And then there were four.
The Big Dance is almost over. There have been overtime classics, high scoring shootouts, defensive grinds, disappointing no-shows (Creighton, we’re still waiting for an explanation for that performance against Baylor…), a couple of Cinderella runs (DAYTON, WOO!), and some fabulous Charles Barkley moments. Now we’ve arrived at the best part.
With 64 teams out, only a few elite, talented, and chemistry-rich squads remain. Here’s a brief look at the four teams that will be taking the court in Arlington next Saturday.
South Region Winner: Florida
After a rocky first round win over a pesky Albany team, the top-seeded Gators have smoothed things out, notching wins over Pittsburgh, UCLA, and Dayton. Coach Billy Donovan’s team almost looks like it is on cruise control. And the bruising Gators are almost impossible to score on (even high scoring UCLA only managed 68 points against them) thanks to smothering, high-intensity defense. Donovan’s club also boasts an impressive stable of scorers headlined by gifted senior Scottie Wilbekin. They don’t have any one superstar, but the dudes from Gainesville have four double digit scorers and play smart, high-efficiency offense. The Gators are 36-2 and 38-2 doesn’t look too far away. Billy Donovan might just be closing in on his third national title.
West Region Winner: Wisconsin
Bo Ryan is a really good basketball coach. But he had never made a Final Four at the D1 level. Until this year, that is. The super-disciplined Badgers out-battled Arizona in the Elite Eight to get to this point and are led by senior guard Ben Brust (a ridiculously gifted shooter) and junior forward Frank Kaminsky, an almost unstoppable seven foot force who scores on the inside and from deep. The Badgers also happen to be one of only two teams to possess a win over Florida this year.
East Region Winner: UConn
The other team that beat Florida in the regular season was…UConn. The Huskies are chemistry personified, er, um basketball-ified. Kevin Ollie’s team plays beautifully together, led by a dynamic duo of dynamite guards: do-it-all leader Shabazz Napier and the defensively gifted Ryan Boatright. UConn might not be huge, but the Huskies turn opponents over, don’t waste possessions, and battle down low. In the Elite Eight they took down a popular title pick–Michigan State–at Madison Square Garden in a game that felt like a vintage Big East battle (even if neither team plays in the Big East). The Huskies made 21 of 22 free throws in a 60-54 victory. UConn almost got kicked in the first round (against St. Joe’s) but prevailed in OT and then took down Villanova and Iowa State before their battle with Sparty. They’re
roaring barking into the final weekend and the Kevin Ollie hire (Ollie is in his second year in Storrs) is looking damn good.
Midwest Region Winner: Kentucky
On March 8th, Florida destroyed Kentucky, shredding the Wildcats’ defense en route to a 84-65. It was Kentucky’s third loss in four games, and John Calipari’s team, rich in Diaper Dandies but low on experience, looked dead going into the conference tournament. Now, they’re back from the grave. The physically gifted team from Lexington rediscovered a defensive identity, nearly exacting revenge on Florida in a highly competitive SEC Championship, and has really gotten hot in the Tourney. They were tested by a disciplined K-State team in the first round, but won a low scoring game by a final of 56-49. Their second round battle with top seeded Wichita State was much more of a shootout, but the Wildcats again came through, putting an end to Shockers’ perfect season. Then the surging Wildcats faced Louisville, a trendy title pick that one noteworthy idiot picked to win it all. The ‘Cats got down early, but relentlessly attacked Slick Rick’s Cards down low to get back into the game. Kentucky eventually won the game, in part thanks to 22 made free throws. Kentucky’s Elite Eight battle with Michigan was a heart-stopping classic, won on a last second Aaron Harrison three. These Wildcats have been winning with their athleticism and defense, and while they’re not super-skilled, their athleticism is off the charts.