March Madness 2014 Final Four – Can Kentucky Make History?
No one will ever have it all figured out. No one wants to.
Aaron Craft lay flat on his back on the hardwood and let the madness wash over him. Dayton had just upset Craft’s Ohio State Buckeyes in the first game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, bursting millions of brackets as Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage pulled up outside college basketball’s Big Dance. Dayton’s run to the Elite Eight was the standout story of this year’s March Madness for the neutral, as they also toppled the much-fancied Syracuse and fellow giant killers, Stanford, before finally being stopped by No. 1 Florida. The other major upsets came from Stanford and Mercer, who beat Kansas and Duke, respectively, and saw to it that the top three players in this year’s heralded freshmen class (Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker) would be watching the business end of the tournament from their couches. This is how Mercer’s Kevin Canevari felt about that.
The Final Four is where it gets serious. Cinderella had her fun, but was escorted out after one too many Jägerbombs. The true heavyweights remain: Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Pay attention to the seedings no more; though UConn is a No. 7 and Kentucky a No. 8, both are power programs which have produced champions in the past four years, while No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Wisconsin have been consistent all season – there are no underdogs. Still, of the 11 million brackets filled out for ESPN’s Tournament challenge, just 612 predicted that these would be the last four teams left despite the fact that Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 and Florida was the midseason No. 1.
(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)
The favourites before the tournament coming off a 30-game winning streak, Florida is the team to beat. Here’s where it gets interesting though: two of the other Final Four teams, Wisconsin and UConn, are the only teams to have beaten Florida this season, while Kentucky came within a point in their last matchup with the Gators. Florida’s record this season is a result of the nation’s best defense, toughness and consistency, all owing to the maturity of the squad. Before the season, maturity was not a word often associated with point guard Scottie Wilbekin, and his story is definitely worth a read. Florida would certainly not be here without him. Wilbekin is one of four seniors in the starting lineup and no Gator is expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft – are Florida the anti-Kentucky?
Last season was tough for UConn; their long-time Hall of Fame coach, Jim Calhoun, retired before the season, star players from the previous season, Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, had left for the NBA and they were banned from the NCAA Tournament for not meeting academic standards. This year, the Huskies are back with a vengeance that few expected, thanks to coach Kevin Ollie and star player Shabazz Napier. UConn are also in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, but if they are to have any chance of double success, the Huskies need to hope Napier is on form. Connecticut are far from a one-man team, and boast a balanced, scoring support behind their point guard, but it is clear that they will go as far as Napier, the tournament’s leading scorer (23.3 ppg) takes them.
How to describe the 2013/14 Wisconsin Badgers? “White guys.” Frank Kaminsky’s words, not mine. But the Badgers’ star center’s response to the question of how their last opponents would describe the team tells you all you need to know. Wisconsin are likeable; a feel-good story. Kaminsky doesn’t take himself too seriously, even if NBA scouts have started to, and low-key coach Bo Ryan has finally led his Badgers to the Final Four after coming close countless times over the last decade. Though Kaminsky has emerged as a force in recent games, Wisconsin’s success has been built on a slow, efficient offensive style, rather than star play. They have already beaten Florida and Kentucky this season, and a tough schedule culminated in that victory over the Wildcats in the last round. Having last won the tournament in 1941, Wisconsin has far and away the longest drought of any of the remaining teams.
Coming into the season with one of the most heralded recruiting classes ever and ranked No. 1 in the nation, many believed that John Calipari’s Kentucky would repeat the success of his 2011/12 championship-winning team. Individual talent was never an issue, but the team often looked like less than the sum of its parts, with the Harrison twins in particular struggling in the backcourt. After a huge loss to Florida on March 10, Calipari concluded that a change was in order, and tweaked his tactics to give the players more freedom at the expense of set plays. The results speak for themselves; Kentucky’s last three games have seen them dispose of last year’s finalists, Louisville and Michigan, and the previously undefeated Wichita State. Julius Randle has cemented his place amongst the top players in this year’s draft and is certainly the man to watch, but both Andrew and Aaron Harrison have stepped up their play in the last two weeks and Marcus Lee has emerged from nowhere to replace the injured Willie Cauley-Stein. Kentucky has gained momentum and cohesion to go with their star power and will be very difficult to stop.
Betting Instinct Tip – Back Kentucky -1.5 against Wisconsin, at -110 with Intertops.eu
CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London. He writes about college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct