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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.

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Indiana, California pick up important home wins

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Indiana 85, No. 4 Iowa 78

There’s now a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, as the Hoosiers outlasted the Hawkeyes in Bloomington. Yogi Ferrell led five Indiana players in double figures with 14 points, and Tom Crean’s team won this one in large part due to their rebounding (19 offensive rebounds) and accuracy from the foul line. Indiana made 18 of its 21 attempts from the charity stripe, with Iowa going a pedestrian 13-for-23. Jarrod Uthoff scored 24 points and Mike Gesell 17, but those missed opportunities from the foul line proved costly for Fran McCaffery’s team.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

California 83, No. 11 Oregon 63: Jabari Bird scored 24 points to lead the way offensively as Cal moved to 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. Oregon simply did not have any answers for the Golden Bears, who shot nearly 56 percent from the field and racked up 27 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint. As a result the top seven teams in the Pac-12 are separated by a total of two games. So how does Cal go about ensuring that they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday? By doing something that’s proven to be far easier said than done for them this season.

Temple 63, UConn 58: With six minutes remaining UConn held a 12-point lead and appeared poised to pick up a win in Philadelphia. Things didn’t play out that way however, as Temple closed the game on a 21-4 run to pick up a much-needed win for their NCAA tournament hopes and move to 9-3 in the American. Quenton DeCosey scored 23 points and Daniel Dingle 15 for the Owls, who are now 6-0 on the season against the other top teams in the American (UConn, Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa).

Syracuse 85, Florida State 72: The Orange opened the second half on a 13-1 run, grabbing control of a key game between teams looking to add quality wins to their NCAA tournament résumés. Michael Gbinije scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Malachi Richardson added 17, six board, five assists and three steals for the Orange. Devon Bookert led four Seminoles in double figures with 15 points, but FSU shot just 8-for-26 from three against the Syracuse zone.

STARRED

Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: Gustys racked up 25 points and 15 rebounds in Hofstra’s 86-80 win at William & Mary.

Matt Harris, UMass-Lowell: Harris scored 33 points, shooting 10-for-15 from the field, in the RiverHawks’ 108-95 overtime win at Maine.

Jabari Bird, California: Bird scored 24 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, in the Golden Bears’ blowout win over No. 11 Oregon.

Nick Emery, BYU: Emery scored 37 points in the Cougars’ 114-89 win at San Francisco, shooting 10-for-12 from three.

STRUGGLED

Chattanooga: The Mocs committed 26 turnovers in their 67-61 loss at Western Carolina.

James McGee, Southern Utah: McGee shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring six points in the Thunderbirds’ 86-53 loss at Montana.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UMass knocked off VCU 69-63 in Amherst, dropping the Rams a game behind Dayton in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  • Matt Tiby accounted for 24 points and 11 rebounds and Jordan Johnson added 14 points and ten assists as Milwaukee won 93-85 at Oakland.
  • James Madison picked up an important 56-52 win at Charleston, but leading scorer Ron Curry left the game with a knee injury. His status moving forward will be of great importance to the Dukes.
  • Jacksonville fell short in its quest to grab sole possession of first in the A-Sun, as they lost 93-92 at Lipscomb.
  • High Point won at Coastal Carolina, beating the Chanticleers 68-67. Adam Weary led a balanced offensive effort for the Panthers with 13 points.
  • Stony Brook extended its win streak to 17 straight games with a 75-52 win at UMBC. Jameel Warney finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds.
  • Western Carolina handed Chattanooga its second loss in SoCon play, beating the Mocs 67-61. Torrior Brummitt finished with 16 points and ten rebounds for the Catamounts.
  • Charlotte scored 66 second half points in a 102-73 win over Rice. Mark Price’s 49ers shot especially well from three, connecting on 17 of their 29 attempts.
  • There’a a two-way tie atop the Northeast Conference, as both Saint Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson picked up wins Thursday night. Wagner, which entered the night tied for first, lost at LIU Brooklyn 82-69.
  • UAB won for the 18th time in their last 19 games but they had to work hard for it, beating Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime. Chris Cokley accounted for 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for the Blazers.
  • Montana State shot an incredible 25-for-43 from beyond the arc in a 101-58 win over Northern Arizona.
  • Montana (10-2) and Weber State (9-2) remain atop the Big Sky standings, as both picked up comfortable home wins Thursday night. While the Grizzlies blew out Southern Utah 86-53, Weber State beat Sacramento State 63-50.
  • Oregon State picked up a 62-50 win at Stanford, a good result for a team in need of more wins as they look to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Also winning in the Pac-12 was Colorado, which avoided a bad loss by beating Washington State 88-81 in double overtime.
  • Gonzaga grabbed sole possession of first in the WCC with a 92-66 win at Portland. They had some help from Pepperdine, which went up to the Bay Area and beat Saint Mary’s 69-63 in Moraga.