ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's about to get real in Jerry's World.
The college basketball season doesn't end with much controversy. You win six in a row, seven if you start with the First Four, and you're rewarded with a national championship. That's obviously not an easy task.
But it also ensures that the team on the podium Monday deserves the crown. No computers or polls. Just basketball.
Now, it's time to predict what we'll see this weekend at the Final Four.
This is the future.
Unless it's not.
It's just not easy to sort through this chaos. Mercer? Wisconsin, not Michigan State or Michigan, representing the Big Ten in the Final Four? Kentucky? Huh?
Kentucky-Florida makes the most sense for a Monday matchup to decide the 2013-14 national champion. But you could argue that Wisconsin beat the best team in the field with its overtime win against Arizona last weekend. And nothing involving the team from Storrs, Conn., seems beyond reason entering Saturday's Florida-UConn rematch.
Shabazz Napier has put together a string of performances that deserve their own "One Shining Moment" montage. Who can doubt a 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard who is averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the NCAA tournament.
Yes, the Huskies can win this thing, too.
Here's a breakdown of what might happen in Dallas.
Emphasis on the word might.
OK, this will happen. Count on it.
What would happen if Kentucky could stretch the floor? What if opponents couldn't cheat and stack the paint to throw numbers at Julius Randle and Kentucky's big men because the Wildcats had become a legit outside threat, something that seemed laughable when they shot just 32 percent from the 3-point line in SEC play? Those were valid questions about John Calipari's team entering the NCAA tourney. The genius of this Kentucky evolution extends beyond the tantalizing lottery-pick-like turns of Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison. It's bigger than Dakari Johnson's soul-stirring breakout or Marcus Lee's awakening. This change, this switch, this tourney, this game centers on spacing. For both teams.Wisconsin's greatest challenge will be employing a man-to-man attack that emphasizes the obliteration of passing lanes and the crowding of the post, possibly at the expense of giving Kentucky open looks from the arc. Bo Ryan's team will deploy the cavalry to keep Randle, Johnson, Lee and Alex Poythress at bay. But that task has been difficult for a fleet of reputable regimes (Wichita State, Kansas State, Michigan and Louisville) because the Harrisons are a more versatile duo now. Aaron Harrison has made nearly 50 percent of his 3-pointers during the Big Dance. Wisconsin has to account for that, while rumbling with the toughest frontcourt in the country. Expect Kentucky to force the action inside by way of Randle and Johnson. The Wildcats will chase loose balls, rebound (Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding rate, per Ken Pomeroy data) and get to the free throw line as the Badgers try to keep up early. Transition defense will be critical for Wisconsin, too. A running Kentucky is an unstoppable Kentucky. The Wildcats faced early deficits against Michigan and Louisville. Once that engine gets warm, however, they'll be tough for the Badgers to stop simply because they're just relentless in that mode. But Kentucky will have a difficult time building its mojo against Wisconsin.
Still, Wisconsin already has silenced an Arizona team that enjoyed similar on-paper advantages. The Wildcats had a bunch of young athletes, dynamic guards and the top-rated team in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. And, like Kentucky, Arizona had similar limitations. Gabe York, Arizona's most reliable 3-pointer shooter, didn't take one shot from the beyond the arc in his team's 64-63 Elite Eight overtime loss to Wisconsin. Ryan is a master at forcing opponents to go to their second and third options. The Badgers will pressure Aaron Harrison. And if he has a bad night and Kentucky goes back to being the mediocre 3-point shooting team that it had been before the tourney, things will change.
But this game isn't just "Can Wisconsin stop Kentucky?" "Can Kentucky stop Wisconsin?" is valid, too. This is not your older brother's Wisconsin offense. The Badgers have been ranked fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data, this season. It's still not clear how Kentucky will deal with Frank Kaminsky. The 7-footer has made 38 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. He creates mismatches and interrupts defensive flow with his versatility and mobility. Kentucky doesn't have any great options to lock him up. Randle is big enough, but is he quick enough? Poythress can probably stay in front of him, but he'll give up four or five inches. Kaminsky had 28 points and 11 rebounds against a strong defense over the weekend. Plus, this young Kentucky team hasn't faced a player like this. Kaminsky is unique. He'll find a rhythm early. And a Wisconsin team that has shot 37 percent or better from the 3-point line in three of its four tourney wins will follow his lead. This won't be a blowout. Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust, Nigel Hayes and the rest of this Badgers roster will make this a brawl. They'll make it ugly and test Kentucky's will in a game that won't be decided before the final two minutes. One of Wisconsin's advantages, it would seem, will be its ability to dictate the pace of Saturday's game. But Kentucky just beat Michigan in a 57-possession affair. The Wildcats registered 1.32 points per possession in that game. That's serious. And no Final Four team has defeated a better slate or faced more variety to this point. As disciplined and talented as Ryan's Badgers team has been in the postseason, Kentucky is just on another level right now.
Prediction: Kentucky 72, Wisconsin 67
Can anyone stop Shabazz Napier? His effort against Michigan State -- 25 points, 9-for-9 from the free throw line, 4-for-9 from the 3-point line line, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal -- was the definitive performance in an NCAA tournament that has been filled with bright nights. Napier has been on a mission and he has carried Kevin Ollie's squad with him. Florida understands the dilemma it will encounter Saturday as well as anyone. The Huskies were the last team to defeat the Gators. It's fair to cite the differences between this weekend's rematch and that Dec. 2 nonconference contest.
Scottie Wilbekin suffered an ankle injury in the final three minutes of a matchup that UConn won via Napier's buzzer-beater. But Florida also shot 49 percent from the field. Wilbekin, Patric Young and Casey Prather registered 51 points combined in that game. Napier (26 points, 5-for-8 from the 3-point line), however, was just too much. Wilbekin, one of the top on-the-ball defenders in America, is healthy now. He'll do a better job of pressuring Napier, whose first step allows him to burst past defenders off high ball screens or in isolation. Napier has shredded the field in part because he has been on fire from the 3-point line (12-for-23 in the past three games), drawn fouls and earned trips to the free throw line (25-for-27 in the tourney).
The Gators won't stop Napier. But they'll corral him, limit his driving lanes, push him off the 3-point line and cut down his options. Prather, Will Yeguete and others will help. They must. Every time Napier drives, they'll help Wilbekin neutralize UConn's top threat. That will put more pressure on DeAndre Daniels, who has played well throughout the NCAA tourney, and Ryan Boatright to shoulder the offensive load. That's not a position that Daniels and Boatright have encountered in the tourney. But they will Saturday when Napier struggles for the first time since his 7-for-22 effort in his team's overtime win against Saint Joseph's in the opening round.
Florida is ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data. Its defensive aptitude has increased since December. But the Gators are also a better offensive team. They committed 16 turnovers in that loss to UConn. Wilbekin, however, has recorded just two turnovers in the NCAA tournament and zero in his past two games. The Gators are more controlled now. So they'll employ their balance, something they've done throughout this season, to avenge that Dec. 2 loss to UConn. Prather will slash and Young will be aggressive inside, draw early fouls against Daniels and hinder an already thin frontcourt. Wilbekin will be the maestro on both ends -- blanketing Napier and avoiding mistakes that could cost Florida on offense -- and help Florida withstand anything that Napier drums up in the final minutes.
The first game matters. Even though they weren't 100 percent, the Gators played well and lost. If Wilbekin had been available in the final minutes, Napier might have missed that buzzer-beater. But there's also a chance that Wilbekin's presence might not have changed the outcome. Napier was really good then. And he's a superstar right now. But Florida is healthy and complete now. The Gators don't rely on one guy. They're diverse enough to ruin dreams without a Shabazz-like outing from an individual player. The Huskies are as confident as any team in the field. And Napier's four-game stretch has been impressive. But in his team's last game prior to the tourney, a 71-61 loss to Louisville in the American tournament, Napier went 4-for-12 and 2-for-7 from the 3-point line. He was mortal. And Florida will bring Napier & Co. back down to earth on Saturday, too. Expect more Napier magic. But it won't be enough to earn a trip to Monday's national title game.
Prediction: Florida 68, Connecticut 64
Yeah, it's hard to beat a team four times. We get it. But Kentucky will face a Florida squad that hasn't lost in four months. What could change from the first three games? In their first meeting Feb. 15, the Wildcats actually looked like the Wildcats we've witnessed in the NCAA tourney. Kentucky was the better team for 30 minutes in that game. The Wildcats were fluid and effective. They were beating Florida inside and playing great defense. But the Gators have turned the final 10 minutes of those 30 consecutive wins into something artistic. They controlled the game when it counted most. Wilbekin drove to the lane and drew fouls. They owned the clock. The game was slipping away from the Wildcats and they didn't know how to get back into it without forcing shots. The second game was just a blowout and a bad night for a Kentucky team that quit. But the SEC tournament matchup, a 61-60 win for Florida, is probably what Monday's national title game will resemble.
In that game, Randle went just 1-for-7. He hasn't played that poorly since that day. Young's presence and strength -- and the collective strength and maturity of the entire Florida team -- will be the difference again. The Wildcats have been a strong 3-point shooting team in the NCAA tournament. But they were held to a 3-for-11 clip against the Gators in the conference tourney. Aaron Harrison has been a difference-maker in the NCAA tournament for Kentucky. Against Florida this season, he's 10-for-31 overall and 4-for-12 from beyond the arc.
With Young putting a big body on Randle and stopping him from bullying the Gators the way he's bullied every Kentucky opponent in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats will struggle to get buckets inside, which means the Harrison twins and James Young will take more shots compared to what they've been accustomed to throughout the tourney. Kentucky reached the Final Four with balance. But Florida didn't allow the Wildcats to operate that way in their three previous matchups. On offense, the Gators will control the tempo and operate with the same patience they've used throughout this 30-game winning streak. They've attempted 74 total free throws against Kentucky thus far. If the Gators can get to the free throw line, limit turnovers, spread the offensive responsibilities and clamp down on defense inside, then Billy Donovan will secure his third national championship. But the Gators will need a big shot in the last 10 seconds to make it happen.
Prediction: Florida 66, Kentucky 63