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There’s something for everyone in this Final Four

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With the exception of the teams who take part in the First Four, the path to the Final Four is a rather straightforward proposition: win four games. But to take that view is to oversimplify things, as different teams enjoy different paths to the sport’s biggest weekend. This year’s quartet, No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 7 UConn and No. 8 Kentucky, are all examples of this, with each team encountering different issues over the course of the season.

And with the exception of a team that likes to run up and down the court with reckless abandon, these four teams all possess distinct characteristics that have resulted in their reaching this point in the season.

Take Florida, for example. For all of the pre- and in-season hype for the nation’s top freshmen, it’s been a group of four seniors motivated by falling short in three prior trips to the Elite Eight leading the way for the Gators. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin has been one of the best players in the country this season, thanks in part to his understanding of what Billy Donovan’s team needs at any point in time.

And it can also be noted that both Wilbekin and forward Casey Prather are “poster children” for the benefits of developing throughout the course of one’s career. Wilbekin entered college a year early, and maybe that played a role in the maturity issues that led to two suspensions during his time in Gainesville. But he’s matured, developing into one of the best leaders in college basketball.

“It worked out great with Scottie,” Donovan said of his point guard earlier this week. “I think the story is well‑documented in terms of him electing to bypass his senior year of high school and give that up. I think he’s continued to grow and develop over his four years here. I’ve enjoyed being around him, coaching him.”

Prather’s development on the court has been an important factor for Florida as well, with the forward going from playing less than ten minutes per game in his first two seasons to averaging 13.8 points per game as a senior. Add in the interior tandem of Will Yeguete and Patric Young, both of whom have also made strides while in Gainesville, and Florida has the experience more than a few analysts have cited as being necessary for success in March.

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However there’s also something to be said for having talent, which the Gators certainly don’t lack. And for a team that lacks the “requisite” championship experience, that talent can close the gap provided the intangibles are there as well. It took Kentucky a while to figure that out, with guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison being prime examples of this. Skill-wise both, as have their fellow freshmen, have improved but the biggest strides have come in areas overlooked by most such as body language and the understanding of their roles.

PREVIEWS: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 UConn/ No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Kentucky

“One, the biggest thing we had to help them with was body language,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Monday. “As that changed, they became different players. “The second thing was, we had to define the roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year, by the end of the year. I can’t believe it. I was angry when I realized what I had done.”

After fighting through the struggle the Harrisons have both played better basketball in the postseason, and the same can be said of their classmates. Roles and expectations are better understood, and even seldom-used players Dominique Hawkins and Marcus Lee stepped forward in Kentucky’s regional final victory over Michigan. In this “microwave society” talks of going 40-0 preceded discussion of what it would actually take for Kentucky’s freshman to reach that point, and that worked against the Wildcats.

However once they figured things out, their talent eventually became noticeable in the form of an accomplishment few thought they were capable of achieving a month ago.

Fan of highly efficient offenses? Wisconsin certainly fits the mold, and that’s been the case for quite some time. In four of the last five seasons the Badgers have ranked in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency category, with last year’s team being the lone exception. Leading the way in the NCAA tournament is 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, a big man with the skill needed to score both inside and out, making him one of the toughest individual matchups in the country.

And the road to this point certainly wasn’t an easy one for Kaminsky, who played sparingly last season with the likes of Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans receiving most of the front court minutes.

” Just working hard. It’s something I’ve always done,” Kaminsky said after the Badgers beat No. 1 Arizona in the West regional final. “I knew that this year there would be an opportunity for me to go out there and play a lot of minutes, and I just wanted to do, like I said, anything I could to be a big factor on this team.”

Kaminsky also noted the help of his teammates in reaching this point, and clearly it takes more than one talented option for a team to be as efficient as the Badgers have been. They certainly hit a rough patch, losing five of six conference games between January 14 and February 1, but Wisconsin was able to get back on track and help head coach Bo Ryan make his first trip to the Division I Final Four.

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Then there’s the adage that guard play wins in March, and that’s been a critical factor for UConn. Shabazz Napier has been, arguably, the best point guard in the country this season as he leads the Huskies in points, assists and rebounds. Just as important for Napier have been the intangibles, as throughout his time in Storrs he’s developed into the on-court leader a program left in flux by a postseason ban, the retirement of Jim Calhoun and conference realignment so desperately needed. And Napier isn’t alone, as junior Ryan Boatright has also been a key figure for the Huskies on both ends of the floor.

“He’s growing, maturing.  He’s meant a lot to us,” Ollie said of Boatright earlier this week. “Not only in the games when you see it on CBS or on ESPN, TNT, but what he’s done in practice, being more vocal, being a leader. It’s really helping our team. It’s really getting Niels and DeAndre better shots.”

The play of UConn’s guards shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering their coach, Kevin Ollie, was a point guard who led UConn for four seasons and then against all odds enjoyed a lengthy NBA career. Lasan Kromah, the graduate transfer from George Washington, has added depth and freshman Terrence Samuel has even chipped in during this NCAA tournament run. Without a dominant presence in the paint the guards are of great importance to UConn, and with Napier and Boatright leading the way the Huskies have made their way to the Final Four.

But while each team may possess a particular characteristic or two that sets them apart from each other, the fact of the matter is that there are ties that bind. Kentucky may have the most “lottery” talent, but clearly the other three teams have skilled players as well. Florida’s experience? Both UConn and Wisconsin have savvy veterans as well. Wisconsin’s efficiency? Kentucky, for all of its midseason issues, is also ranked in the top ten in adjusted offensive efficiency and Florida is a top 20 team in that category. And the guard play that has led UConn this season? The other three teams certainly don’t lack for quality perimeter players.

The differences may have led to distinct experiences along the way to AT&T Stadium, but these four teams have things in common as well. And the combination will lead to a fun weekend in Arlington, Texas.

VIDEO: Fordham tops VCU at the horn in OT

In this Oct. 6, 2015, photo, VCU men's NCAA college basketball coach Will Wade talks to his team during practice at the Franklin Street Gym in Richmond Va. VCU surged at the end of last season, winning the Atlantic 10 tournament to earn its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. (Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (
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Down 12 at halftime, VCU needed a second-half comeback to force overtime at Fordham.

There was nothing VCU could do to counteract Fordham’s game-winner.

Antwoine Anderson’s jumper as time expired in overtime gave Fordham a 69-67 victory Wednesday night.

After winning eight-straight games, VCU has now dropped back-to-back games with a loss to Davidson coming last weekend. The loss will likely bring up the same questions that were there after a less-than-steallar non-conference showing for VCU, given Fordham had lost 10 of 12 coming into the night.

Allonzo Trier suspended after failing PED test

Arizona head coach Sean Miller talks with guard Allonzo Trier (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northwestern State in Tucson, Ariz., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP)  ALL LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; PAC-12 OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT; GREEN VALLEY NEWS OUT
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The suspension that Arizona guard Allonzo Trier is currently serving is due to positive test for performance-enhancing drugs during the preseason.

Trier, who has missed the first 18 games of the season, confirmed the news with a statement released late on Wednesday night that said he has “never knowingly taken a banned substance.”

According to a statement released by the university, Trier has been cleared by the NCAA after an appeal, but he cannot suit up for the Wildcats until the drug is completely out of his system.

“After finding out that I was given a banned substance by a well-intentioned, but misguided person not associated with the University after an injury, I presented this information to the NCAA,” Trier said in the statement. “The NCAA agreed that I had no knowledge of receiving the substance and my eligibility was restored. Although I can practice and travel with the team, I am not allowed to resume playing in games until the substance completely leaves my body even at a trace amount.”

There is no timetable for his return, but the door is open for a return.

As a freshman last season, Trier averaged 14.8 points and shot 36.4 percent from three. He was Arizona’s best isolation scorer and their leading returning scorer.

Without Trier, Arizona has looked like a Pac-12 title contender. They are 16-2 on the season and undefeated in league play heading into their games at the LA schools this weekend.

VIDEO: James Blackmon saves Indiana with buzzer-beating three

HONOLULU, HI - NOVEMBER 11: James Blackmon Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers calls out a play during the second half of the second game of the Armed Forces Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center on November 11, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Indiana won the game 103-99. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
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There is plenty of reason to criticize James Blackmon Jr., and I did plenty of it in this story I wrote about Indiana earlier this month.

It’s also pretty obvious that Blackmon has been Indiana’s best player this season, and he backed that up on Wednesday night. Blackmon kept Indiana from falling to 2-4 in the Big Ten by burying a three at the buzzer to beat Penn State in Happy Valley.

The bigger issue for Indiana fans is the status of O.G. Anunoby’s knee. Indiana’s star forward went down with a non-contact injury in the first half and did not return to the game in the second half. I’m not going to play armchair physician here, but this does not look good.

This shot from Blackmon may have saved the Hoosiers from embarrassment, but where there season goes from here is still a major question mark.

VIDEO: Woodard game-winner topples No. 7 West Virginia

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 02:  Jordan Woodard #10 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts in the second half against the Villanova Wildcats during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at NRG Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Welcome back, Jordan Woodard.

The Oklahoma senior, playing in his just third game back from injury, went coast-to-coast to hit a game-winning shot with under 3 seconds to play against West Virginia to give the Sooners an 89-87 victory in overtime.

The Sooners had just 12 turnovers against Press Virginia while shooting 49 percent from the field. Woodard had a chance to win the game in regulation for Oklahoma after he made a shot and was fouled, but the 86.7 percent free-throw shooter missed the shot from the charity stripe. He finished with 20 points.

West Virginia, which was ranked No. 1 by KenPom, shot 43.7 percent overall and 28 percent from 3-point range.

It may be just one loss, but it can only be considered a significant setback for the Mountaineers in their quest to finally be the team to end Kansas’ 12 year run at the top of the Big 12. Not only is losing a home game a blow, but losing one to a team the Jayhawks have already beaten in Allen Fieldhouse is a double-whammy.

West Virginia is now two games out of first place, and still has two games remaining against Kansas, which is either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it. The Mountaineers will have to sweep the Jayhawks, steal a different one they aren’t expected to on the road or hope Kansas falters like they really haven’t in over a decade.

Yeah, there’s a lot of season left, but you don’t want the math and probability to work against you like it does with a loss like this. That is unless Oklahoma isn’t the same team it’s been through the first third of the Big 12 season, which lessens the blow some. Let’s investigate that.

Oklahoma was largely able to win this game based on its ball security. The Sooners only coughed it up  on 14.6 percent of their possessions. West Virginia has been forcing turnovers at around a 25-percent clip in Big 12 play. Woodard presence made a huge difference there (even if he had five turnovers), and Oklahoma is now 2-1 with only a loss to Kansas since his return.

Are the Sooners still one of the Big 12’s weakest teams or does Woodard make them a serious contender amid the second tier of the league? If it’s the latter, a recalibration of expectations is probably in order for a conference already considered one of the most difficult give its 10-team, round-robin format.

No. 10 Florida State hands No. 15 Notre Dame first ACC loss

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) steals the ball from Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell (5) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
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Notre Dame shot over 70 percent on 21 3-point shot attempts, but it wasn’t enough as tenth-ranked Florida State became the first ACC team to defeat the Fighting Irish with a 83-80 win Wednesday night in Tallahassee.

Johnathan Isaac had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Seminoles, who moved into a tie for the ACC lead along with Notre Dame and North Carolina, which all sport 5-1 league records. The ‘Noles shot 50 percent from the floor and had 39 points off their bench.

The Fighting Irish made 15 of 21 3-point shots on the night, getting six from Matt Farrell and five apiece from VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia.

Florida State continues the ACC gauntlet with a home test against Louisville on Saturday while the Irish have Syracuse in South Bend on Saturday.

Here are three things to takeaway from this win for Leonard Hamilton’s club:

1. Jonathan Isaac, man: He was so good. He finished with 23 points, 10 boards and seven blocks, shooting just 7-for-9 from the floor, but it wasn’t just the plays that he made that were impressive. It was when they came. Isaac buried a pair of threes and sparked a late Florida State flurry that pushed the Seminoles out to a seven-point lead with two minutes left. He had a nasty block on a dunk attempt by V.J. Beachem, and then, after Florida State turned the ball over on their final possession, blocked two shots at the rim to help preserve the victory.

Isaac has had some issues with intensity and aggressiveness this season, and there are questions about whether or not he has the killer instinct to be a star at the next level. Tonight’s performance should quiet some of those doubters, at least for the time being.

2. This was the first time that Notre Dame looked overmatched by size and athleticism: Florida State is big, they’re athletic and they’re versatile. Notre Dame isn’t, and it showed tonight, particularly in the first half. Matt Farrell had five of his six turnovers in the first 20 minutes. As a team, the Irish finished with 18 turnovers, and just seemed to be out sync offensively for much of the game. That’s what Florida State wants to do defensively. That is their game-plan, and it worked quite well on Wednesday.

And yet, Notre Dame was still able to hang around in this one thanks to their ridiculous three-point shooting. They were 15-for-21 from beyond the arc, the 19th team to make 15 threes and shoot better than 70 percent from three since 2010 and the only one of those 19 to lose. There are a couple ways to look at that:

  1. Notre Dame’s fluky shooting kept them from getting exposed against a team that could take advantage of Notre Dame’s weaknesses..
  2. That Florida State was still able to win, and force turnovers on 23.7 percent of the possessions against the nation’s seventh-best team at protecting the ball, says more about the Seminoles than anything else.
  3. These are two excellent basketball teams that traded haymakers for 40 minutes.

No. 3 sounds about right to me.

3. Both of these teams will be in the ACC title race for the long haul: What more do either of them have to prove? Florida State has now beaten Duke and Notre Dame in their last two home games, which sandwiched an impressive performance in a loss at North Carolina. And the Irish? Their three losses this season came against Villanova, Purdue and Florida State by a combined 16 points, none of them coming at home.