Final Four Analysis
April 4, 2014
By Joe Nelson
The NCAA Tournament never seizes to amaze with another great tournament filled with great down-to-wire games and surprises. This year’s final four is filled with programs familiar with national success but no one expected these four teams to all be together in Dallas. Here is a look at each team and the key matchups in the Final Four.
Florida Gators: As the only #1 seed remaining and the #1 overall ranked team entering the Big Dance, Florida might look like a clear favorite. The championship odds are not overwhelming for Gators however. Florida has lost twice all season and both of those foes are also in the Final Four, setting up a potential storybook ending if they could avenge both of those losses.
Florida has one of the top defenses in the nation and the Gators force opponents in long frustrating possessions. The pace for the Gators certainly impacts the lower scoring numbers for opponents and Florida has not forced turnovers at the same rate in the NCAA Tournament. In the regular season meeting with Connecticut, the Huskies won the turnover battle and had no trouble hitting outside shots with 11 three-point makes. Connecticut is +20 in turnovers so far in the tournament, which has propelled the Huskies to this position.
Florida can also go through great scoring droughts on offense as they struggled early against Albany and Pittsburgh and while they have won the four NCAA Tournament games with an average margin of 12 points, the final scores have often been a bit misleading. While the other teams in the Final Four have all snuck out a few narrow wins in games that could have gone either way, Florida has not needed late drama so far in the tournament. Florida has certainly had the easiest path of any team in the Final Four however, getting a #11 seed in Dayton in the Elite Eight matchup with the most dangerous teams in the region losing early.
The Gators have also been fortunate at the line as they have shot 30 more free throws than their opponents in the four tournament games. Free throw shooting was expected to be a potential Achilles heel for Florida in the postseason, but so far Florida has shot almost 74 percent from the line despite being one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the nation in the regular season. If there is a matchup that could expose the Gators at the line this is it as Connecticut gets to the line often and has made over 77 percent on the season for one of the best rates in the nation.
Wisconsin Badgers: While the Badgers don’t have the perception of being a great offensive team, Wisconsin has by far the best offensive efficiency ratings of any of the four teams in Dallas. Wisconsin has also played the toughest overall schedule to this point as well. Wisconsin has one of the lowest turnover rates in the nation and this is very good shooting team everywhere on the floor.
This has not been a great Wisconsin defense, however, even with impressive showings against Baylor and Arizona, allowing just 115 points in those two games. Thirteen times this season Wisconsin allowed 70 or more points and while the Badgers don’t give the ball away on offense, they also have not created many extra opportunities with turnovers on the defensive end. Wisconsin is a very good defensive rebounding team and that will be the key matchup against Kentucky, the best offensive rebounding team in the nation statistically.
On defense, Wisconsin will force Kentucky into a half court offense, something that the Wildcats have struggled with at times. Kentucky is a low assist team that relies on individual plays and putbacks with the great rebounding frontcourt. The focus will be on Frank Kaminsky, who has been one of the best players in the tournament, but Sam Dekker will also play a vital role for the Badgers. Dekker has been hurt by having to play the 4 most of the season against bigger players but that could help to neutralize Julius Randle and the offensive rebounding for the Wildcats as Dekker can pull players away from the basket with his versatility.
Kaminsky and Dekker both could be potential first round NBA picks either this year or next year so the perceived talent gap for Kentucky is not as great as most likely believe. Kentucky will have a size edge on the perimeter against Wisconsin as the Harrison twins will tower over the Wisconsin guards but the excellent passing for the Badgers can help to neutralize that edge. Wisconsin won the 1941 national title and made a fluky run to the Final Four in 2000, so this is certainly the program with the least championship history as the moment will be big for this squad, including long time coach Bo Ryan making his first Final Four appearance.
Connecticut Huskies: Connecticut looked like they would be one-and-done most of the way against St. Joseph’s before forcing overtime and actually covering in the opener. The Huskies faced a tough path with wins over title contenders going against Villanova, Iowa State, and Michigan State, but they have had some good fortune as well. Georges Niang did not play for Iowa State and Villanova was perhaps seeded too high with the Big East looking rather weak at this point. The win over Michigan State came as a big surprise for many, but the Spartans had been an inconsistent team all season and the hot shooting the Spartans enjoyed early in the postseason was not going to continue. It was also a much worse Michigan State defense than anyone seems to realize.
While Connecticut has scored nearly 77 points per game in the tournament this is a team led by its defense. The Huskies were a top 10 team in two-point shot percentage on defense and Connecticut is not only one of the best free throw shooting teams in the nation; they are a team that often has a free throw attempt edge as they manage fouls well defensively. Shabazz Napier is also a player that can take over games like no other perimeter player left in the field.
Connecticut shot over 93 percent from the line during the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games to hold on in two close games. Those games came in very comfortable environment at Madison Square Garden as the Huskies enjoyed a great venue edge to reach the Final Four despite being a #7 seed. Connecticut’s offense had plenty of rough games against some of the best defensive teams it has faced in AAC play like Louisville and Cincinnati and the Huskies will need to be able to hang in there in a slower paced physical game to succeed.
Connecticut does not have the strength and bulk that Florida has, but the Huskies are a very tall and deep team that can force Florida into being more of a jump shooting team. Outside of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier, the Gators don’t have many options away from the basket that can score efficiently. Wilbekin’s shooting numbers are also a lot worse for the season than most would expect as he has played great in the tournament. Outside shooting, turnovers, and free throw trips will likely decide the fate for the Huskies.
Kentucky Wildcats: The Wildcats were the preseason #1 team as the season started, sitting with just 5/1 odds to win the NCAA title (compared with 18/1 for Florida, 33/1 for Connecticut, and 50/1 for Wisconsin). By the seeding, it is a huge surprise that Kentucky is in the Final Four, but the path has not been as impressive as it sounds, beating three of last year’s final four teams. Wichita State was a deserving #1 seed, but the Shockers had not played high quality competition or battled in many close games. Louisville was a vastly overrated team based on the 2013 championship as this year’s team had no high end wins and Kentucky had already defeated them earlier in the season. Michigan was the best team in the Big Ten all season, but the Wolverines don’t play great defense and in a shooting match Kentucky was able to hit one more shot as part of an epic shooting day for the Wildcats that will be tough to replicate.
Kentucky’s success in Texas will depend on whether or not they can continue shooting as well as they have been. The Wildcats are a 33 percent three-point shooting team on the season but in the huge wins over Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, they shot over 44 percent. That includes making 7 of 11 three-point shots against Michigan including the game winning shot that broke a tie in the final seconds. Despite the next level talent and obvious athleticism for the Wildcats this is not a team that creates turnovers and gets a great deal of transition baskets. Those fast break opportunities are especially unlikely to happen against Wisconsin. The points-per-possession numbers for Kentucky have been off the charts so far in the tournament, and at this stage in a massive arena a decline in efficiency seems inevitable.
The offensive rebounding edge for Kentucky has not been as pronounced as it seems as Kentucky has averaged just over a three rebound edge per game on the offensive glass in the NCAA Tournament. Fouls could also play a big role against Wisconsin as the game will be expected to be a defensive grind. Kentucky will not likely have Willie Cauley-Stein, but Marcus Lee came out of nowhere to contribute against Michigan and there is depth in the front court for the Wildcats. How tight the game is called will be important as Kentucky could likely handle some early interior fouls better than Wisconsin could and if Kaminsky gets into early foul trouble it could be a long night for the Badgers.
Both Kentucky and Wisconsin have lost to some bad teams this season with the Wildcats losing to South Carolina just over a month ago and falling against Arkansas twice in the regular season. Wisconsin hit a January rut and lost to Indiana and Northwestern in a stretch with losses in five of six games. Both teams have delivered impressive close game wins so far in the tournament and it could take another great late moment to decide the finalist in a very intriguing national semifinal.
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