After weeks of March Madness, the new month has given way to an unlikely Final Four.
The National Semifinalists in the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament all took interesting, if not unique, paths to the Big Dance’s final destination in Big D. With fan favorites like Michigan State, Duke, Wichita State and Arizona exiting earlier than expected, these four teams managed to be the last ones standing. Perhaps, in the case of Florida, we saw it coming – after all, they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. However, in the cases of the other three participants – Kentucky, Connecticut and Wisconsin – it was probably easy for the majority of college basketball fans to write them off.
So how did they do it? Let’s find out:
South Region Champions: (1) Florida Gators
In a season full of freshman phenoms and incredible winning streaks, the Florida Gators managed to fly not only under the radar, but – dare I say – completely off the radar at times.
And this was a Top 5 team in February.
The fact remained – this wasn’t a team that boasted marquee names, or a dominating presence in the national landscape. Sure, the Gators have managed to play their way into the Elite 8 in each of the past three seasons, only to lose at the doorstep of the Final Four – the only team to do so since 1951. But as names like Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart took hold of college basketball’s national consciousness, there were the Gators – going 6-2 to start the season after a December 2 loss to UConn in Storrs, Connecticut.
Then, they just kept winning.
While Wichita State grabbed national headlines, en route to an undefeated regular season, there was Florida – proceeding to run the gauntlet of the SEC without a single blemish to their name. They would not be denied, as they fought their way back into the national spotlight, with an overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a combination of heartbreak-ridden experience, a tenacious defensive team, and a battle-hardened toughness that this senior-laden Florida squad used to will themselves to the Final Four. After all, this same squad of seniors – G Scottie Wilbekin, F Will Yeguete, F Casey Prather and C Patric Young – had to go through three straight years of regional championship losses to Butler (2011), Louisville (2012) and Michigan (2013) to get to this point. They knew what they were up against entering this year’s tournament, and they didn’t squander a single opportunity, winning handily in each of their previous four tournament games to get to this point. From Wilbiken’s clutch shooting (averaging just under 17 points per game) to Young’s inside presence, the Gators work together without the presence of a bona fide star to win. And keep winning.
It is also a testament to head coach Billy Donovan – a budding college basketball legend achieving his feats at what many still consider a “football” school. Other than Joakim Noah, Donovan has managed to achieve unparalleled program success without big name talent on his rosters. This year was no exception – he has managed to lead his class of upperclassmen to the precipice of a national championship while no one prospect is expected to make any noise in the NBA draft as presently configured.
It’s only fitting that a team like this – experienced, tough, and team-oriented – would get to the Final Four.
West Region Champions: (2) Wisconsin Badgers
It’s certainly been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for Badgers fans during the 2013-2014 season.
After starting the campaign at 16-0, featuring wins against the Florida Gators (at the time, ranked 11th overall), Virginia, Saint Louis and Marquette, the Badgers ran into a wall , losing five out of six games in the process. That may have been the number one reason this team, led by Junior F Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky, didn’t give them much of a chance as they entered the tournament. The fact was, this was a team, with head coach Bo Ryan, who hadn’t reached a Final Four since 2000, under former coach Dick Bennett.
However, that still didn’t change the fact that this team was good enough to beat two 1-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament (Florida, Virginia) before the first week of December.
The best way to summarize Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four would be balance – while they didn’t necessarily have a world-ending offensive attack during the regular season (73.5 points per game, ranked 93rd in the country), they won with a defensive philosophy that Coach Ryan had instilled in his teams for years. This year’s incarnation ranked 37th in the country in points per game allowed (63.7 ppg).
It doesn’t hurt to have the seven-foot Kaminsky, either – who has been the Badgers’ leading scorer (13.6 ppg) and rebounder (6.4 rpg) this season.
Heading into the tournament, the Badgers were venerably overlooked as a tournament team in the competitive Big Ten – it didn’t help that they lost an MSU squad picking up steam in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Meanwhile, as Michigan State was getting national attention as the pre-tournament team to beat, and with Michigan popping up in the national radar, Wisconsin was a de facto underdog in a West region that featured 3-seeded Creighton with AP All-American Doug McDermott, and top-seeded Arizona.
That’s when Kaminsky and the Badgers went to work.
After a demolishing of 15-seeded American, Wisconsin was in a brawl with 7-seeded Oregon, trailing by 12 after the first half. But, like the Badgers’ woes midseason, that didn’t get the team down, as they rallied in the second half, led by Kaminsky, Junior G Traevon Jackson and Senior G Ben Brust. After a relatively easy win against overmatched Baylor, they needed every one of Kaminksy’s 28 points and 11 rebounds in what would amount to his signature game, in an unexpected overtime victory over Arizona. While it was a testament to Kaminsky’s mettle as a player on the rise – effectively putting the team on his “tank-like” back – it was an all-world performance that brought the Badgers to North Texas.
With Kentucky coming up in the Final Four, this roller coaster isn’t over quite yet.
East Region Champions: (7) Connecticut Huskies
It was only three years ago when an unheralded star player helped the Jim Calhoun-led UConn Huskies to the doorstep of the NCAA Championship.
But this was a different time. This was a different player.
And, for the first time in almost three decades, this was a different coach.
And, yet, with second-year head coach Kevin Ollie, and Senior G Shabazz Napier, here they are.
It wasn’t an easy road for the Huskies only one season after the retirement of legendary head coach Jim Calhoun, amid a recruiting scandal stemming from events in 2009. They were hit with a one-year postseason ban, and Ollie, a former assistant coach under Calhoun prior to his retirement, was left to pick up the pieces.
But the player and the coach were up to the task.
They may have sputtered at times – badly, it seems – during the regular season. Then again, getting swept by AAC foe Louisville in three games this season is nothing to be ashamed of. Though, to lose by 33 in their final regular season matchup certainly can be considered as much. Losing back-to-back games against Houston and SMU certainly didn’t help matters for the budding Huskies.
But this was a team that Napier essentially put on his own back – much like Kaminsky and Wisconsin. Even with major contributions from F DeAndre Daniels, it was Napier who led the team in points, rebounds and assists per game during the regular season.
Then, came a tournament run that basically came out of nowhere.
In a region that was all but conceded for the heavily-favored Michigan State Spartans, it was the Huskies’ combination of Napier and Daniels that dispatched of 2-seeded Villanova and 3-seeded Iowa State. All told, thus far in the tournament, Napier and Daniels have combined for 40.3 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, including a combined 37 points and 14 rebounds in their improbable win over the Spartans.
Forget the fact that this Huskies team is the first 7-seed to reach the Final Four – this is more of a testament to the perseverance of UConn’s upperclassmen, and of Coach Ollie, who have improbably led this team to the precipice of the National Championship.
It’s not unlike the Huskies’ run to the title in 2011, with Napier playing the role of star G Kemba Walker. But I hear he gets that a lot.
Midwest Region Champions: (8) Kentucky Wildcats
This was the team, many believe, people were expecting at the start of the 2013-2014 season.
As the preseason top-ranked team in the nation, John Calipari’s new crop of freshman recruits – including former McDonald’s All-Americans Julius Randle, twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and Marcus Lee – had lofty expectations out of the gate. However, despite starting the season 12-3, all three of their losses came against ranked opponents (vs. #2 Michigan State; vs. #20 Baylor; at #20 UNC).
It seemed as if this class of underclassmen couldn’t put it all together for stretches of the 2013-2014 regular season. While they pulled out impressive victories against teams like Louisville, they fell to teams they were expected to lose to (swept by Florida in three meetings), and teams, not so much (swept by Arkansas in two meetings; LSU; South Carolina).
Despite their seemingly natural physical gifts, the Wildcats finished the regular season with a blowout loss to Florida, and a 22-9 overall record.
You could say that things turned a corner in the SEC Tournament.
The Wildcats, led by Randle, Freshman G James Young and Sophomore F Willie Cauley-Stein, romped through LSU and Georgia before being barely eked out by top-ranked Florida in the SEC Championship game. In their subsequent seeding in the Midwest, many found it unfair that unbeaten Wichita State got a tough draw, with potential meetings against this suddenly-hot Kentucky team, Louisville and Michigan on the horizon.
Unfortunately for the Shockers, they wouldn’t get past their first potential meeting, in the third round against Kentucky.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, it would spark a run that would define their up-and-down season.
It was a series of close wins for Kentucky that led them to the doorstep of AT&T Stadium – none of their four victories were by more than seven points – but it spoke to the mettle of this young team that seemingly grew up before the nation’s eyes. It was a combination of previously-unseen poise under pressure, meticulous game-planning from Coach Calipari, and an assembly of pure talent coming together at the right time, that gave Kentucky what they needed to survive and advance.
With veteran teams like Florida and Wisconsin setting the tone for experience winning out over youth, it’s the Wildcats that are bucking the trend all the way to the Final Four.
Now, after a season of ups and downs, let’s see what these young Cats are really made of.