Last dance: Rappler's Guide to the NCAA Final Four

MANILA, Philippines - Wow! Have two weeks really passed by already? I swear, it feels like just yesterday that we still had 64 teams in this year’s edition of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  

Now, just four squads remain standing, and with defending champion Louisville out of the picture, the league will have new titleholders in a matter of days.

So, what’s happened so far in this year’s March Madness? Well, pun unintended, let’s just say “madness” would be the perfect definition.

We’ve had everything you could possibly ask for from a do-or-die basketball tournament system – heart-stopping game-winners, incredible individual performances, down-to-the-wire matchups, and upsets that are still making us wonder, “Did that really happen?” (I’m talking about you, Duke)

But, like most competitions, there eventually has to be a champion, regardless of how fun almost every game has been leading up to the Final Four round. The question now is, which of the remaining candidates will make the National Championship game, and then go on to win the title, inserting its school’s name in the history books of one of the most prestigious tournaments in the history of sports.

Well, let’s dive in.

Wisconsin Badgers (No. 3 seed)

First game: Versus Kentucky, 830AM, Sunday, April 6 on TV5

The Badgers were one of the least-talked-about contenders in the NCAA tournament, but the criticism they’ve received was not unwarranted. After all, they did hit a rough stretch in their schedule during the regular season where they lost five out of six games, most of which came against non-Associated Press ranked teams.

But Wisconsin ended its season on a tear, losing only twice in its final 11 games. That was enough to garner them a second seed in West Region of the bracket, setting up a potential date against No. 1 Arizona Wildcats in the finals, with a Final Four berth on the line. 

And that’s what eventually happened. Prior to taking on the top-ranked Wildcats, the Badgers faced little resistance. They made quick work of American U, 75-35, took down Oregon, 85-77, and then beat Baylor, 69-52. Most of their fantastic play was thanks to the prowess of 7-feet center Frank Kaminsky, who most certainly put quite a number of NBA scouts on notice after his last three performances.

The sweet-shooting junior had an underwhelming nine-point outing in Wisconsin’s easy triumph over American U, but was outstanding against Baylor and Wisconsin with a couple of 19-point showings. However, Kaminsky displayed his overall talents and remarkable basketball ability when the Badgers eliminated Arizona.

In my pre-tournament preview, I noted that the Wildcats had trouble all season long during close games. Despite being a team loaded with talent and being stupendous on both offense and defense, Aaron Gordon and company had a reputation of being unable to close out opponents late in games, and that came back to bite them against No. 2 Wisconsin.

Kaminsky was terrific – 28 points, 11 rebounds, and three three-pointers – but it was his defense on Gordon, who had one of the worst shooting nights in his college career, that played an even bigger role in the Wildcats’ downfall, 63-64. Arizona had its chances to get away with the win, but failed to do so.

Now, the Badgers have a date with the Kentucky, who stands in their way of a National Championship appearance. So, what are Kaminsky and company’s strengths and weaknesses, and how much of a factor will they play as they aim to take down Coach John Calipari’s boys?

Those who have watched the Badgers know that they like to control the tempo of the game. If the game is slow, they’re pretty efficient with their offensive sets, especially since they have a seven-feet behemoth like Kaminsky who can hurt you from almost anywhere on the floor with his jump shot.

But they can hurt you in transition, too. If you give them the opportunity to run the ball, they will do just that, and hurt you in the process. Another thing really admirable about Coach Bo Ryan’s guys is that they’re very unselfish. Defenses should always expect that each player will give up a good short in order to get a better one, and that was one of the major keys in their usurping of Arizona.

Wisconsin, though, isn’t an elite defensive squad. And when their opponent dictates the pace on offense, it can turn them into shambles. Furthermore, outside of Kaminsky, who isn’t exactly a formidable post threat, the Badgers don’t have any other guy who can really breakdown defenses and get some markers on isolation plays. On defense, Coach Ryan’s schemes have become somewhat predictable. You know they will aggressively ice the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations, and will always look to stop the three-pointer, even if it means leaving the paint vulnerable to attack. Against a team like Kentucky with a guy like Julius Randle, that could be fatal.

Kentucky Wildcats (No. 8 seed)

First game: Versus Wisconsin, 830AM, Sunday, April 6 on TV5

First game: Florida taking on a UConn and Kentucky clashing against Wisconsin in the 830AM game.

Many had slept on Kentucky entering March Madness, although it was for good reason. After all, they didn’t exactly have the best regular season campaign, and when you add the preseason expectations that surrounded the team into the mix, some might even call Kentucky’s pre-NCAA tournament performance a “disaster.”

Yet, as we enter Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four, it’s Calipari’s crew that emerged from the toughest region in the bracket. Oh, and did I mention they were the No. 8 seed? After narrowly getting by Kansas St., 56-49, Randle and company outlasted then-unbeaten Wichita St., 78-76, in one of the most memorable matches in college basketball history.

They then proceeded to dethrone rival Louisville, 74-69, before shocking the Michigan Wolverines, 75-72, thanks to a beautiful three-pointer by Aaron Harrison. Now, Kentucky is a victory against the Badgers away from a shot at a second national title in three years.

This team is big and long. I mean, the starting guards are six-foot-five each, and the small forward is six-foot-seven. That’s the norm in the NBA, but it’s unusual in college basketball. Now, with that said, it’s important to point out that Kentucky gets its offense going in the halfcourt. They’ll get some fastbreak markers once in a while, but they like to play through Randle, who has many options to pass to if a decent shot is unavailable.

Disallowing Kentucky from gaining offensive rebounds is critical to beating them. That’s why besides scoring, Kaminsky will have to make sure the Wildcats will be limited to just one shot per possession, if possible. Randle is a beast on offense thanks to his rebounding prowess – think of a trimmer version of Zach Randolph – and limiting that should negate some of his strengths, which is a major point of emphasis against UK.

Of course, Wisconsin will still have to worry about the Harrison twins and James Young. But the absence of the injured Willie Cauley-Stein should make life a whole lot tougher for the Wildcats, considering how big a part he plays on defense. 

With an elite rim protector like Cauley-Stein, Kentucky has managed to orchestrate one of the top interior-defending gameplans in the nation. Because of this, most Wildcats opponents usually have to beat their adversaries by hitting shots from the outside, a la “living and dying by the three.” But now that Calipari’s rim barrier is sidelined, Wisconsin should attack the rim at every possible situation. If they can do that, this contest will, at the least, be a down-to-the-wire affair.

University of Connecticut Huskies (No. 7 seed)

First game: Versus Florida, 6AM, Sunday, April 6 on TV5

Before March Madness, I compared this year’s version of the Huskies to the New York Knicks. If UConn’s Carmelo Anthony, Shabazz Napier, is on fire, then there’s very little that can stop them, much like how tough it is to contain New York when ‘Melo is making it rain.

So, how good has Napier been? Well, if you consider 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and 45% shooting from three not too shabby, then, yeah, he’s been pretty outstanding.

It’s remarkable. What this six-foot-one, do-it-all star is doing is something that will go down in the record books of the competition. 

For those who don’t watch US college ball, I must remind you that, unlike college basketball in the Philippines, the NCAA is instead divided into two halves of 20 minutes, with the shot clock set at 35 seconds per possession. That means less shots for players, and more dribbling. What I’m saying is, this kid is really special.

The Huskies had some pretty great victories against St. Joseph, Villanova, and Iowa St., but it was how they came through against the Michigan St. Spartans that has me still shaking my head.

In that joust, UConn raced off to an early 10-2 threshold before letting their opponents get back and build a nine-point lead, 32-23, early in the second half. But thanks to Napier’s heroics, the Kevin Ollie-coached club regained the lead and held on late thanks to their star’s clutch heroics, and some contributions from others.

I can’t state this enough: Connecticut goes as Napier goes. If you let this spitfire get on a roll, he will burn your defense with a series of floaters, tough layups, three-pointers, and mid-range jumpers. And when multiple defenders are thrown at him, he always finds a way to hit an open man for a backbreaking three or crowd-awakening dunk. 

Well, then. How do you halt the Huskies? Maybe I haven’t been obvious enough, but once again, let me make this clear: you have to stop Shabazz. The Florida Gators haven’t built one of the greatest win streaks in its school’s history because their defense is soft, and out of the four remaining clubs in the tournament, they have the best chance of limiting UCONN. But after watching the way Napier has sliced his opponents this past two weeks, anything is possible.

Author’s Note: Saw this on Twitter a few days back – if Minnesota, which already has a player named Shabazz Muhammad, drafts Shabazz Napier in June, wouldn’t it be awesome to give those two the nickname “2 Bazz 2 Furious”. Right? Right? No? I’ll let myself out now.

Florida Gators (No. 1 seed)

First game: Versus UConn, 6AM, Sunday, April 6 on TV5

And then there was one. The Florida Gators, everybody, are something else.

For those who thought Florida would succumb to the pressure after dismantling their opponents during the regular season, their detractors were quickly put to rest.

Only UCLA, one of the best offensive clubs in the tournament, managed to crack 60 points against the Gators’ extremely impressive defense by putting up 68. And they still lost by 11. Moreover, the Gators’ other three victims failed to score more than 55 markers.

On defense, Billy Donovan’s guys can do almost everything. They can force you out of the paint, close out on perimeter shooters, and trap the pick-and-roll ballhandler. But that’s only in half-court sets. These guys will also full-court press their opponents on almost every single play, similar to how Coach Franz Pumaren’s DLSU boys used to do so during their four-peat run in the early 2000’s. Oh, but these Gators are much scarier. 

And then there’s offense, where Florida is as good as any team in terms of moving the ball and getting guys open through off-the-ball motions and cuts. They do it so quickly that, while defenses are still trying to figure out who’s supposed to cover Patric Young, other guys like Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Michael Frazier II have gotten open for easy jumpers.

Like I said earlier, the Gators aren’t on a tremendous winning streak for nothing, having racked up 30 straight Ws. Just think of it this way: they can defend as well as the Chicago Bulls, and they’re as precise as the San Antonio Spurs on offense. Goodluck, Huskies!

Overall, they’re 36-2. Ironically, though, those two defeats came early in the season against Wisconsin and Connecticut, respectively. The latter was a close 64-65 loss thanks to the late heroics of Nappier, who sent heartbroken Florida fans home with an incredible buzzer-beater.

One thing for sure is that Coach Donovan’s crew hasn’t forgotten about their last loss. And what better way to exact revenge than to send UConn home just right before the title game.

Prediction

It would be incredible to watch Shabazz lead this UConn group to the promise land. But the fact of the matter is, Florida is just too damn good. 

I’m not sure anyone can beat the Gators, barring a really hot shooting night from long range. Kentucky and Wisconsin might be able to put up a good challenge. Nonetheless, I feel it won’t be enough to beat the current best team in the nation.

Naveen Ganglani is a part-time businessman and a part-time sports writer, who has covered collegiate sports in the Philippines for The Lasallian (DLSU's official publication), the NBA for Basketball TV, the Philippine Superliga for Solar Sports, and others. A die-hard Miami Heat, New England Patriots, and DLSU sports fan, Naveen religiously follows a variety of sports both international and local, and considers sports as his first love. Follow him on Twitter: @naveenganglani