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HOOPS EVERY DAY
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April 1, 2014
By Anthony J. Fredella
ARLINGTON, Texas - After an amazing weekend of college basketball, the 2014 Final Four field has been set, and what an interesting mix of teams it is. Of no surprise to anyone is the fact that the #1 overall seed, the Florida Gators, are making the trip to North Texas, and bringing with them their 30-game wining streak. 30 straight games – wow. But let me ask you this, who was the last team to beat the Gators? Yup, it was Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies on December 2nd in Connecticut. Remember? Napier knocked down that 16-footer at the buzzer to win it, and then sprinted off the court – only to be mauled by his teammates in the corridor. You think Florida may be looking for a little revenge?
AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR
And what about the Wisconsin Badgers? Coach Bo Ryan’s group is about as fun to watch on offense as any team I’ve seen in the last 20 years. They move the ball around like the Celtics of the 80’s, they can all – all – shoot the long ball, and they crash the glass. Their matchup against the rollercoaster ride that is the Kentucky Wildcats is going to be fascinating. So, the stage is set, the games are scheduled and the trips are book. It’s just time now to dissect the matchups, analyze the games and stats, and let the arguments begin.
First up next Saturday night is UConn (30-8) vs. Florida (36-2), tipping off at 6:09 p.m. The 2011 National Champion Huskies return to the big stage, and once again they have a star guard leading the way. Shabazz Napier is doing his best “Kemba Walker” impression in carrying UConn to four straight wins and an birth in the Final Four. During that span, the lead guard is averaging 23.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.5 apg and 2.0 spg. He’s also shooting an impressive 45% from the field, including a staggering 45% from behind the arc. For Coach Billy Donovan and Florida next weekend, beating UConn begins and ends with stopping Shabazz Napier. The Gators must contain Napier and force other Huskies to beat them. Bottling up Napier, however, does not necessarily mean an automatic victory for Florida, however. That’s because the Huskies, while led by their top player, are by no means a one-man-show. Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels have been impressive in their own rights throughout the NCAA’s. Boatright, Napier’s backcourt mate, is chipping in with 13.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.5 apg and 1.8 spg. And, like Napier, he’s also knocking down over 40% of his three’s at 41.2%. Up front for the Huskies has been Daniels, who has been tremendous in the first four tourney games, going for 17.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 1.7 blkpg. Better than that has been his 50.0% fg pct, which includes his 42.1% from three. Between Napier, Boatright and Daniels, UConn is 29-67 from three (43.3%) in the tournament. Yeah, wow.
Next up for the mighty Huskies, though, is the best team in the nation, a team that has won 30 straight games and has been playing on another level since Napier clipped them back in the beginning of December. Florida founds its way to North Texas after receiving the #1 overall seed from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and after defeating Albany, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Dayton. And while that is not exactly a Murderer’s Row of college hoops powerhouses this season, Florida has had an impressive resume of wins thus far, including defeating Kentucky 3 times, Tennessee 3 times, Kansas, Memphis, Missouri twice, LSU and Arkansas. In fact, Florida is in the unique position of having already played the other three Final Four participants – beating UK each time, but losing to UConn and Wisconsin. Going into Saturday night’s game, however, it’ll be over four months since the Gators last smelled defeat, and by the looks of them, they may not smell it again.
Florida has exhibited the essence of team basketball this post-season. Coach Billy Donovan has basically a 7-man rotation, with only PG Scottie Wilbekin averaging better than 15.0 ppg. In fact, in three of the four tourney games so far, the Gators have had a different leading scorer in three of them. But that has been the story all season long in Gainesville, hasn’t it? I mean, that’s why the Gators are here to begin with, right? Because they play team basketball and it’s all about the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back. Most NBA Draft Experts (whatever that term means) have said that the Gators do not even have a 1st round draft pick on their roster, and those guys may be right. But the best thing about the NCAA Tournament is that it doesn’t matter how many draft picks, or future NBA all-stars you have on your roster. It’s about cohesiveness, desire, effort and team. And that’s exactly what the Gators are all about.
Coach Donovan is one of the best in the business and UConn’s coach Kevin Ollie is definitely an up-and-coming star on the rise in college hoops. That is going to make for an outstanding basketball game as each squad is going to be as prepared as can be expected in such an intense and dramatic atmosphere. The obvious key matchup is going to be Wilbekin vs. Napier. When these two teams met in early-December, Napier went for 26 pts on 9 of 15 shooting (including 5-8 from three). That just can’t happen Saturday night. Napier must be held to below 20 pts and he cannot shoot 60% from anywhere. He’s going to have to be contained and forced to work for tough shots. If he gets open looks, its trouble for Florida. On the other hand, UConn cannot let Michael Frazier get going from behind the arc. Frazier is a 45% three-point shooter this season and in games where he’s made 3+ three’s, Florida is 21-1. If the three’s are falling between Frazier, Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith, that opens up the inside for guys like Casey Prather (UF’s leading scorer) and Patric Young. That is not a position the Huskies want to find themselves in, battling for interior presence. UConn must defend the perimeter and hold Florida to as many one-shot trips as possible. If this game becomes a battle in the paint – advantage Florida.
So how does the game play out, you ask? Well, Vegas seems to think that Florida is 6 1/2 points better than UConn. Vegas is not in the business of being wrong often, but I think that is a pretty high value placed upon Florida. With the way Shabazz Napier is playing as of late, I fully expect UConn to be in the game throughout so long as he is on the floor - he’s been that good. Florida has looked less than dominant in each of their four wins and that will continue Saturday night. This will not be a double-digit Florida blowout victory by any means. UConn will keep the Gators honest with their outside capabilities and look for Daniels to have another outstanding performance, just like he did against Iowa State. But in that same respect, I can see (1) Florida moving the ball on offense and knocking down open three’s and (2) Casey Prather getting to the basket and making things happen. This game should come down to defense in the final seven minutes and, if that is in fact the case, Florida will button down and get the job done. Sorry Husky Nation, Florida wins here by four and moves on to the title game next Monday night.
The second game Saturday night is probably the one the entire college hoops world cannot wait to see. The Kentucky Wildcats (28-10) vs. the Wisconsin Badgers (30-7). Both teams have been red-hot thus far in the tourney and the much anticipated matchup should be an old fashioned run-and-gun shootout in North Texas. No one, and I mean no one, has been more enjoyable to watch on offense this season than the Badgers. Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, oh my. Wisconsin is a loaded offensive juggernaut and Coach Ryan has them playing at their highest level right now. So far in the tourney they've exhibited some minor defensive woes, but have always been able to bail themselves out with their scoring prowess. After absolutely dismantling American in their first game by 40 pts, the Badgers struggled in the first half of their next game vs. Oregon, trailing by 12 at the break. But a 22-9 explosion to start the second half gave them back the lead and they never looked back. Wisconsin went on to beat Oregon 85-77, and then spanked Baylor 69-52 in the Sweet Sixteen. In their Elite Eight matchup vs. #1 seed Arizona, the Badgers trailed for the first twenty-four minutes before pulling even at the at the 16:01 mark. Spearheaded by Kaminsky's 20 second half points, the Badgers went on to knock the Wildcats out 64-63 in overtime. But that win, and their resultant trip to the Final Four, can be attributed to the Badgers ability to score, and score in bunches. On the season, the Badgers are averaging 73.5 ppg, with all but one starter (Gasser - 8.9 ppg) averaging double-digits. More importantly, Wisconsin can hit the three-ball. On the season the five starters have hit 251 three's so far - yeah, that's an average of more than 50 each.
But next up for Coach Bo Ryan's group is another bunch of Wildcats, this one equally as talented as the last. Kentucky comes into Saturday night's game as the hottest team in the country. Having defeated Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan en route to their Final Four birth, that's hardly a debatable statement. The young Cats have experienced just about every emotion this season, from incredible highs to the lowest of lows. After a preseason #1 ranking, the Wildcats fell off quickly with a loss the Michigan State in just their third game out. Nine more losses over the course of the season, including an embarrassing defeat to South Carolina, dropped UK from the rankings and garnered them a #8 seed in the Big Dance. But a whole new team showed up for the K State game and that squad has not gone away. Kentucky has been playing loose, aggressive, determined and, most importantly, together. Kentucky, it seems, has finally gelled into that team that most thought they would see from day one - and that's scary for their opponents.
So far through the tournament, star PF Julius Randle has had a double-double in every game, including 19 & 15 vs. K State, 13 & 10 vs. Wichita State, 15 & 12 vs. Louisville and 16 & 11 vs. Michigan. Yeah, wow. But Randle has not been the pleasant surprise, he's been doing that the entire season. What has been extremely good to see for Big Blue Nation is the assertiveness of the Harrison twins on offense. Aaron Harrison is averaging 18.0 ppg in the NCAA's and if the Cats go on to win it all, that game-winning three vs. Michigan will go down as "The Shot" in Kentucky basketball folklore. Brother Andrew has finally realized that he's bigger than most guards trying to defend him, and has finally used that size advantage to get into the paint on offense and either drop a floater or pull up for a mid-range. That ability carried the Cats in their win over Wichita State as Drew led the way with 20 pts. If Kentucky wants to advance to the title game, both Aaron and Andrew will need to continue doing exactly what they have been doing. Another pleasant surprise has been the play as of late of Dakari Johnson. Although Johnson has been starting for some time now, his minutes were extended against Louisville when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an injury. And Johnson rose to the occasion with 15 pts and 6 rebs.
So, who's going to win? That's a great question, the answer to which we will not truly know until the ball is finally tipped. But what fun would that be if we actually waited until the game was played, right? Right. So let's get at it. Expect to see a high scoring affair Saturday night between the Badgers and Wildcats. Both teams like to shoot it from deep and we should see a record number of three-balls attempted. Kentucky's keys to the game include: (1) Aaron Harrison and James Young knocking down outside shots; (2) Randle getting going early; (3) the Cats defending the perimeter; and (4) containing Frank Kaminsky. Let's be clear about one thing - Frank Kaminsky is a problem. At 7'0" and 234 lbs., the big man from Wisconsin has a fierce interior game and a wicked outside shot. How Coach Calipari chooses to defend Kaminsky could decide the game. Dakari Johnson may be too slow, Randle may be too small, and Cauley-Stein may be too injured. Coach Cal may once again call upon frosh Marcus Lee to step in and play big minutes. Although Lee is 6'9" just like Randle, he is longer and incredibly athletic. While he'd be giving up about 20 lbs to Kaminsky, his athleticism may make up the difference.
For Wisconsin, the keys to winning include: (1) involving Kaminsky early and often; (2) not allowing Aaron Harrison and Young to get open looks; (3) frustrating Randle on offense; and (4) knocking down three's. Another key matchup will be Traevon Jackson vs. Andrew Harrison. Jackson has stepped up his offensive production in the tourney (12.8 ppg), and the Badgers need that to continue. Also, at 6'2" he's giving up about 4 inches to the younger Harrison. Jackson cannot allow Drew to use his body to dribble penetrate the paint and get easy looks. On the other end, Andrew Harrison has not been known for his defense this year. He'll need to hold Jackson down and not allow him to go off.
This game should come down to execution on offense. I expect another close game throughout, with either team trailing by a possession or two with 5 minutes left. It will then turn on which team can get a basket. Just as against Arizona, the Badgers will dump it inside to Kaminsky and watch him work. If he's doubled, he'll kick it out to one of his dead-eye, long-ball gunslinging teammates. I'm not sure how Kentucky will counter this, but it will probably decide the game. I can also see Sam Dekker being a big factor down the stretch. At 6'8" he's a tough matchup for the Cats, and Coach Ryan will certainly run some sets to have the ball in his hands. On the other side, Kentucky will need to be patient and work for good shots, either inside out from Randle to the perimeter, or some isolation sets for Young and Aaron to get into the paint. I think the Badgers will execute more efficiently at the end of the game and will make free throws once they gain the lead. Sorry Big Blue Nation, but the magical run comes to an end Saturday as Wisconsin prevails by six.
Associated Press - Shabazz Napier Hits Game-Winner Over Florida on December 2nd
Aaron Harrison Hits Game-Winner Over Michigan March 30th