NCAA Tournament: Final Four Preview


Shabazz Napier and the Huskies continued their unlikely run with a win over Michigan State on Sunday. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Six months ago, the number of teams in contention for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball title was 351. Two weeks ago, there were 68. Now, four remain. If you’ve been following the tournament, you know the teams well. If you haven’t, you have a lot of catching up to do. Either way, you’ve got a week to prepare yourself for the national semifinals on April 5, and this is the place to start your pregame preparation.

No. 7 U-Conn. vs. No. 1 Florida

When: Saturday, 6:09 p.m., TBS

Where: AT&T Stadium — Arlington, Tex.

How they got here: 

U-Conn.: Beat No. 10 St. Joseph’s 89-81, beat No. 2 Villanova 77-65, beat No. 3 Iowa State 81-76, beat No. 4 Michigan State 60-54

Florida: Beat No. 16 Albany 67-55, beat No. 9 Pittsburgh 61-45, beat No. 4 UCLA 79-68, beat No. 11 Dayton 62-52

History lessons: 

– The Gators carry a 30-game winning streak into the Final Four, a stretch that dates from Dec. 2 and  a trip to Storrs, Conn. That day, a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater doomed Florida, meaning the Gators’ Final Four opponent will also be the last team to beat them.

– Florida is 10-0 all-time playing as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

– The last time the Gators and Huskies met in the NCAA tournament was the 1994 Elite Eight. The Gators won, 69-60, behind 17 points from Craig Brown and Dan Cross, beating a team that featured Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall and current Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie.

– Florida is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2007 when they went on to beat Ohio State for a second-straight national championship. The Gators lost in the Elite Eight in each of the past three NCAA tournaments.

– Both the Gators and Huskies will be playing in their fifth Final Fours in school history. Connecticut has won three national championships (1999, 2004, 2011) and Florida two (2006, 2007)

– Banned from the 2013 tournament and knocked out in the first round in 2012, U-Conn. is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2011, when the Huskies eventually took down Butler in the title game.

Difference makers: Shabazz Napier, Scottie Wilbekin

Shabazz Napier has made a case for the tournament’s most outstanding player, providing energy, clutch shots, and consistent scoring for the Huskies along with reliable and experienced leadership down the stretch of several close games. In four tournament games so far, Napier has scored at least 24 in three of them. When the Huskies looked doomed for a first-round upset against St. Joseph’s, Napier — who had struggled for much of the evening — rallied Connecticut in overtime, scoring nine of his 24 points in extra time including a tough driving layup that sealed the win. With the Huskies locked in a close game against No. 2 Villanova in the round of 32, Napier taped up a leg injury and knocked down back-to-back three-pointers in the second half to help U-Conn. pull away. He hit late free throws against Iowa State to back a heroic performance from DeAndre Daniels, and then rose to the Elite Eight occasion with a 25-point, six-rebound, four- assist game against Michigan State, hit all nine of his free throws and led the Huskies into the Final Four. As he goes next Saturday, so will the Huskies, though you can be sure Florida Coach Billy Donovan will be thinking similarly and will do his best to force other Huskies to step up.

For Florida, the difference will likely be Scottie Wilbekin. Injured with three minutes to play in the Gators’ last meeting with U-Conn., he was not on the floor when Napier hit the buzzer-beater that gave the Gators their last loss. The SEC player of the year has emerged as Florida’s go-to man at crunch time, and he is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game. As conductor of the Gators’ offense, Wilbekin has orchestrated the many weapons on Florida’s offense through nearly four perfect months.

Here’s Napier’s game-winner against the Gators from December:

No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Wisconsin

When: Saturday, 8:49 p.m., TBS

Where: AT&T Stadium — Arlington, Tex.

How they got here: 

Kentucky: Beat No. 9 Kansas State 56-49, beat No. 1 Wichita State 78-76, beat No. 4 Louisville 74-69, beat No. 2 Michigan 75-72

Wisconsin: Beat No. 15 American 75-35, beat No. 7 Oregon 85-77, beat No. 6 Baylor 69-52, beat No. 1 Arizona 64-63

History Lessons: 

– Wisconsin and Kentucky have met in the tournament once before, the 2003 Elite Eight. Kentucky won that game, 63-57, behind 28 points from Marquis Estill.

– The last time the Badgers were in the Final Four was 2000, when they lost to Michigan State in the national semifinal. Wisconsin has been to two Final Fours all-time.

– The Badgers’ only national championship came in 1941.

– This will be Kentucky’s 16th Final Four. Their last came in 2012, when they went on to beat Kansas in the national championship game.

– The Wildcats are in their third Final Four in the past four seasons. They missed the tournament all together in 2013.

– The last team to start five freshmen like this year’s Wildcats? Michigan’s famed Fab Five.

– Kentucky is the sixth No. 8 seed ever to reach the Final Four

Difference makers: Aaron Harrison and Frank Kaminsky

With five freshmen starters each dripping with talent, Kentucky’s roster is loaded with potential difference-makers. They may not have a classic tournament veteran hero like U-Conn.’s Shabazz Napier, but Aaron Harrison sure looked like an experienced go-to-guy late in the Wildcats’ win over Michigan on Sunday. After struggling early, Harrison nailed four three-pointers when it counted most: all of them came in the final eight minutes of the game, including one of the tournament’s most memorable shots to date, his three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left to send the Wildcats to the Final Four. Harrison has hit 13 of 24 threes so far this tournament.

If you’d named Frank Kaminsky as a potential difference-maker in the Final Four after last season … well, you just wouldn’t have. Kaminsky averaged 4.2 points per game as a sophomore behind veteran Badgers big men. This season, the 7-foot junior is undoubtedly the most troubling matchup for Wisconsin opponents, a big man who can score inside and hit from deep. In the Badgers’ overtime win over Arizona, Kaminsky dropped 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting (3 of 5 from three-point territory), while grabbing 11 rebounds. He’s led the Badgers this far with his 14.1 points per game, and will need another prolific showing against Kentucky to lift his Badgers into the national title game.

More NCAA tournament news

Terps women balance success, task at hand

Fourth-seeded Terps like their chances

Hobbs goes from mentor to assistant

Feinstein: It ended too soon for Cavs

Jenkins: NLRB ruling is questionable

Jenkins: Cavs don’t have to hang their heads

Virginia’s season ends with loss to Michigan State

Feinstein: Home cooking for U-Conn.

NCAA tournament bracket and historical database

Play The Bracket Challenge round-by-round

Photos: The best of the tournament | 68 teams, 68 facts

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