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.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.