On Saturday, four teams will meet under the bright lights and among the standing-room-only binocular salesmen of AT&T Stadium. At tipoff, the four well-compensated men who led said teams to said bright lights will, for the most part, be in the same position as the rest of us. UConn coach Kevin Ollie, Florida coach Billy Donovan, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and Kentucky coach John Calipari will have timeouts, substitutions and play calls at their disposal, but at the end of the day, they, just like us, will be at the mercy of their players to make or miss the shots, and win or lose the games. And you thought you were nervous?
The idea, of course, is that each coach will have prepared his team for anything before the game begins. With this foursome, that much is a given. So, who are these four final coaches? And how will their systems, styles and matchups affect what we see Saturday night? Let's dive in:
Background: Is it any surprise Ollie is already exceeding expectations? The undrafted and mostly unwanted former UConn point guard made a career of maximization in the NBA, clawing his way up from the CBA in 1995 to a 13-year NBA career spread across 11 franchises. When Ollie was hired at UConn two years ago, NBA coaches and players (including Kevin Durant) raved about the decision. Now, in his second year, Ollie has reached his first Final Four with the No. 7-seeded Huskies. The feat has at once quelled all doubts about his ability to succeed legendary coach Jim Calhoun, and established Ollie as, as he put it this week, his "own man."
System: With only two seasons under his belt, Ollie hasn't had nearly as much time as his contemporaries to establish a defining system, per se. Nor is it clear that he wants to. Ollie has spent much of the past few weeks reiterating his belief -- an understandable one coming from the Association -- that coaching is overrated. "It's a player's game," Ollie said last month, and plenty of times before and since.
Still, there are some stylistic consistencies. On offense, the Huskies run a ton of pick-and-roll; almost everything UConn does begins with at least one screen for a ball handler. This is, for lack of a better term, a "pro-style" offense. And rightfully so. Among other things, star guard Shabazz Napier is borderline unguardable on pick-and-rolls. Napier and guard Ryan Boatright lead UConn in usage rate, and both players' most frequent play type, according to Synergy, is as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. Napier begins a third of his possessions in the pick-and-roll and his ability to get to the rim, hit a midrange shot, launch over the screen or create for a shooter makes him so deadly. Ollie sends screens at his guards and keeps the rest of the floor spaced, allowing a team that shoots 39 percent from 3 to force defenses into one scrambling rotation after another.
Defensively, the Huskies are almost always in man-to-man, and almost always force teams into difficult shots. Opponents make just 42.1 percent of their 2s against Connecticut, and have nearly 15.1 percent of their shots blocked. That back line -- where center Amida Brimah is among the nation's most underrated players -- allows Napier and Boatright to gamble for steals on the perimeter. The combination is deadly.
Background: Covered at length here. The short version: Donovan is in his 18th year of a run that has turned Florida basketball from less than a laughingstock into a perennial powerhouse. He won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. This is his fourth Final Four.
System: Donovan, by contrast, had nearly two decades to define his system, and his success in his time at Florida means there is, to paraphrase Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood," a whole ocean of Donovan-sponsored DVDs and Internet breakdowns available to aspiring coaches. (This will become a theme.)
Donovan's stock-in-trade is the spread pick-and-roll offense. The spread pick-and-roll is, to put it somewhat simply, a hybrid of classic Bob Knight-style motion offense and modern NBA ball-screen sets. (Note: Before the Gators get into their half-court stuff, they run a structured transition attack that attempts to get an early post-up -- but these down-tempo Gators don't do that quite as much as past teams.) Like more pro-style sets, it frequently begins with a high point guard-power forward ball screen. But it keeps moving from there: The ball swings from side to side; wings receive side screens that create angles for rolls; post players post, screen away, and re-post again.
At its peak, it takes a balanced offensive team with a handful of weapons and makes defenses play every player on every possession. The 2013-14 edition -- which combines the perimeter play of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier with the interior work of Patric Young and Casey Prather and gluey, gap-filling contributions from Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith -- is the best demonstration since the Joakim Noah-led title teams of spread pick-and-roll in its unpredictable symphonic glory.
And that's not even where the Gators are at their best. No, that's the defensive end, where Florida ranks No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Donovan isn't afraid to mix in some zone (20 percent of the time, to be exact), but most of the time his team plays a brand of lights-out man-to-man defense with no discernible weak points. The Gators rank in the top 25 nationally in three of the four defensive factors (effective field-goal percentage, turnover rate and foul rate) and 42nd in rebounding percentage. They have the second-longest (20.2 seconds) defensive possessions in the country. Oh, and Wilbekin may be the best perimeter defender in the sport.
Fun fact: Against Dayton, Florida led by 14 at halftime, scored five field goals the rest of the game, and still won by 10. They are locked. In.
With a player as good as Napier playing this well, it's tempting to throw the scouting report out the window. UConn's star has averaged 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals through four tournament games -- numbers that compare favorably to Kemba Walker's legendary 2011 title run. Since the 1985-86 season, when steals became an official statistic, who are the only other players to have at least 90 points, 20 rebounds, 15 assists and 5 steals in the first four games of the NCAA tournament? Walker in 2011, Dwyane Wade in 2003 and Kenny Anderson in 1990. Yeah. He has been that good.
And yet, it's not quite tempting enough. Florida guards so well it can match up with anyone ... but the Gators feel especially suited to guarding the long, perimeter-oriented Huskies. Connecticut spaces the floor and gets into the lane, and shoots the ball well on kickouts. But the Huskies don't grab their own misses, and they need to create mismatches on screens to get into their stuff in the first place. Florida offers no such mismatches. When you combine Wilbekin's one-on-one defense with the Gators' ability to close off pick-and-roll plays as a group, Florida looks like the obvious pick.
Unless, of course Napier goes crazy. In that case, forget everything you just read.
Background: "Death. Taxes. And Bo Ryan." That's the clichéd tweet (tweet-ché?) that rings out from all corners every time Wisconsin notches a big win, and for whatever it lacks in creativity at this point, at least it has the benefit of being true. No coach in the past decade has been more reliable, or more consistent, than Ryan. He became the Badgers head coach in 2002, after 15 hyper-successful years at D-III Wisconsin-Platteville and a brief stop at Milwaukee, and has never won fewer than 19 games, never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten, and never missed the NCAA tournament in 13 seasons. He has occasionally heard questions about his teams' performance on the high end -- he hasn't won a Big Ten regular-season title since 2007-08, and this is his first Final Four -- but man, do you ever know what you're going to get.
System: From 1976 to 1984, as a Wisconsin assistant, Ryan spent approximately all of his time buried in tape, scouting opposing offenses, analyzing what worked and what didn't. By the time he arrived at Platteville in 1984, he emerged with a fully formed offensive system -- one that siphoned off all of his favorite pieces of various motion systems and discarded the superfluous. "I blended these parts together not because I thought they were innovative or the answer to every defensive wrinkle, but because I really believe in them," Ryan once wrote. "The swing offense is basic and relies on solid fundamentals: cutting, screening, spacing and passing."
Ryan's system, in short, spaces his players in a four-out, one-in configuration, with two players on the weak side and a post-wing-high triangle on the ball. The ball moves from side-to-side. Back cuts lead to down screens, which lead to baseline cuts. Every player in Ryan's system posts up, and every player plays on the perimeter, so every forward must have guard skills, and guards must play big. The defense becomes inverted. Post-ups become practice. Matchup woes abound. Rinse, repeat.
In practice, the swing produces continuous, well-spaced motion. It wears down defenses. So does the Badgers' methodical precision: Wisconsin turns over the ball on fewer of its possessions than just about any team in the country, and usually while averaging 60 possessions per game. And it combines all this with a cautious, don't-foul-and-rebound-everything pack-line defense that, at various points in recent seasons, has been the Badgers' best attribute.
Not this season. This season, Wisconsin is all about its offense. What's more, the Badgers' average adjusted tempo is 64.0 possessions per game -- medium-paced by most standards, lightning-fast by their own. But even with a more up-tempo, attacking edge, all of the swing offense's best characteristics are present. And in Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot center who handles the ball, rebounds both ends and shoots 58.3 percent from 2 and 37.8 percent from 3, Ryan has a frontcourt star born to thrive in the swing, and one who has lifted Ryan's elegant offensive creation to its widest audience ever.
Background: John Calipari needs little in the way of introduction. If you've checked in on college basketball in the past, oh, decade, you've likely seen -- and formed an opinion of -- Calipari. His success is undisputed fact: This is Calipari's third Final Four in five seasons at UK. In 2011-12, with a team built around highly touted freshmen and sophomores, he won Kentucky's eighth national championship.
System: Pepper shakers and sugar packets: That's how John Calipari first heard of the dribble-drive motion offense. It was October 2003, at a Memphis steakhouse, when Calipari turned to the unknown junior college coach seated fortuitously next to him. Junior college coach Vance Walberg, of Fresno City College, had come to Memphis to learn from Calipari's practices -- a sort of brotherhood-of-coaches pilgrimage -- when, finally, Calipari asked Walberg about his team's offense. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl got the story back in 2008:
Walberg laughed. "You don't want to know," he replied. "It's a little bit off-the-wall."
"No, really," Calipari said. "Show me."
And so, using a pepper shaker as the basket, white sugar packets as offensive players and pink Sweet'N Low packets as defenders, Walberg explained his quirky creation, a high-scoring scheme featuring four perimeter players and a host of innovations. ... To Calipari, at least, it embodied two wholly unconventional notions. One, there were no screens, the better to create spacing for drives. Two, the post man ran to the weak side of the lane (instead of the ball side), leaving the ball handler an open driving path to the basket. ... As Walberg pushed the packets through the phases of his offense, Calipari experienced a new kind of sugar rush. Walberg's scheme was madness. It was genius.
The "dribble-drive motion" was born. Fittingly, the name itself was a tweak. Walberg called it A.A.S.A.A., or "Attack, Attack, Skip, Attack, Attack." (Naturally, Calipari's rebranding was an improvement.) The then-Memphis coach tweaked Walberg's system from the start, and he hasn't stopped since.
Coach Cal used dribble-drive extensively in his first year at Kentucky, and here and there in almost every season. But he has adapted each year. Sometimes, as in 2010-11, he has gone all the way back toward the old-school sets of his youth. In 2013-14, Kentucky uses the dribble-drive motion principles as a base setup, with add-ins for post plays and little side screen sets. Basic stuff.
Vastly more important than the purity of the dribble-drive motion is that Kentucky's players have a set of incredibly simple goals for each offensive possession. They keep the floor spaced. They let James Young handle the vast majority of 3-point shooting. They put their heads down and drive to the rim. And they rebound everything.
Kentucky is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country. This has been the case for most of the season, even when UK, which limped through most of the SEC season, wasn't doing much else well. The Wildcats have always averaged a rebound on at least 40 percent of their misses. The connection between this trait and the quasi-dribble-drive isn't hard to pick out: UK's penetration forces rotations, gets defenses out of position, and opens up all the space Julius Randle & Co. need to clean things up.
Now that Kentucky is playing well -- now that the ball movement is crisp and Aaron and Andrew Harrison are hitting 3s and Dakari Johnson is chipping in on both ends and Kentucky isn't looking quite so rough in defensive transition -- the Wildcats have been good enough to dispatch three of the nation's best 10 teams en route to the Final Four.
Calipari's annual recruit-and-replace dance draws much of the attention, and his guru-level recruiting acumen is mind-boggling. But what he does during the season, and how he implements the straightforward but often unstoppable principles he first learned from a junior college coach wielding sugar packets, is every bit as brilliant. No one is more adaptable.
Wisconsin will sink in on defense and do its absolute best to (a) cut off penetration, (b) avoid fouls, and (c) rebound the defensive glass. This is the Badgers' perennial defensive bread and butter, but they haven't always pulled it off this season -- and against far less daunting challenges than Kentucky. The Wildcats, meanwhile, will look to exploit all of the above, and they'll try to force Wisconsin's guards into quick shots and sloppy play on the offensive end. Long rebounds and turnovers have to equal transition buckets. If it's a half-court game, Bo Ryan will take his chances.
Everything -- from styles of play to their paths to the Final Four to this wondrous edition of the tournament in general -- suggests a tight, thrilling game decided by one possession in the waning seconds.
That's when the players play and the shooters take shots and the officials make their calls. And it's when the coaches, whole lives spent preparing for this moment, jobs done, can do no more than the rest of us: gaze up at the ball, and hope.