UConn beat Florida because they played Florida’s game, only better

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The story all tournament long — all season long, really — was that the UConn Huskies were only going to go as far as Shabazz Napier was going to carry them. He was the reincarnation of Kemba Walker, a veteran, all-american point guard that took complete control of a supposedly overmatched UConn team, strapping them to his back and carrying them from an unremarkable regular season on a magical run to the Final Four.

That narrative played out to perfection for the first two weeks of the tournament. Napier was the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 boards and 4.5 assists. The only reason he wasn’t named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in the first two weekends was that it is an award that doesn’t exist.

Entering Saturday night’s bout with the Florida Gators, every single pundit told you that the only way the Huskies would be able to handle the behemoth that the Gators had become would be for Napier to go crazy. That didn’t happen. Shabazz didn’t score his first point for more than 15 minutes and finished with “just” 12 points, six assists and four steals.

And it didn’t matter.

UConn won 63-53.

“We had no chance, right?” UConn assistant Karl Hobbs told the media gathered outside the UConn locker as the Huskies left the floor and took their first steps towards playing for the program’s fourth national title. It wasn’t just Hobbs that felt that way, either. Walking through the UConn locker room, it was obvious that was something that had been made very clear to the players. The only people that thought UConn had a shot had an 860 area code.

“We like that everybody’s not believing in us and picking us to lose,” Ryan Boatright told NBCSports.com. “We were supposed to lose every game in the postseason. They had us losing every single one. We take that to heart and use it as fuel to our fire. Every time we step out on the court, it’s us against the world.”

It was Boatright that ended up being the difference maker in this game. DeAndre Daniels was the star, posting a 20-point and 10-rebound performance that may end up sending him off to the NBA Draft, but Boatright finished with 13 points, six boards and three assists, hitting a number of key buckets early in the second half and, more importantly, playing the kind of stellar on-ball defense that he did against Michigan State. “At my size, I can’t afford to lack on defense,” he said, and it certainly wasn’t lacking on Saturday.

Scottie Wilbekin is Florida’s best player. He was on a number of all-american teams and was named the SEC’s Player of the Year, which is a really long-winded way of saying the dude can ball. Against UConn, he had four points on 2-for-9 shooting with three turnovers and just a single assists. Kasey Hill, Florida’s other point guard, finished with four points and four turnovers on 2-for-6 shooting. Michael Frazier, Florida’s sharp-shooter, got just three looks at a three and made one of them.

Napier played a role in that, as did guys like Terrance Samuel and Lasan Kromah, but it was Boatright that did the heavy lifting.

“It all starts with Boatright,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said in regards to UConn’s defense. “He does a great job pressuring the ball.”

The irony is that UConn essentially beat Florida at their own game.

The Gators climbed their way to the No. 1 overall seed by playing smothering defense, particularly on the perimeter, and relying on a balanced, but limited at times, offensive attack spurred on by Wilbekin’s ability to make a play at the end of a clock.

UConn won this game because they were able to do just that, only more effectively.

After a slow start that saw UConn dig themselves a 16-4 hole more than 11 minutes into the game, the Huskies went on a 27-6 run because they were able to do three things: Napier and Boatright were able to turn the corner on ball-screen actions and get into the lane, UConn stopped turning the ball over and the Huskies were able to keep Florida off of the offensive glass. They took away opportunities for easy points in transition and on second chances, forcing the Gators to try and break down what has turned into a hellacious half court defensive team.

“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright [and] Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult.”

“The biggest difference in UConn’s team, in my opinion, from seeing them in December and then watching them on tape is they have turned into a great defensive team.”

“Any time we can stop transition and make them play against our five we like our chances,” Boatright said.

At the other end of the floor, the Gators were able to limit Napier by switching on ball-screens and double-teaming him when the had the ball. Florida was daring the rest of UConn’s team to beat them, and they did.

The reward is a chance to play for a national title.

“We’re a complete team,” Boatright said as matter-of-factly as a player that just won a game in the Final Four can possibly speak. “It’s not a one player team, it takes an entire team to be in the national championship game. When Shabazz ain’t having the game that he’s normally having, people gotta step up.”

“People did.”

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.