top offensive rebounder. Losing that kind of cog will hurt. Johnson will try to step into Cauley-Stein’s shoes on a team that led the nation in offensive rebound rate.
Related: Most NBA players? School rankings? Party school rankings? Comparing the Final Four
Wisconsin will win the national title if…
The Badgers keep playing Bo Ryan basketball — limiting mistakes, playing strong defense and making big shots in key moments. This is not the typical Badgers team, however. Traevon Jackson controls the tempo at point guard,Kaminsky proves unguardable at times and shooters space the floor to allow Wisconsin to match up with nearly any style of play.
Wisconsin will lose to Kentucky if…
The Badgers are overwhelmed by the bright lights of AT&T Stadium and the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky is making its third trip to the Final Four in four years, while Wisconsin is making its first trip since 2000 and only its third Final Four ever. The Badgers must remain focused, no matter how crazy the circumstances get.
Kentucky will win the national title if…
The Wildcats keep playing like future NBA first-round picks rather than college freshmen. The preseason No. 1 team in the country boasts what some have called the best freshman class since Michigan’s famed “Fab Five.” John Calipari’s team has been maddeningly inconsistent this year, but if Julius Randle continues to own the paint and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, keep playing with poise, UK could raise its ninth title banner.
Kentucky will lose to Wisconsin if…
The Wildcats get into early foul trouble. Without injured center Willie Cauley-Stein — who is doubtful with an ankle injury — the Wildcats are relatively thin down low. Freshman Marcus Lee came out of nowhere for 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the Elite Eight. But Kentucky needs Randle (and his 24 double-doubles) to stay on the floor.
Athlon editors Mitch Light and Nathan Rush contributed to this report.
Not many teams can say they’ve defeated every team on their schedule.
If Florida make it to Monday night (and so does Wisconsin), the Gators can say they’ve answered all comers even if they've lost twice this season.
In an odd turn of events, the only two teams that defeated Florida during the course of the season, Wisconsin and Connecticut, are in the Final Four. The third team, Kentucky, is one Florida has faced three times the year. Beat UConn and Wisconsin, and Florida can say it defeated everyone on its schedule at least once.
Before the Gators can try to avenge a loss to Wisconsin or defeat Kentucky for a fourth time, they’ll need to make up for a 65-64 loss to UConn from Dec. 2. In that game, Shabazz Napier hit the buzzer beater in a game in which Florida lacked point guard Scottie Wilbekin for the final minutes and backup point Kasey Hill for the duration of the game.
So if you’re keeping track: Florida, playing without two point guards, lost a road game on a last-second shot to UConn. Everything seems to point to Florida if the outcome is going to change the second time around.
But UConn is in the middle of an improbable run for a No. 7 seed to the Final Four.
“It's a different game; That was four months ago,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We're a different team. I'm a different coach. Billy Donovan's definitely got better understanding his team and what it takes for his team to win. So it's going to be a whole different game.”
Time: 6 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr
Announcers: David Steele, Mark Wise
Announcers: Eric Frede, Donny Marshall
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Florida 73-61
Braden Gall: Florida 69-59
Mitch Light: Florida 71-63
Nathan Rush: Florida 85-80
Scottie Wilbekin is playing his best basketball of the season, averaging 16.7 points per game in the Tournament. The Gators, though, are anchored by a stifling defense. In the SEC and NCAA tournaments, only one team has scored more than 60 points against Florida.
Related: Wisconsin-Kentucky Game Preview
How UConn got here:
All-American Shabazz Napier has put the Huskies on his back, averaging 23.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. That’s up from his season average of 18.1 points per game.
Related: Opposing coaches scout the Final Four
Key matchup: Wilbekin vs. Napier
When the two point guards first met in December, Wilbekin didn’t play the final minutes due to an ankle injury. Napier went on to score the game-winner on a buzzer beater. The two shot-making guards have been their teams’ focal points all season, and now they’re facing off in a national semifinal. This could be one of the best individual matchups of the entire Tournament.
Related: 10 Amazing Stats about the Final Four teams
Player to watch: Florida’s Patric Young
UConn’s frontcourt doesn’t offer a ton offensively outside of DeAndre Daniels, but Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah are two solid defenders. The Huskies allow opponents to shoot only 42.1 percent from 2-point range. Florida’s center Young won’t be outworked or outmuscled. While the backcourt battle will be key, Young will need to contribute.
Related: Most NBA players? School rankings? Party school rankings? Comparing the Final Four
Florida will win the national title if…
The Gators maintain their current level of play. Florida entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and has looked the part so far. In this one-and-done era, the Gators have a dominant senior class led by Wilbekin, Prather and Young.
Florida will lose to UConn if…
They allow the Huskies to get open looks from beyond the 3-point line like the Gators did during a 65–64 loss in Storrs on Dec. 2. Florida has won 30 consecutive games since losing to UConn on a day Kevin Ollie’s team shot 11 of 24 (45.8 percent) from downtown but only 12 of 29 (41.4 percent) from inside the arc.
UConn will win the national title if…
The Huskies continue to get championship-caliber play from Napier, who has been doing his best Kemba Walker impression during the NCAA Tournament — averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals, while shooting 25 of 27 (92.6 percent) from the free throw line, over four games to lead No. 7-seed UConn to the Final Four.
UConn will lose to Florida if…
The Huskies don’t get an outstanding performance from Napier, who scored 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting (including 5 of 8 from 3-point range) and hit the game-winning shot as time expired in the Huskies’ win over the Gators earlier this season. Much like UConn’s 2011 national title team led by Walker, this year’s Huskies rely on Napier to carry them.
Athlon editors Mitch Light and Nathan Rush contributed to this report.
Coaches in the Final Four by now have completed the scouting process and are starting to implement the game plans they hope will lead to a national championship. If you’re wondering what the coaches are seeing, Athlon Sports hopes to offer some insight. We spoke to coaches who compiled scouting reports for teams that faced the Final Four teams either during the NCAA Tournament or during the season. In exchange for more candor, we quoted the coaches anonymously.
Florida | UConn | Wisconsin | Kentucky
"They’re good defensively at every position. They can get you sped up with their press. They can make it difficult in the halfcourt. And they can throw a zone out there every now and then. They’re a team that can keep you off balance. They just don’t have a weak link. They don’t have rim protection like a (Willie) Cauley-Stein at Kentucky, but they’re a good position defense with multiple looks. If you get a beat on something, they’re going to switch to a couple of different presses and speed up the game or slow down the game depending how they want to do it.
"Scottie Wilbekin has become such a threat offensively to get his own shot. He’s hit some daggers at the end of halves and end of games. In this Tournament, it’s about shot-making. It’s not about plays. It’s not about the offense. Guys are making shots. He’s been making shots for them all season long down the stretch. He can get his own shot and he can do two things: He can get his own shot and get to the rim or he can get his own shot and make a 3. That’s pretty hard to guard. If you back off and try to get take away a drive he’ll hit you with a dagger 3, if you get too close, he’s going to drive right by you. And generally he’s making the right decisions. He’s athletic and strong enough where he can take a hit. That’s what makes him so dangerous. Michael Frazier II depends on offensive rebounding and a kick out, a Wilbekin drive and pitch. He’s more dependent. He’s a terrific shooter, but that’s how he gets his.
"Patric Young is an oak tree. He’s gotten so much better offensively. He can jump hook to both shoulders. He used to be a guy who could only score on penetration and dropoffs or an offensive rebound. Now he has some back to the basket game. You’ve got to decide: is he worth the double team? He gives them an inside threat. He can get you baskets inside, which he couldn’t do all the time last year. He’s always been strong and physical, but he was almost an afterthought last year.
"Prather is a 15-foot-and-in guy and a driver. He can make some close in jump shots. He has an active, live body. But we just backed off him and put a long guy on him. The only thing he was going to do was drive. He’s a terrific layup-maker and he's athletic. The way to play him is to force him into jump shooting. You’ve got to get him in transition. If you give him some space, you’ll be in better shape. I think that’s what happened late in the year. He’s a guardable guy.
"I don’t know if they have a weakness. They’re great on the bench. They have enough bodies. Maybe they don’t score enough, but I don’t know if that’s a weakness. They don’t beat themselves. All the teams that are there don’t beat themselves. They’re not spectacular. They’re just solid."
"Shabazz Napier is a rare guy who has three parts to his game. A lot of kids can shoot the 3 and they can get it to the basket, but they don’t have a pull-up (jumper). Some kids have a pull-up but can’t get to the basket. He can do all three. He has unlimited range from 3. He has a great pull-up game when he can get by you and he can finish around the rim. Really, he has a fourth part because if he can get to the rim and get everyone to collapse on him, he can find the open guy. He’s a nightmare to guard. He doesn’t have to have a screen. He can get himself a shot. He’s a nightmare because unless you have quick bigs and can switch on him, he’s going to get some space off he ball screen.
"He’s a better outside shooter than Kemba Walker. If Napier took all open shots from 3, he’d be in the 40 percent-plus range (ed. note: he’s at 39.9 percent now). They’re similar in quickness, similar in leadership. I think he’s a better player than Kemba. He’s a more talented guy, but he’s not as disciplined as Kemba was in his senior year. Kemba didn’t take a lot of bad shots. At times, Shabazz’s downfall is that he’ll give into taking some guarded shots. He hasn’t done that in the Tournament as much, but during the year, he’d do that. You could bait him into take some bad shots. Kemba was a little more disciplined from that standpoint. As a pure talent, Shabazz is a little more talented.
"Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels are probably neck and neck (as the next-most dangerous after Napier). They have three legit guys who can score on you. None of them need a screen necessarily, they just need some space. Daniels can shoot it so well from 3, that allows him to be an effective driver. If you’re in help defense and you’re recovering to him, he has an advantage on you. And he’s tall. Guards have to crowd him or he’ll shoot it over top of you and make it. Even a guard who crowds him, he has enough quickness to make a play. Boatright is maybe quicker than Shabazz. He’s not as good a player, but he’s just as quick if not quicker than Shabazz. He’s not always the most disciplined, but when he and Shabazz are disciplined about their shot selection, boy, they’re hard to guard.
"Kevin Ollie made a switch midseason on defense. Early in the year, they were a steal the ball from you and get you spread out kind of defense. They’ve become a help-side oriented defense. They’re more of a pack-line defense than they were earlier in the year. They’ll shoot a passing lane to get the ball. Shabazz and Boatright are dangerous when you have the ball. You’d better pay attention or they’ll take it from you. But they’re much better on the pick and roll now. They were much more spread out before. They have enough big guys they can throw at you even if they aren’t great offensive players. The unsung guy is the German guy (Niels Giffey). He’s a sound, fundamental defender, and he’s going to make every open shot."
"They’re always incredibly well-coached and play terrific defense. This team does, too. They go eight deep with guys who can score. They push the ball and they have guys that run to the 3-point line to make shots in transition.
"What makes them so dangerous is that they’re tough to guard at all five positions. If you can help off anybody, it would be Traevon Jackson, but even then you’re taking a chance.
"They’re all good. They’re all smart. And they all know what they can and can’t do, and they don’t do anything outside of that. Ben Brust is a big-time shooter, but he can also put the ball on the floor and get to the paint. Same with Josh Gasser. Sam Dekker is probably the most dynamic in that he’s tall and athletic and can stretch you out. They were all individually scary matchups.
"Frank Kaminksy is the most different from what we faced all year. In our league there are centers who can shoot the ball very well, but if you stop them from shooting, they can’t create off the bounce. That was the most difficult thing about Kaminsky. He can look at a shot, and if you guard him he’s able to put the ball on the deck and take three or four dribbles and even to get to the rim. We everything we could to stop him from getting 3-pointers, but once you’re on him, you have to dig in and keep your body in front of him. For centers defending him, that’s not something they’re used to doing where he can shoot and then take three or four dribbles. A lot of times he’s turning drives into post moves or he’ll take a dribble or two and put his back to the basket and turn it into post moves. He’s very versatile, and it’s not just that he can pop and shoot. He can pop and drive. He can make plays from everywhere on the court.
"They have an understanding of who they are and they’re all fine with it. They put five really good players on the court who can do a lot of things well. They’re in that swing offense, which is a motion offense where they’re just making reads, and they’re good enough to know how to see the court and where to take advantage. They have the ability to take advantage of each opportunity when it arises."
"They’re a different team from early in the year for two reasons. They’ve grown up and they trust each other more. In the middle of the year, they could go 15 minutes and just look horrible, look like an AAU team. Individual play, lazy passes, poor decisions, lobs that made no sense, they didn’t guard. For 15 minutes or more, they’d look horrible. Now, that has evaporated. They don’t have those stretches where they lose because of a four- or five-minute stretch where they’re poor.
"I felt sometimes Kentucky had some of their guys had one eye on the bench. I think John Calipari has settled down and let them play through their mistakes a little bit, not all of them, but some of them. They can play through their mistakes without getting yanked or screamed at.
"Calipari has settled down. ... They can play through their mistakes without getting yanked or screamed at."
"For us, Julius Randle in the post was a major concern. We did a really good job against him. We tried to crowd him as much as he could. At the time, they weren’t a great 3-point shooting team. I’m guess they’re a little better in the NCAA Tournament. We weren’t really afraid to come off anybody other than James Young to crowd Julius Randle, so we tried to do that every time he caught it.
"Past that, they’re not a great transition team, but still pretty solid. We talked a lot to our guys about getting back in transition and just being physical. They’re young, but they have a lot of physical guys. At the time we played them, they weren’t doing a great job of getting back on defense. We tried to push the pace against them.
"We talked about Willie Cauley-Stein inside and how good a shot blocker he is. He had a pretty good game against us. They overcame his absence against Michigan. If he doesn’t play, that’s a loss for them defensively.
"Against us, they switched a lot of screens, a lot of ball screens. The thing with Kentucky and they way they play, you just pack the lane and make them beat you with 3s."
The freshman class will be present and accounted for in the Final Four, even if it’s not in the way anyone would have predicted.
The high school graduating class of 2013 will have more players in Dallas than any other class, but their roles will vary wildly.
Of the 13 freshmen in the Final Four, seven are from Kentucky. Five of those are playing major minutes. The other freshmen, whether three-star rookies for Wisconsin or McDonald’s All-Americans for Florida, are playing supporting roles.
The Final Four again includes teams with varying approaches and results in recruiting. Kentucky’s bench, for example, includes more five-star prospects than Wisconsin has signed in the last four years.
Whether it’s Florida’s veterans, Kentucky’s star power or UConn and Wisconsin’s talent development, each team in the Final Four started its roster in different spots only to end up in the same place Saturday.
As we get closer to tipoff at AT&T Stadium, we examined how the four programs in Dallas assembled their teams for a trip to the Final Four. For the purposes of this piece, we counted only players who played at least two games and 15 total minutes in the first two weeks of the Tourney.
Here’s how the Final Four teams were built:
Final Four players by Rivals.com star ranking*
Not ranked: 2
Two stars: 1
Three stars: 12
Four stars: 7
Five stars: 12
*includes only players who have logged 15 minutes or more in the NCAA Tournament.
• Two five-star prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans have played fewer than 40 combined minutes — Florida’s Chris Walker and Kentucky’s Marcus Lee.
• Kentucky and Florida are the only schools in the Final Four with McDonald’s All-Americans getting regular minutes.
• With the exception of Dekker, Wisconsin built its foundation on 3-star prospects. Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson — all starters — were three-star prospects.
• Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin is the biggest steal in the NCAA Tournament. He is the only two-star prospect getting regular minutes in the Final Four — and he’s Florida’s top player.
• Throw out Kentucky, and the most prolific high school class for the other three teams in the Final Four was the 2010 graduating class.
• How much of an impact is 2010 having on this Final Four? That class included UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser and Ben Brust and the nucleus for Florida’s team (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather).
• For another year, transfers were a major topic in college basketball, but not in the Final Four. The teams in Dallas feature only two transfers in the regular lineup: Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith (from Virginia Tech) and UConn’s Lasan Kromah (from George Washington). Both earn significant minutes, but neither are starters.
Sunshine State Stars
• The Final Four teams culled players from Florida high schools and prep schools more than any other state with 11 players who graduated from Sunshine State schools. Granted, the amount of high school transfers means that number shouldn’t resonate quite the same way as in college football recruiting.
• The number of Florida-based players does not focus solely on the Gators, though Billy Donovan culled the core of his roster from in-state schools. UConn (Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels) and Kentucky (Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee) also mined the state of Florida.
• Three players in the Final Four ended their high school careers at Montverde (Fla.) Academy — Florida’s Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II and Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson. All transferred to the Central Florida powerhouse. Hill transferred from Mount Dora (Fla.) Bible School, and Frazier transferred from Tampa (Fla.) Plant. Johnson reclassified from the class of 2014 to the class of 2013 when he transferred to Montverde to follow St. Patrick’s (N.J.) coach Kevin Boyle to Florida.
Who’s Not Here
• Wisconsin has had the least attrition of any of the Final Four teams. The Badgers have lost only three players who signed during the 2010-13 recruiting cycles, according to Rivals.com. Two transferred and one, Evan Anderson, left the team in February.
• Kentucky has lost eight players since 2010 who left as underclassmen for the NBA Draft, more than double the other three teams combined. UConn lost two (Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb), Florida lost one (Bradley Beal) and Wisconsin lost none.
• As none of the Final Four teams are relying on transfers, none have lost major players due to transfers. The Final Four teams have lost a combined eight players from the last four recruiting cycles to transfers.
• Coincidentally, South Dakota State has a loose connection to the Final Four. Cody Larson, who was dismissed from Florida, transferred to play for the Jackrabbits; he averaged 13.1 points this season for SDSU. In January, George Marshall announced intentions to transfer from Wisconsin to South Dakota State.
The Final Four is a collection of fine players, but like the NCAA Tournament as a whole, the diverse pieces make for a more interesting puzzle.
The stars have been stars on the way to the Final Four, including UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin.
Meanwhile, the four teams in North Texas wouldn’t be here without some players taking the next step (Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison) or those that emerged from nowhere (Kentucky’s Marcus Lee).
Rather than ranking the top prospects or picking the best players, Athlon Sports put together the ultimate Final Four roster from the four teams that will face off Saturday.
Most indispensable: Shabazz Napier, UConn
No player means more to his team than Napier does to Connecticut. Just think of how many categories he could fill on this list below: He is UConn’s clutch shotmaker from inside and out. He’s an 86.6 percent free throw shooter. And he’s an excellent rebounder for a guard with a team-leading 5.9 boards per game. As long as Napier keeps up his 23.3 points per game pace in the Tourney, comparisons to Kemba Walker will only increase if UConn wins another game.
Floor general: Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Wilbekin hasn’t turned the ball over since midway through the first half against Pittsburgh ... in the round of 32. That’s more than two and a half games without coughing up the ball. His assist numbers are down a bit (3.0), but Wilbekin has answered the question of who is going to be Florida’s go-to scorer in the Tournament. He’s averaging 16.8 points in the Tourney, including two buzzer beaters at the end of first halves in four games.
Sharpshooter: Michael Frazier II, Florida
More than three-quarters of Frazier’s attempts from the field have come from 3-point range. Frazier has also been efficient on all those long shots, converting 44.8 percent. That’s significantly better than other jump-shooting specialists in the Final Four, Wisconsin’s Ben Brust (39.2 percent) and Kentucky’s James Young (34.6 percent)
Shotmaker: Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Aaron Harrison’s emergence has been one of the keys for the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament, allowing Kentucky to start to play like the team the Wildcats were expected to be early in the season. Harrison is leading Kentucky at 16 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by his game-winner against Michigan. The Wolverines could not have defended Harrison any better, but the 3 fell to send Kentucky to the Final Four.
Matchup nightmare: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Arizona, one of the nation’s best defensive teams with big men Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, were lost against the 7-foot Kaminsky. The revelation of Wisconsin's season has his share of post moves, but he's also the kind of outside shooting threat that befuddles bigger defenders. Kaminsky hit 3 of 5 3-pointers in the win over Arizona in the Elite Eight.
Pure talent: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Of all the superstars in this freshman class, Randle is the only one still playing. Randle will have to wait to find out if his draft stock is significantly improved as a result of the Tournament, but the last two weeks certainly haven’t hurt. Randle has picked up a double-double in every Tournament game, averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds per game.
Mr. Universe: Patric Young, Florida
Young has looked like the most physically dominant player on the court for several seasons. He’s also among the hardest-working players in the Final Four. He’s been quiet on the score sheet, but he had four blocked shots against both Pittsburgh and Dayton. He's also the best recruiting tool for Florida's strength program.
Glue guy: Josh Gasser, Wisconsin
Florida’s Patric Young was named the captain of Seth Davis’ annual all-glue team on SI.com, but we’ve already slotted the Gators senior elsewhere. On our Final Four Dream Team, we’ll go with another one of Davis’ glue guys in Gasser. The senior is a capable point guard who moved to make room for Traevon Jackson while losing none of his offensive efficiency or perimeter defense.
Mr. Clutch: Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin
Perhaps this pick is counterintuitive with players like Napier and Wilbekin on he team, not to mention Aaron Harrison, the owner of the game-winning 3 to beat Michigan. Jackson isn’t quite as dramatic, but just as effective. His free throw shooting late has been critical. Jackson has made 36 of 44 free throw attempts in the final four minutes of games decided by 10 points or fewer, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Defensive difference-maker: Ryan Boatright, UConn
Boatright has been more than a complement to Napier in the Huskies, though he’s been solid in the last four games. Boatright has averaged 13.8 points in the Tournament, but his biggest contribution was four steals against Michigan State.
Defensive specialist: Will Yeguete, Florida
The Gators forward averages only five points per game, but he’s also Florida’s best interior defender. Yeguete averages 5.2 rebounds per game, third on the team, but he leads the Gators in defensive rebound rate.
Sixth man: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Hayes is a physical 6-7, 250-pound freshman with a bright future, but Wisconsin has plenty of veterans. Hayes has made the most of his time, though. His 17.7 points per 40 minutes is second only to Kaminsky among Wisconsin regulars.
X-factor: DeAndre Daniels, UConn
UConn is often criticized as a team with a major size disadvantage. That may be true, but it’s not nearly as pronounced when Daniels is playing the way he has during the last month. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds since March 8, including 28 points and 10 rebounds in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State.
Sleeping giant: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
The Badgers forward is averaging 9.3 points and 6 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, scoring only seven points apiece against Baylor and Arizona in the regional. Wisconsin has come this far without Dekker being a major focal point. The Badgers could be national champions if he approaches his season averages.
Not that we really needed it, but the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight weekend showcased why the NCAA Tournament is one of sports’ greatest events.
And not just because six games of the 12 came down to the final seconds.
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, one of the game’s most consistent coaches for 30 years, reached his first Final Four. A day later, UConn’s Kevin Ollie, in only his second season has a head coach anywhere, did the same.
And while Kentucky played in three of the best games of the Tournament against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, the Wildcats managed to surprise by unleashing a seldom-used five-star forward to beat the Wolverines.
With the field whittled from 68 teams to four, here are some other numerical superlatives and surprises.
18. Seed total of the Final Four teams, making this the fourth-most “upsetting” Final Four since seeding began
The sum of the seed numbers for Final Four teams is one of a handful of odd data kept by the NCAA. In essence, it’s a shorthand way to figure how many upsets occurred (or didn’t) on the way to the Final Four. The sum of the seed numbers for Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky comes to 18 for the fourth-highest total since the NCAA started seeding the Tournament in 1979. Here are the others:
|Sum of the seed numbers in the Final Four since 1979|
|Year||Sum||Teams (champion in bold)|
|2000||22||No. 1 Michigan State, No. 5 Florida, No. 8 North Carolina, No. 8 Wisconsin|
|1980||21||No. 2 Louisville, No. 5 Iowa, No. 6 Purdue, No. 8 UCLA|
|2006||20||No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 LSU, No. 11 George Mason|
|2014||18||No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 7 UConn, No. 8 Kentucky|
25. Years separating Bo Ryan’s and Kevin Ollie’s ages at the time of their first Final Four
Perhaps the best illustration of the random and cruel nature of the NCAA Tournament was watching Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and UConn’s Kevin Ollie reaching the Final Four in the same weekend. Ryan, 66, has been coaching college basketball since 1984 and at Wisconsin since 2001 and waiting 30 years to reach his first NCAA Final Four. Ollie, 41, earned his first trip in only his second year as a head coach. If Ollie seems young to reach the precipice of college basketball, he’s not compared to the other two coaches in North Texas. Both Billy Donovan and John Calipari reached their first Final Four in their 30s.
|Coaches' ages at the time of their first Final Four|
|Billy Donovan||34||Florida, 2000|
|John Calipari||35||UMass, 1996|
|Kevin Ollie||41||UConn, 2014|
|Bo Ryan||66||Wisconsin, 2014|
5. Coaches to reach the Final Four in their first or second season as a head coach
Speaking of Ollie, he’s in an exclusive group of coaches who reached the Final Four in either their first or second season of their career as a head coach. Steve Fisher at Michigan in 1989 and Bill Guthridge at North Carolina in 1998 both reached the Final Four in their first seasons as head coaches. Mike Davis at Indiana in 2002 and Shaka Smart at VCU in 2011 reached the Final Four in only their second seasons as head coaches. Two of the five coaches were handpicked successors for legendary coaches — Guthridge for Dean Smith and Ollie for Jim Calhoun. Davis was an assistant for Bob Knight when he was fired in 2000.
16. Top 100 NBA Draft prospects in the Final Four
The Final Four will feature 16 top 100 NBA Draft prospects, according to rankings by ESPN’s Chad Ford. Not surprisingly, Kentucky leads the way with seven top 100 players. Here is the full list and their rank in the top 100:
5. Julius Randle, Kentucky
15. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
17. James Young, Kentucky
28. Chris Walker, Florida
31. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
33. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
35. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
36. Patric Young, Florida
42. Shabazz Napier, UConn
51. DeAndre Daniels, UConn
52. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
61. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
62. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
82. Kasey Hill, Florida
89. Michael Frazier II, Florida
91. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
1. Team in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom.com
Ken Pomeroy’s ratings have been a predictor of sorts for the national championship, but that may be put to the test this season. Every national champion since 2003 has ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, in other words, points per possession weighted against the schedule. Five teams are ranked in the top 20 in both, but Florida is the only one remaining in the Final Four. the other four are Arizona, Louisville, Tennessee and Wichita State. Here’s a look at how the Final Four teams rank in Pomeroy’s ratings:
|Final Four teams in KenPom.com rankings|
|Offensive efficiency||Defensive efficiency|
108 minutes, 49 seconds. Game time since Scottie Wilbekin’s last turnover
Wilbekin has been Florida’s top scorer in the NCAA Tournament at 16.8 points per game, but he’s perhaps more impressive as a ball handler. Wilbekin didn’t turn the ball over in the regional against UCLA or Dayton and hasn’t lost the ball since 8:49 remaining in the first half against Pittsburgh in the round of 32.
3-2 Florida’s record against teams in the Final Four
Florida will be familiar with any opponent in the Final Four, starting with UConn on Saturday. The Gators’ only two losses this season have come against two teams in the Final Four — Florida lost 59-53 to Wisconsin on Nov. 12 and 65-64 to UConn on Dec. 2. The Gators swept the series with Kentucky, whom Florida could meet in the national title game, by defeating the Wildcats in Lexington, Gainesville and in Atlanta in the SEC Tournament.
74. Points scored by Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in the NCAA Tournament, 11 more than his entire freshman season
Wisconsin’s 7-foot center has been one of the top surprises this season, continuing with a 28-point performance against Arizona, one of the top defensive teams in the country. In just four games in the Tournament, Kaminsky eclipsed is scoring output from his freshman season (63 points). Kaminsky’s 74 points in four Tournament games is more than half of his total scoring output as a sophomore (133).
5. Field goals by Marcus Lee in the Elite Eight, doubling his output since Nov. 27
This is what happens when you sign the classes John Calipari has over the last few seasons. McDonald’s All-Americans will sit on the bench, and sometimes in one of the last seats on the bench. With Willie Cauley-Stein out with an ankle injury, Kentucky turned to Marcus Lee to fill some of the minutes. Lee did that and more buy grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring at the basket. Lee finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Michigan. Lee was 5 of 14 from the field in Kentucky’s previous 27 games, of which Lee played in only 14. Against Michigan, Lee added eight rebounds
3. Players returning to the Final Four
Wisconsin is in its first Final Four since 2000. Florida’s veterans came up short in three consecutive Elite Eights. And Kentucky’s team is loaded with freshmen and sophomores. All the Final Four experience resides with perhaps the unlikeliest team to reach the Final Four this season. UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander played on the Huskies’ 2011 national title team. It’s worth noting that senior Jarrod Polson was a member of the 2012 title-winning team, but he didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament.
|The 2014 Final Four: What You Need to Know|
|St. Joe's 89-81 (OT)|
Iowa State 81-67
Michigan State 60-54
|Path to the Final Four||American 75-35|
Arizona 64-63 (OT)
|Kansas State 56-49|
Wichita State 78-76
|2007||2011||Last Final Four||2000||2012|
|2006, 2007||1999, 2004, 2011||National titles||1941||1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012|
|Defense||Shabazz||Team in a word||"Buzzcuts"||Freshmen|
|Scottie Wilbekin||Shabazz Napier||Best college player||Frank Kaminsky||Julius Randle|
|Chris Walker||Shabazz Napier||Best pro prospect||Frank Kaminsky||Julius Randle|
|Lexx Edwards||Leon Tolksdorf||Best name||Duje Dukan||Sam Malone|
|12||12||Active NBA players||3||21|
|Billy Donovan||Kevin Ollie||Coach||Bo Ryan||John Calipari|
|Rockville Center, N.Y.||Dallas||Coach's hometown||Chester, Pa.||Strickly, Pa.|
|Providence||UConn||Coach's alma mater||Wilkes (Pa.)||Clarion (Pa.)|
|Rick Pitino||Jim Calhoun||Coach's mentor||Rob Rainey||Vance Walberg|
|Shaka Smart, VCU||None yet||Coach's disciple||Tony Bennett, Virginia||Derek Kellogg, UMass|
|49||57||US News & World Report Rank||41||119|
|6||NR||Princeton Review Party School Rank||13||NR|
|The Independent Florida Alligator||The UConn Daily Campus||Student newspaper||The Badger Herald||Kentucky Kernel|
|Albert E. Gator||Jonathan the Husky XIII||Mascot's full name||Buckingham U. Badger||Scratch|
|Joakim Noah||Ray Allen||Best basketball alum||Michael Finley||Dan Issel|
|Not at the moment||No||Is this a football school?||Sometimes||Huh?|
|Emmitt Smith||Charles Nagy||Best non-basketball athlete||Chris Chelios||George Blanda|
|Abby Wambach, soccer||Diana Taurasi, basketball||Best female athlete||Nicole Joraanstad, curling||Jenny Hansen, gymnastics|
|Marco Rubio||Robert Diamond||Notable public figure||Dick Cheney||Mitch McConnell|
|Faye Dunaway||Meg Ryan||Actress||Joan Cusack||Ashley Judd|
|Darrell Hammond||Bobby Moynihan||Funny Person||Jane Kaczmarek||Jared Lorenzen|
|John Atanasoff (inventor of first digital electronic computer)||David Lee (1996 Nobel Prize winner for physics)||Smart Person||Frank Lloyd Wright||John T. Scopes (defendant in Scopes Monkey Trial)|
|Cris Collinsworth||Rebecca Lobo||Sports Media Person||Andy Katz||Tom Hammond|
Nothing has come easy for Kentucky this season, especially not in the NCAA Tournament.
Sunday featured another Wildcats Tournament game, another thrilling finish.
Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds sent Kentucky to the Final Four with a 75-72 win over Michigan. Despite slipping to the NIT last season Kentucky has played in the Final Four in three of the last four seasons, including the 2012 national title.
The turnaround for the Harrison twins has allowed Kentucky to transform for a team that lost three of four games in the lackluster SEC from Feb. 27 to March 8, the most egregious being a loss to 14-20 South Carolina that saw John Calipari ejected.
Since the SEC Tournament, Kentucky has looked more and more like a team ready to contend for the national title. The Harrison twins have turned around their seasons, with Aaron averaging 16 points per game in the Tournament and Andrew averaging 12.3.
The same team that appeared to have chemistry issues and problems playing to its potential now has answered the call in three hotly contested Tournament games against an undefeated team (Wichita State), its top rival (Louisville) and the Big Ten champions (Michigan).
All of that led to this:
The shadow of Kemba Walker continues to follow Shabazz Napier at Connecticut.
The Huskies senior guard has been primed to step into Walker’s shoes since his sophomore season, a year after Walker led UConn to the national title.
Like Walker, Napier is a guard who can carry the Huskies night in and night out. He can create his own shot to an acrobatic degree, at the end of the shot clock or at the buzzer. And Napier is indispensable when he’s not taking shots, leading his team in rebounds and assists.
With a 60-54 win over Michigan State to lead UConn to the Final Four, Napier will continue to be mentioned along with Walker, who led UConn to the 2011 national championship.
Walker, though, was willing to put Napier in a class on his own.
Best PG in the country. Shabazz Napier— Kemba walker (@KembaWalker) March 30, 2014
Napier’s run might need to finish with a national championship for it to stand side by side with Walker's in the hearts of UConn fans, but the younger guard may have had a tougher road to the Final Four.
True, Walker’s hot streak started in the Big East Tournament when the Huskies won five games in five days for the automatic bid. Napier’s team lost by 10 to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference final, but the 2014 Huskies had similar difficulties through the regular season.
UConn started AAC play with back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU on the road and lost all three meetings with Louisville. In other words, UConn didn’t look much like a team capable of a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Unless Napier started to look more like Walker.
UConn started in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed — the 2011 Huskies were a No. 3 — and defeated the Big East regular season champion (Villanova) and the Big 12 and Big Ten Tournament champions (Iowa State and Michigan State) on the way to the national semifinal.
Napier has been the focal point, averaging 23.3 points per game, but how does his run stack up with Walker game-by-game, here’s a look:
|Kemba Walker, 2011||Shabazz Napier, 2014|
|No. 14 Bucknell|
|First||No. 10 Saint Joseph’s|
|No. 6 Cincinnati|
|Second||No. 1 Villanova|
|No. 2 San Diego State|
|Sweet 16||No. 3 Iowa State|
|No. 5 Arizona|
|Elite Eight||No. 4 Michigan State|
|No. 4 Kentucky|
|Final Four||No. 1 Florida|
|No. 8 Butler|
Connecticut and Michigan State are proof that patience is a virtue.
The outlook for the Huskies and Spartans, who will meet in the East regional final, could have changed drastically if not key players learning how to recover from disappointments.
Two years ago, UConn was the defending national champion and starting No. 4 in the preseason. Shabazz Napier was expected to take over a team filled with talent — Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drumond and Alex Oriakhi — but that never materialized in a 20-14 season.
Napier could have transferred after that season, given that the coach who build the program, Jim Calhoun, retired. Napier decided to stay for his junior season, saying he owed it to the university.
“I didn't know how to be a leader out there at that point,” Napier said. “I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about. I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders in front of me my freshman year (Kemba Walker).”
Now a senior, Napier is the unquestioned focal point on a team a game away from the Final Four.
Michigan State’s adversity wasn’t quite as drawn out, but nearly as devastating. A series of injuries contributed to a 5-7 finish to the regular season. Not until the Big Ten Tournament did the veteran Spartans return to their early season potential.
At one point this season, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson came to blows over a forgotten practice before a game against Penn State.
“It is funny (they are playing well now) because I think at times they were more adversarial,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We had the big Penn State incident, which really wasn't nearly as big as it seemed, but that really started the turnaround. So it's kind of funny how they're having success together, when it all started out they both probably had one of their best games over a little scuffle.”
Time: 2:10 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Region: East (New York)
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan State 72-65
Braden Gall: Michigan State 82-69
Mitch Light: Michigan State 68-66
Nathan Rush: Michigan State 75-70
Adreian Payne was one of the stories of the round of 64 with 41 points against Delaware, but Branden Dawson has been the key in the last two games. Dawson missed nine games midseason after he suffered a broken hand punching a desk in frustration. He came back for 26 points and nine rebounds against Harvard and 25 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia.
How Connecticut got here:
The Huskies have played solid defense in the NCAA Tournament, forcing 16 turnovers against Villanova and rendering Iowa State’s stars DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim ineffective. While Shabazz Napier is perhaps the most indispensable players in the country, others have taken a bigger role in the Tournament. Napier still accounts for 27.5 percent of UConn’s scoring in the last three games, but Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels have been more involved.
Key for Michigan State to get to the Final Four: Slow down Shabazz Napier
Expect Michigan State to study Louisville’s games against UConn’s superstar guard. The Cardinals held Napier in check (3 of 17 from 3) in the Huskies’ last two losses of the season. Even if UConn has been more than the Shabazz Show in the NCAA Tournament, he’s the focal point of the offense. Limit him, and the Huskies are in a world of trouble.
Key for Connecticut to get to the Final Four: Own everything from the free throw line out
Despite the win over Iowa State, this is still a team that struggles to score around the basket. For the Huskies to beat Michigan State, UConn needs to continue to stay hot from the 3-point line (39.4 percent this season) and free throw line (76.9 percent). Both of these are the territory of Napier.
Player to watch: DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Perhaps the absence of Georges Niang for Iowa State played a major role in Daniels’ breakout in the Sweet 16, but he’ll be worth watching again. Daniels erupted for 27 points and nine rebounds against the Cyclones.
On Selection Sunday, so much of the chatter involves the matchups, seeding and statistical trends that will be key in advancing through the NCAA Tournament.
Those are all at play, but Sunday’s Midwest regional final is a test on the intangibles.
Kentucky has been through one of the most hotly contested games of the Tournament against Wichita State and then a foul-filled game against Louisville that wasn’t settled until the final minutes.
“Everybody says that game was the best game ever played and this game was also a classic,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We're so tired, we don't know. We have no idea if it was a good game, bad game. We just know we won. Let's get something to eat and go to bed.”
Michigan has had its own grind, albeit not over the course of two weeks like Kentucky. The Wolverines jumped to a substantial lead against Tennessee before four consecutive turnovers allowed the Volunteers to narrow the deficit to one point in the final 13 seconds.
On Sunday, all that resets to zero with a Final Four on the line.
Time: 4:55 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Region: Midwest (Indianapolis)
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan 78-71
Braden Gall: Michigan 78-72
Mitch Light: Michigan 83-80
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 80-78
A year ago, Mitch McGary’s size gave Michigan an element it had been lacking, enabling the Wolverines to reach the national title game. Michigan doesn’t have quite the impact presence of McGary in the frontcourt — though Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford have played well. Michigan, though, has been on fire from 3-point range shooting 49.2 percent (32 of 65) from beyond the arc in the Tournament.
How Kentucky got here:
Aaron Harrison has taken the next step in his game. Kentucky’s freshman guard is averaging 17.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, tops for the Wildcats. Aaron Harrison has been solid as well, averaging 13.7 points. The development of Kentucky’s backcourt has transformed the Wildcats from the team that played its way into a No. 8 seed into a title contender.
Key for Michigan to get to the Final Four: Overwhelm Kentucky on offense
John Beilein knows how to coach an offensive basketball game. His team neutralized Tennessee’s size advantage in the Sweet 16 by shooting 11 of 20 from 3-point range. Michigan also can get to the rim, but 3-point shooting is the Wolverines’ bread-and-butter. Kentucky ranks 52nd nationally (31.8 percent) in defending the 3-point line.
Key for Kentucky to get to the Final Four: Own the offensive glass
Kentucky is second in the nation in offensive rebound rate while Michigan ranks 259th. There’s an opportunity for the Wildcats to own the offensive glass on both ends. The only catch: Willie Cauley-Stein likely will not play. He is Kentucky’s best offensive rebounder after Julius Randle.
Player to watch: Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
One of the more anonymous members of Kentucky’s star-studded freshman class, Johnson will be in focus in the Elite Eight. With Cauley-Stein, Johnson’s workload likely will increase. He showed he’s capable of making the most of it with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting against Louisville.
When Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points in a November game against North Dakota, the outburst was something for the college basketball hardcores to ponder for a bit.
Kaminsky was a non-factor for the first two seasons of his career, so it certainly came as a surprise. But November games involving Big Sky Conference teams don’t necessarily capture the imagination.
That changed Saturday night.
Kaminsky is on another planet right now. pic.twitter.com/V37pjnMSkG— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) March 30, 2014
Kaminsky scored 28 points and 11 rebounds against one of the best defensive teams in the country to send Wisconsin to the Final Four and to become the latest star in college basketball.
The 7-foot junior who had only one other Big Ten scholarship offer out of high school (from Northwestern) was an all-conference performer, but never the star he was against Arizona.
Against an NBA lottery prospect (Aaron Gordon) and the Pac-12’s career leader in blocks (Kaleb Tarczewski), Kaminsky flourished in a 64-63 overtime win even if it didn’t start that way.
This is what TBS analyst Charles Barkley stressed as his points of emphasis for Wisconsin’s offense in the second half:
Charles Barkley obviously does not know how to spell Kaminsky because he spelled it three different ways pic.twitter.com/5rnhFCJjhM— Keaton Maisano (@002kfm) March 30, 2014
From there, Kaminsky all the tools that make him a matchup nightmare: He beat Tarczewski and Gordon with his moves around the basket, and he stepped out to make 3 of 5 3-pointers. He made 11 of 20 shots from the field while his team shot 31.7 percent. And he added seven offensive rebounds.
His 43-point performance early in the season may have been the most prolific, but Saturday night made sure he’d be a hero in Madison.