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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.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Villanova reigns supreme

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats drives to the basket against Chris Clover #15 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the second half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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1. Villanova (8-0, Last Week: 1): We had Villanova No. 1 last week, they’re still undefeated and they’re now beating Big 5 foes by 30 points while Josh Hart is posting triple-doubles. Plus, they have that really nice win at Purdue in their back pocket.

2. UCLA (8-0, 11): You knew the Bruins were going to take a jump in the rankings after winning at Kentucky.

3. Kansas (7-1, 3): They’re still my pick to win the national title, but what have they done this season to deserve being ranked above UCLA or Villanova? Beat a depleted Duke team? Frankly, there’s an argument to be made that Baylor could be ranked over them as the best Big 12 team.

4. Duke (8-1, 4): Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden are back. Harry Giles III is not, and Grayson Allen missed the last game. Will we see them on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic?

5. Kentucky (7-1, 2): They drop after losing to UCLA at home, but let’s be honest, how much are they going to drop when they lost to the team currently ranked No. 2?

6. North Carolina (8-1, 5): The Tar Heels did not have their best night in a loss at Indiana, but there are going to be a lot of teams that don’t have their best night in that gym.

7. Gonzaga (8-0, 6): Another week, another two wins for Gonzaga. They landed a win over a depleted Arizona team over the weekend.

8. Baylor (8-0, 8): The Bears picked up another huge win over Xavier this week, winning by 15 points at home, but they remain at 8th in our rankings thanks to UCLA jumping up nine spots.

9. Creighton (8-0, 9): The Bluejays keep piling up the wins as Marcus Foster keeps piling up the points. The top of the Big East race is going to be a lot of fun this season.

10. Indiana (7-1, 12): Indiana has the two best wins in the country right now, but they also have that pesky loss to Fort Wayne. Inconsistency is going to be a killer for this team.

11. Wisconsin (7-2, 16)
12. Louisville (7-1, 13)
13. Xavier (7-1, 7)
14. Saint Mary’s (5-0, 15)
15. West Virginia (6-1, NR)
16. Purdue (6-2, 14)
17. South Carolina (8-0, 18)
18. Virginia (7-1, 10)
19. Cincinnati (7-1, 21)
20. Butler (8-0, 24)
21. USC (8-0, NR)
22. Florida (7-1, NR)
23. Syracuse (5-2, 19)
24. Notre Dame (8-0, NR)
25. Iowa State (6-2, 22)

DROPPED OUT: No. 17 Rhode Island, No. 20 Maryland, No. 23 Michigan, No. 25 Arizona
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 15 West Virginia, No. 21 USC, No. 22 Florida, No. 24 Notre Dame

Williams helps No. 3 North Carolina beats Radford 95-50

LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 21: Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels pushed the ball up court during the second half of the Maui Invitational NCAA college basketball game against the Chaminade Silverswords at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Kenny Williams III finally had the shooting flurry that third-ranked North Carolina has been waiting to see.

The sophomore had 14 of his career-high 19 points in the opening five minutes, helping the Tar Heels build a huge early lead and beat Radford 95-50 on Sunday.

Williams made his first five shots, including all four 3-point tries, during that opening flurry. Quite a change for a player who was buried on the bench for a veteran team last year, making just 1 of 13 3-pointers and seeing his confidence suffer as a result.

“I’ve been waiting a year-and-a-half for a game like that,” Williams said. “I don’t want to say I knew it was coming, but with the confidence I have right now, I kind of expected it.”

While Williams’ play stood out, the Tar Heels (8-1) got a scare when they lost point guard Joel Berry II to a sprained left ankle early in the second half. The junior, averaging 16 points, came up hobbled as he drove into the paint and fell to the floor. He got up and walked slowly to the locker room for evaluation with 17:36 left, but didn’t return to the UNC bench with the Tar Heels up big.

Coach Roy Williams said Berry would have X-rays to confirm the sprain diagnosis and he was hopeful that Berry would be able to practice before Wednesday’s game against Davidson.

“We’ll have to wait and see what they say (Monday),” Williams said, “but I’m encouraged about it right now.”

The Tar Heels (8-1) were coming off a loss at No. 13 Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They had no trouble in this one, running out to an 18-4 lead behind Kenny Williams’ opening burst and shooting 57 percent in the first half to build a 51-27 lead by the break.

Justin Cousin scored 14 points to lead the Highlanders (3-5), who shot 31 percent.

“Tough team, man,” Radford coach Mike Jones said. “They’re so big and physical. We played some good defense inside and they made the shot over us and that’s going to happen.”

BIG PICTURE

Radford: The Highlanders, picked sixth in the Big South Conference, had no way to slow the Tar Heels’ early tear. And that led to a fourth loss by double-digit margins, three coming by at least 21 points. Still, Radford isn’t likely to run up against a team such as UNC in the Big South, either.

UNC: The big shooting performance from Williams and Berry’s injury stood out here, with the Tar Heels potentially bolstering their perimeter scoring punch while seeing their floor leader go down to an injury.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Tar Heels will slide a bit in the AP Top 25 when the new poll comes out Monday, though losing on the road to a team ranked No. 13 nationally likely won’t cause a big drop.

POINT GUARDS

If Berry sits out, senior Nate Britt – who has played both guard positions in his career – would appear to be the next man up at the point. Freshman Seventh Woods also will figure into the mix; he had nine points in 22 minutes – both season highs – while getting plenty of work after Berry’s exit.

WILLIAMS’ SHOT

Williams, a 6-foot-4 wing from Midlothian, Virginia, made 5 of 6 3-pointers with a good-looking and confident stroke. Four of those came in the opening minutes, the last one a wide-open look from the left wing that brought Smith Center fans to a roar.

Williams said he worked in the offseason to minimize how much his guide hand pushes on the ball to affect his release.

“He’s put in a lot of time,” Roy Williams said. “I said even last year when he wasn’t putting the ball in the basket that he was going to be a good defensive player and I’m not sure he’s not our best perimeter defender right now.”

UP NEXT

Radford: The Highlanders host Elon on Saturday.

UNC: The Tar Heels play at home against Davidson on Wednesday night.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell suspended

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell has been suspended indefinitely due to a violation of athletic department policy, the school announced on Sunday.

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 boards and 4.1 assists for the Gamecocks, who are undefeated and sitting at No. 20 nationally. Thornwell is the reigning SEC Player of the Week.

South Carolina plays FIU in Columbia at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Melo Trimble’s heroics get him a shout-out from Wale in a song

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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For the fourth time in the first three weeks of the college basketball season, Melo Trimble won a game for Maryland.

His two free throws in the final ten seconds gave the Terps a come-from-behind, 71-70 win over Oklahoma State in College Park, and the win not only was the sixth time this season that the Terps have won a game decided by six points or less, it improved Trimble’s record in those games to 26-5.

26-5!

That’s an insane statistic, one that should allow Maryland fans to truly appreciate just how valuable their junior point guard is.

At least one Maryland fan does. Rapper Wale, who hails from Maryland, just outside DC, made sure to name-drop his favorite Terp in a verse in a song he released on Saturday night:

And you better believe that Trimble is aware of it:

"My therapist terrible , I'm uh Terp Melo Trimbling" @wale

A photo posted by Melo Trimble (@olem__) on

Rick Pitino on Grand Canyon: ‘The toughest crowd I’ve ever faced’

Rick Pitino
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Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after his No. 14 Cardinals struggled to put away a tough Grand Canyon team on the road had some kind – and hyperbolic – words to say about the atmosphere.

“This, in college basketball in my 40 plus year, was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” he said.

Umm, but Rick, you’ve coached in the Big East and the ACC! This was tougher than any of those crowds?

“Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that crowd tonight,” he said.

Well, now.

That seems like a bit much, but to be fair, the atmosphere there was, shall we say, lit: