The most entertaining tournament since at least last year’s tournament is down to its last three games. You can choose any number of lenses through which to view this year’s Final Four. Florida, the no. 1 overall seed, remains alive along with its biggest rival (Kentucky) and the only two teams that have beaten the Gators this season. Of the remaining teams, some rely on upperclassmen (Florida and Wisconsin), one relies on freshmen (Kentucky), and one relies on Shabazz Napier (UConn). There’s a coach making his first Final Four appearance after a long career (Bo Ryan), a coach making his first Final Four appearance in the first season he was eligible to do so (Kevin Ollie), and two guys who have already won national titles (Billy Donovan and John Calipari). There are two teams that gave walk-ons significant minutes this season (Kentucky and Florida), one team that looks like a bunch of walk-ons (Wisconsin), and UConn (UConn).
There’s so much going on in this, the most important weekend in college basketball, that the only way to tackle it is to go through each team and break down its narrative as it enters the Final Four, what each narrative will become if each team wins the national title, and what each’s worst-case scenario looks like.
UConn is the most underrated team in America. After a disappointing national title defense in 2012, UConn got slapped with a postseason ban for 2013 because of its bad Academic Progress Rate, prompting Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith to transfer. With Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond going pro after 2012, last season figured to be a rebuilding year for the Huskies. Instead, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright led the Huskies to a better season than they had the year before, only nobody really seemed to notice or care because UConn couldn’t play in the NCAA tournament. With their top six scorers, including Napier and Boatright, returning, I expect the Huskies to surprise some people.
I wrote that in my AAC preview, and as much as I’d like to brag about it, the truth is that I jumped off the UConn bandwagon soon after I predicted the team would succeed. Things started off great — the Huskies began the season 9-0 and peaked at no. 10 in the AP poll. But then an unheralded Stanford team brought UConn crashing back to earth in mid-December. Two weeks later, UConn lost back-to-back games at Houston and SMU, and I became convinced that just making the NCAA tournament would be a struggle for the Huskies.
It was too early to panic, but I started questioning this UConn team anyway. Is Kevin Ollie the right man for the job? Jim Calhoun had impossible shoes to fill and Ollie, a former UConn player, would be given plenty of time to prove himself. But if Ollie couldn’t get a team full of upperclassmen led by a stud like Shabazz Napier to the tournament, how the hell would he ever be able to compete for national titles? And if UConn were mediocre on a national level, what would happen to the AAC when Louisville left for the ACC? While we’re asking questions, has anyone else noticed that Tyler Olander started as a freshman for a national championship team but as a senior plays fewer minutes than he did as a freshman?
As the season progressed, it became clear UConn would make the tournament, but that it would make a deep run only if Napier could morph into Kemba Walker and carry the team like Kemba did in 2011. There were signs Napier could do it — his 27 points and complete takeover of crunch time against Indiana; his 26 points and game winner to beat Florida; his 34 points against Memphis. But there were also games like the regular-season finale versus Louisville, when Napier went 2-for-13 with six turnovers, UConn lost by 33 points, and Huskies fans were left hating themselves for thinking Napier could ever be Kemba. Napier hasn’t quite finished his Kemba act, but he’s done more than enough to justify the comparisons.
How a national title would change the narrative:
Ollie, Napier, and the American Athletic Conference all have a lot riding on the outcome of this Final Four. Let’s start with Ollie.
Kevin Ollie: UConn and Ollie have exceeded expectations just by making the Final Four, so Ollie is in good shape no matter what happens. Even if Florida beats UConn by 30 on Saturday, Ollie will be given at least a five-year grace period before anybody questions his job status again. But if he can win a national title in his very first season of postseason eligibility? That’s approaching legendary status.
Should Ollie win a national championship, it would obviously do wonders for his career and the UConn program as a whole. But an equally significant subplot is that he would be the first black head coach since Tubby Smith in 1998 to win a national title, and just the fourth ever (John Thompson in 1984 and Nolan Richardson in 1994 are the others). Given that black athletes dominate elite-level basketball, you’d expect more former players to find success as coaches. But chances are you probably can’t even name 10 black Division I coaches off the top of your head. The goal is to get to a point where saying things like “he’s the first black coach since …” stops being a big deal. But first this sort of thing needs to start happening more frequently, which is why Ollie cutting down the nets on Monday would be a step in the right direction.
Shabazz Napier: With two Final Four appearances, a national title, almost 2,000 career points, and his willingness to stick with UConn during a coaching transition and NCAA sanctions, Napier has already cemented his legacy in Storrs. But that doesn’t mean he can’t add to his myth. If UConn wins it all, Napier could end up proving — all by himself — that reincarnation is real. The 2014 UConn team would be the rebirth of the 2011 team, with Napier being the second coming of Kemba Walker and Tyler Olander being the second coming of Tyler Olander. Wait, does this mean that college basketball fans are about to suffer through another unwatchable national title game?1
My million-dollar idea to pitch to ESPN someday is “ESPN Tragic,” which will be the network that shows nothing but terrible games and horrible plays, including the 2011 national title game, the 36-33 game between Penn State and Wisconsin in 2011, the 2012 BCS title game, Mark Sanchez’s butt fumble, the Cubs’ meltdown after the Bartman play, and every Cleveland Browns game ever.
This UConn team is more balanced than the 2011 team, which was just Kemba, Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi every now and then, and a dash of some freshman named Shabazz. Lamb played great throughout the 2011 tourney, but he was overshadowed by Kemba in every game. The same can’t be said about this team, since Shabazz was kind enough to let DeAndre Daniels carry the Huskies against Iowa State. But for UConn to beat Florida and then Wisconsin or Kentucky, Shabazz will need to pull off two Herculean performances. If he can’t do it, UConn fans will still remember him fondly. But if he can, get ready to see a 10,000 percent increase in New England babies named Shabazz.
The American Athletic Conference: When the old Big East essentially split into the American and the new Big East, the college basketball world seemed to tag them as “power conferences” without giving it much thought. Given the landscape of college basketball, though, it’s possible that in five years both conferences could have this reputation called into question, especially with Louisville headed to the ACC and the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 on the rise. A national title for the American in its first year of existence, however, would make a pretty convincing case that the conference deserves its “power” label.
Napier rolls his ankle early in Saturday’s game. Ryan Boatright decides that Napier’s absence means it’s his time to shine, which leads to Boatright going 5-for-24 from the field. Daniels pops a hernia trying to move Patric Young off the block. Niels Giffey’s cold shooting continues. Scottie Wilbekin almost puts up a triple-double. Michael Frazier hits seven 3s. UConn loses by 35. Ollie realizes how terrible his life will be without Napier and takes an NBA head coaching job in the offseason, three days after UConn announces that the XL Center (and not Gampel Pavilion) will be the permanent home for UConn basketball next season.
The top overall seed in the tournament rides a 30-game win streak into the Final Four. Its coach has won two national titles, the team has won each of its tournament games by double digits, and it starts four seniors. Yet somehow the Gators still feel slightly underrated. This baffles me. We’ve had almost a full week of Final Four buildup, and the best team in the country feels like the least talked-about team. Is it because the Gators didn’t win thrilling games to get here? Is it because Florida’s presence in the semifinal isn’t a surprise? Is it because the Gators had been no. 1 so long that we’re bored with them? Or is it because all of my Final Four reading has come from UConn, Wisconsin, and Kentucky blogs? Maybe that’s it.
I don’t get the feeling this is a recent thing either. Florida has been consistently great since Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville, yet if you stopped a stranger on the street and asked them to name the five best coaches in college basketball, there’s a good chance they’d forget Donovan. It’s like people think he had only two good years or something, which isn’t close to true. Plus, let’s recall that those “two good years” resulted in TWO NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS.
My theory is that Florida basketball suffers from the “football school” label. Donovan’s compliments typically come with a football asterisk: He’s done an amazing job building a basketball program … at a football school. If Florida’s football program didn’t exist, Donovan’s accomplishments would still be remarkable. Are coaches worth a damn only if they work for schools that make basketball a top priority? I’m convinced that Donovan has been overlooked because of the football school curse, and that’s probably inevitable, but anyone who drops the football asterisk into their opinion of Donovan needs to also acknowledge him as one of the best coaches in the sport regardless of what school he coaches at.
How a national title would change the narrative:
John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, and Mike Krzyzewski. If Donovan wins his third national championship, that would be the entire list of coaches with more titles than him. Never mind if he’s one of the best coaches today — a third title puts him in the discussion of the best coaches of all time.
The more compelling narrative to me, though, is where a national title would put this Florida team in college basketball history. If the Gators win two more games, they’ll finish with a 38-2 record, and both of their losses will have come on the road without their full roster against Final Four teams. Winning a championship would also mean that Florida had avenged both of those losses or avenged one and beat a Kentucky team that has at least six future NBA players on its roster for the fourth time this season. On paper, this would be one of the best seasons ever. But 20 years from now, when we look back on this team and none of its players ended up having great NBA careers, will 2014 Florida be thought of as one of the best teams of all time? Can’t you see yourself getting into an online argument with some dickwad 17-year-old in 2034 who says 2014 Florida was overrated because he’s never heard of anybody on the team? I hate that kid already and he hasn’t even been born yet.
One final thought on Florida: Since the fall of 2000, the Gators football program has won two national titles and has a winning percentage of .718. In that same time period, the Gators basketball program has won two national titles (with a possible third on the way) and has a winning percentage of .758. So maybe we should be applauding Will Muschamp for winning 11 games in 2012 at a basketball school.2
Every Florida fan reading this just said, “‘Applauding Will Muschamp’ are three words that should never go together, even if you are making some sort of joke.”
Florida loses the national title game in quadruple overtime to Kentucky on a buzzer-beater from Jarrod Polson. That’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to the Gators. Not even losing to UConn by 60 would be as bad as being that close to a national title only to have it stolen away by your biggest rival, which you’ve already beaten three times, thanks to a walk-on’s shot.
—Frank Kaminsky, when asked how he thought Arizona players would describe Wisconsin
Even though Kaminsky’s quote will be interpreted as a joke, those two words perfectly capture the Wisconsin basketball narrative. The Badgers are coached by a former junior high coach who runs something called a “swing offense.” They all wear towels around their necks on the bench and hand them to each other when they check into games. Their school is located in a state known for beer and being cold as balls. Four of their starters are named Frank, Ben, Sam, and Josh, and they bring a guy off the bench named Bronson. They roll up their waistbands because their game shorts are too long. They don’t have names on the backs of their jerseys. They lead the nation in fewest turnovers per game and get immediately subbed out for turnovers or bad shots. Historically, they’re known for playing slow, deliberate basketball. And they’re affectionately known as the Buzzcuts, which is a nickname that dates back to when guys like Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, Jon Leuer, Joe Krabbenhoft, Jason Bohannon, Keaton Nankivil, and Kevin Gullikson took a no-nonsense approach to hair.
In all seriousness, I don’t think there’s a program in college basketball that has a more defined culture than Wisconsin, which is good and bad. The good part is that every Bo Ryan team is fundamentally sound, defensive-minded, and egoless. You can tell when watching Wisconsin that every Buzzcut has bought in to Ryan’s system, which is something that can’t be said for many teams. The flip side, however, is that it’s usually no coincidence that the players who have this kind of attitude aren’t as naturally gifted as the top talents in college basketball. And this talent deficit has burned Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament over the years. At some point in the postseason, a team will need to have a player who can create for himself and his teammates and make plays. The Buzzcuts have either not had that guy or their system has been so rigid and robotic that they couldn’t adapt when the tournament threw a different style at them.
Enter Frank Kaminsky and the flexibility of the 2014 Buzzcuts.
How a national title would change the narrative:
You could argue that Ryan finally making a Final Four both legitimizes and invalidates his old-school approach, since it took the Buzzcut players convincing him to let them play faster for him to get this far. Either way, Ryan has already erased his “only good during the regular season” stigma. Now, all that’s left to do is change the narrative of Wisconsin’s entire basketball program.
It’s almost too perfect that Wisconsin’s Final Four opponent will be Kentucky, a program that is Wisconsin’s complete opposite.3 Kentucky’s methods have been criticized as well (we’ll get to the Cats next), which is why Wisconsin beating them on college basketball’s biggest stage and then winning one more for good measure would be a massive cultural win for fans who prefer the Buzzcuts’ style. Ryan has proved that his way to run a program can succeed — recruit overlooked players, make them bide their time and learn from upperclassmen, then hand them the reins when they get older. The real question is whether Ryan’s old-school approach can win a national title. Can a major conference team win a national championship operating like a mid-major?
I’m pretty sure “one and done” in Wisconsin’s program refers to Ryan’s policy on behind-the-back passes, in that if you throw one, you’re done for the game.
If Wisconsin can win two more games and become the second team to win a national championship without a McDonald’s All American on its roster (Maryland in 2002 is the only team to do it), maybe other coaches will try to duplicate the Buzzcuts’ success. Nobody gets into coaching saying they want to finish in the top four of the conference every season and make one Final Four, which is what Ryan has done at Wisconsin. They get into coaching to win it all. If Ryan can achieve that with a team that sometimes appears to have more in common with the 1950s than modern-day basketball, maybe it will kill all the momentum that the “recruit a bunch of one-and-done guys and try to squeeze a national title out of them before they bolt to the NBA” movement has built, and other coaches will look to duplicate his path to a title.
Kaminsky gets in foul trouble because he can’t guard Julius Randle. Kentucky’s length on the perimeter swallows up Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson. Sam Dekker gets wrapped up in showing NBA scouts what he can do against a team full of future NBA players, so he starts jacking up too many 3s and overpenetrating. Kentucky obliterates Wisconsin on the boards, scoring 25-plus points from offensive rebounds. Ryan gets ejected for throwing a homemade challenge flag onto the court to argue a call. Bret Bielema sits courtside with his shirt off and “WISUCKSON #SEC” on his chest as Kentucky cruises to an easy win.
I really don’t know what the narrative is with Kentucky at this point. When John Calipari first got the job and started landing big recruits, the consensus seemed to be that he was going to be wildly successful in Lexington. He had already had success at UMass and Memphis, and neither of those schools had Kentucky’s resources. But that first team in 2010 was really young. That’s when the roller coaster known as the John Calipari narrative began.
I don’t think a young team can consistently win, no matter how talented they are. It’s just a completely different game than high school and it’s going to take them at least a year to get used to it.
The 2010 team starts 19-0 and enters the NCAA tournament with a 32-2 record.
Huh. I guess it can work. When you have that many NBA guys, it makes up for a lot of other issues.
Kentucky then loses to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight while shooting 4-for-32 from the 3-point line.
Like shooting! I knew it. You can’t win a title with a group of individuals. It takes a TEAM. Cal’s going to win a lot of games, but he’ll never win a national title that way.
Kentucky then beats no. 1 overall seed Ohio State en route to the 2011 Final Four before winning the 2012 national championship with one of the best teams of all time.
OK, so I guess he can win that way. Now that he’s figured it out and he’s got yet another great recruiting class coming in, we’re going to witness a Kentucky dynasty.
Kentucky loses to Robert Morris in the first round of the 2013 NIT.
Ha! I knew he was just lucky in 2012. That was a once-in-a-lifetime team that made everyone forget Cal’s inability to coach.
Kentucky is preseason no. 1 this season, yet loses 10 games before the NCAA tournament.
Yep. Cal’s reign is over. He’s gotta figure out another way to approach this because the revolving door at UK just can’t consistently work.
Kentucky makes the 2014 Final Four by going through arguably the toughest path to the Final Four ever.
How a national title would change the narrative:
If Kentucky wins its second national title in three years, even the biggest Kentucky haters would have to concede that Calipari’s approach is successful and that he’s one of the best coaches in the game. Hell, this should really just be accepted as fact by now anyway. The guy has made three Final Fours and won a national title in the last four years. Exactly zero other coaches in men’s college basketball can say they’ve done the same. What else does Calipari need to accomplish?
It seems that the biggest issue people have with Calipari and Kentucky — other than the history of NCAA violations, a general dislike for blue-blood programs, and Kentucky fans being the most vocal fan base in America — is that they’re scared of how he’s changing college basketball. They’re worried that the sport is becoming day care for NBA players. They’re scared that the only way teams will be able to compete in the future is to sell their souls and poop on all the virtues that make college sports great — you know, like teamwork, leadership, and letting the rich get richer by exploiting free labor.
It’s a valid concern. As successful as Kentucky has been, I’d be willing to bet that Kentucky fans would prefer to see their players stick around longer. After all, a big part of college basketball’s popularity comes from the sense of community it creates. Shabazz Napier isn’t just a good basketball player to UConn fans — he’s an ambassador. He’s one of them. He’s from the same area and goes to the same school they went to. He maybe even stayed in the same dorm, took classes in the same buildings, got drunk at the same bars, did keg stands at the same frats, grabbed fourth meal at the same Taco Bell, peed in the same elevator on the way back to his room, and passed out in the same bed as some of them. The one-and-done guys at Kentucky do what’s best for them (as they should), but you can’t help but wonder if they were in Lexington because they wanted to be a part of the UK experience, or if they were just there because the NBA told them they had to be.
A lot of people don’t care about this either way. And to many others, it’s a life-or-death moral struggle for the soul of the game. If Kentucky wins another national title on Monday, Calipari and his players will have proven definitively that loading up on freshman McDonald’s All Americans can win titles. And college basketball’s moral crusaders will be forced to contemplate a sports world in which there are more John Walls than Shabazz Napiers.
Willie Cauley-Stein can’t play because of his ankle injury. Marcus Lee starts in his place after playing so well against Michigan. Lee has been told how great he played all week, and he’s really feeling himself. This leads to Lee trying to make post moves and shoot from outside instead of just throwing down putbacks like he did in the Elite Eight. Calipari gets upset and subs Dakari Johnson for Lee, but Johnson is visibly struggling with his confidence after losing his starting spot to Lee. Meanwhile, Frank Kaminsky makes it rain all over Kentucky’s faces, and yells, “Kaminsky-skee-skee motherf—er!” like the East Side Boyz after every shot. Josh Gasser locks up James Young. Julius Randle tries to keep up with Kaminsky’s onslaught by putting his head down and muscling his way to the basket, leading to a couple of offensive fouls. The Harrison twins have off games. Sam Dekker shows why he was projected as a possible lottery pick at the start of the season. Bret Bielema sits courtside with his shirt off and “WISUCKSON #SEC” on his chest, and tries to high-five Kentucky players throughout the game. Kentucky loses by 20, the entire starting five declares for the NBA draft, and the scandal UK fans swore would never happen happens as Calipari gets busted by the NCAA. Kentucky fires Cal and hires a guy named Robert Morris, who then hires Tom Crean as his top assistant after Indiana lets Crean go.