Not gonna lie, I had Louisville and Michigan State in my title game. And when the Spartans lost to UConn in the Elite Eight, I tossed my bracket in the trash. Although I’m currently tied for fourth in my pool, I only nailed one of my Final Four picks (Wisconsin), and now if Florida goes any further, I’m gonna fall in the standings.
That being said, I’m not so sure the Gators are going all the way. Yes, they’re the top-ranked team in America, but while they play in the top football conference in the country, the SEC is barely above a mid-major when it comes to hoops. The 36-2 Gators have very little competition in the conference aside from Kentucky, and while it’s worth noting that they beat the Wildcats thrice, including in the SEC title game, they’ve already lost to both Wisconsin and Connecticut this season. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that their run ends here. And hey, they only beat Kentucky by one point for that SEC championship, anyways…
6:09 pm: Connecticut over Florida – That’s right, I’m calling for the upset here. Way back on December 2nd, the then-undefeated Huskies handed Florida its second loss of the season on a buzzer-beating basket by star guard Shabazz Napier. Granted, that game was played at UConn, but really, how many Florida fans will be taking the trip to North Texas? After that big win, Connecticut dropped from the top 10, falling out of the rankings entirely by losing three of its next six games. But they’re peaking at the right time in the tourney. After a second-round overtime squeaker against St. Joseph’s, they’ve pulled off convincing wins over sixth-ranked Villanova, ninth-ranked Iowa State, and many people’s tournament favourites (including mine), the 11th-ranked Spartans.
On the other hand, Florida hasn’t had a much tougher run in the tourney than they’d see in the SEC. Aside from their Sweet 16 win over 20th-ranked UCLA, the Gators haven’t faced a top 25 team since the second-last time they played Kentucky. And if we’re treating them like a mid-major, well, the last two top-seeded mid-majors wilted once they faced tougher competition–Wichita State against Kentucky this year, and Gonzaga against, erm, Wichita State last season. Don’t get me wrong, this should be a close game, and could very well come down to the buzzer again, but I like the more battle-tested team at this stage of the tournament.
8:49 pm: Kentucky over Wisconsin – Speaking of battle-tested, Kentucky has had one of the most impressive tourney runs in recent memory. The Cats emerged from the so-called Region of Doom with wins over then-undefeated Wichita State, defending champs Louisville, and last year’s runners-up in Michigan. Not too shabby for an eight-seed!
Of course, Kentucky started the season atop the polls with a freshman class that’s been compared to the Fab Five. And while the kids struggled down the SEC stretch, they are definitely peaking at the right time. On the other hand, I think Wisconsin might just be happy to be here. This is only the school’s second Final Four appearance, and its first in 14 years. Personally, while I did have them getting here, I hadn’t picked the Badgers to advance past the national semi-final in my bracket. It might be worth noting that they split their two games against Michigan, winning the second in Ann Arbor by 13 points–but that really has little bearing as to how they’d fare against the team that just knocked off the Wolverines. I still like Kentucky in this one, which means…
Monday, April 7th: (7) Connecticut vs. (8) Kentucky
No team seeded this low has won the tourney in nearly 30 years. But to the casual college basketball fan, these aren’t really underdogs. Connecticut has won three national championships since ’99, with the most recent coming just three years ago. And while half of Kentucky’s eight titles came before 1960, they did win it all in 2012. So it’s the 2011 champs against the 2012 champs–not that there are any kids left from either of those title teams. So who’s gonna win in 2014?
Looking at the stats, Kentucky has a decided edge on the glass. The fifth-ranked rebounding team in America averages over 41 boards per game–six more than its AAC opponent. They’ve also put up about four-and-a-half more points per game, 76.4 to just under 72. But UConn shines on the defensive end, holding opponents to 63.7 ppg–though Kentucky’s not too shabby at a 3v0l 66.6. The Huskies force more turnovers, with seven steals a game, but the teams are practically dead-even in blocks. They’re ranked eighth and ninth respectively, each averaging 6.2 per game. Looks like it’s gonna be a big block party!
But the numbers don’t really tell us much else. Connecticut has two more wins on the season, but both teams went 12-6 in their respective conferences. And hey, while I don’t think highly of the SEC on the hardwood, I don’t think of the American Athletic Conference at all. Basically, both teams are pretty even on paper.
But one thing I can’t overlook is Kentucky starting five freshmen. Sure, each and every one of these kids is a future NBA lottery pick, but sometimes, in the big games, experience matters. UConn’s Shabazz Napier, he of the Gator-beating buzzer-beater, is a senior. In fact, he actually played–albeit sparingly–on the Huskies’ 2011 championship team. So did starting small forward Niels Giffey and backup centre Tyler Olander. In fact, four of the UConn starting five are upperclassmen, either juniors or seniors. These guys have been around the block a few times. Kentucky hasn’t.
And with super froshs like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Tyler Ennis not-quite-leading their teams to early tournament exits, y’know, I just can’t see a squad of five freshmen going all the way. No offense to Julius Randle, but I’m gonna say he calls a timeout in the dying seconds with his team out of timeouts. Napier hits two technical free throws as the Huskies win 77-71.
Yuuup, I went there. Something tells me Randle won’t be the first overall pick, though. ;)