No. 1: Florida
Last Week: No. 1
Road to the Final Four: Wore out Albany, 67-55; declawed Pittsburgh, 61-45; ran past UCLA, 79-68; grounded Dayton, 62-52.
Record vs. Final Four teams: 3-2 (3-0 vs. Kentucky, 0-1 vs. UConn, 0-1 vs. Wisconsin)
EfficiencHeat Check1: 1.11 points per possession, 0.90 PPP allowed
Florida's the only Final Four team to have won all of its games by double digits. This has somehow turned into something of a negative for the Gators, whose play en route to the Final Four was less impressive than Kentucky's, as the Wildcats knocked off three national title contenders (by two, five, and three points), and less impressive than Wisconsin's, because the Badgers were better on a per-possession basis, and the least impressive of the four Final Four teams, because Florida played poorly against Albany and didn't blow out Dayton.
But, on the court, Florida letting teams hang around has only made those teams susceptible to the Gators' grinding runs. Albany had the game tied, 39-39, and then Florida put together a 9-0 run. Pittsburgh led 15-13 early, then got shut down by a 21-9 run that spanned almost 20 minutes. UCLA closed to within a point at 56-55; Florida jabbed back with a 10-0 run, then added an 11-5 run to end the game for good measure. Dayton took a 21-19 lead, only for Florida to drop a 17-3 avalanche on the Flyers to finish the first half.
Teams have stayed with the Gators for longer than expected in this NCAA Tournament, but Florida has delivered the finishing combination each time.
Also: Last week, I wrote "Don't count on the Gators staying that cold from distance" after Florida shot 25 percent from three over its first two games. The Gators made 13 of 36 threes last weekend in Memphis, dragging their average from distance all the way up to 30.9 percent for the Tournament. And ace Michael Frazier II is "only" shooting 38.4 percent from deep, well under the 45 percent mark that his season average has hovered around.
That could continue. But I think it's much more likely that the Gators and Frazier heat up a bit in Dallas. And so I like Florida's chances against all three of the teams it could potentially play.
Shabazz Napier scored UConn's final six points in the Huskies' regular-season win over Florida while Scottie Wilbekin was in the locker room in a game that Kasey Hill missed, so UConn's really only proved that it's marginally better than Florida without a proper point guard on the floor for the Gators at the most important moment of the game. Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson had to hit a game-sealing shot with 11 seconds left for the Badgers to finish off a depleted and much different Florida2 at home in the second game of the season.
Plus, Florida beat Kentucky three times while the 'Cats still had a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein, who troubles Florida with his height in a way that few other frontcourt players can. Marcus Lee likely isn't the same kind of scary against Florida that he was against Michigan.
The impressiveness or lack thereof of its Tournament run aside, Florida's played well enough to never have to sweat out a game over its last four, and is the only No. 1 seed to have held serve and made the Final Four.
Just one No. 1 seed made the Final Four in 2013 and 2012, too — and Louisville and Kentucky finished their seasons with national titles.
No. 2: Wisconsin
Last Week: No. 7
Road to the Final Four: Shocked and awed American, 75-35; ducked Oregon upset, 85-77; clawed Baylor, 69-52; bore down on Arizona, 64-63 (OT).
Record vs. Final Four teams: 1-0 (1-0 vs. Florida)
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.19 points per possession, 0.92 PPP allowed
No. 3: Kentucky
Last Week: No. 6
Road to the Final Four: Bruised Kansas State, 56-49; shocked Wichita State, 78-76; ejected Louisville, 74-69; out-classic'd Michigan, 75-72.
Record vs. Final Four teams: 0-3 (0-3 vs. Florida)
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.16 points per possession, 1.09 PPP allowed
Suddenly, Kentucky isn't just talented: It's "clutch."
Late-game situations beguiled the Wildcats for much of the year: They faded against Baylor and at Arkansas, faded badly in both regular-season losses to Florida, and lost close games to Arkansas at home and South Carolina on the road because they could not put together more than one brief spurt of stellar play in those games.
That was true of some of Kentucky's wins this year, too; the 'Cats escaped at home against LSU by very briefly turning on the jets, and pulled away from Tennessee and Auburn late by doing the same thing.
Now, they appear to have figured out how to make stretches of stellar play into stellar halves and games.
Kentucky extended its lead against Kansas State from eight points with 10 minutes to go to 13 with two minutes to play, and it took a late and fruitless flurry by the purple-clad Wildcats for them to "win" the final 10 minutes by a point in a seven-point loss. Kentucky won the final 10 minutes against Wichita State by a point, after winning the first 10 minutes of the second half by seven points, and beat the Shockers by three; it crushed Louisville late, with a 28-19 advantage over the final 10 minutes of their Sweet Sixteen thriller that included an 8-0 run, winning that game by five; it jetted by Michigan with an 11-0 run, then scored just as efficiently as the Wolverines over the last five minutes of their Elite Eight classic, en route to its three-point win.
Kentucky was just 2-8 in games decided by five or fewer points this season entering the NCAA Tournament. Now, Big Blue is 5-8 in those games after a 3-0 stretch in consecutive games over title contenders.
But if you want to read about Kentucky being the favorite to win it all, pick up a different Internet paper. The 'Cats aren't even favored to make the NCAA Tournament final: Wisconsin is, and for good reason.
The Wildcats have gotten here with good late and "clutch" play, but also with Andrew Harrison morphing into Ray Allen (he's 13-for-24 from three in the NCAA Tournament) and Marcus Lee being a better forward than anyone on Michigan's forward-light roster in Willie Cauley-Stein's stead. Kentucky's best skill, offensive rebounding, has been matched against three teams (Kansas State, Louisville, and Michigan) that ranged from relatively to terribly bad at stopping it; only Wichita State has held Kentucky under a 40 percent offensive rebounding rate in this Tournament, and the Shockers, one of the nation's best defensive rebounding teams, still allowed Kentucky to corral more than a third of the available boards.
The Badgers aren't a great defensive team, but they blend great defensive rebounding (the Badgers are 13th nationally) and the sort of foul-averse defense that Michigan played (Wisconsin is third nationally in defensive free throws attempted per field goal attempt, right behind No. 2 Michigan) to disrupt the Wildcats' parade to the foul line. Those two aspects of defense are, in a vacuum, the exact aspects that should significantly trouble Kentucky, and Wisconsin does them quite well.
The Badgers also limit damage from the perimeter. Wisconsin opponents get just 23.2 percent of their points from threes, 295th nationally, and, because those opponents also get just 17.1 percent of their points from the line, Wisconsin gives up a whopping 59.7 percent of its points on twos. Kentucky's not terrible at making twos, but many of the ones it does make come within feet of the basket ... and this Tournament's best player so far, Frank Kaminsky, doesn't really yield those all that often.
Plus, for all its good work on the offensive end, Kentucky's still allowed 1.09 PPP over the last two weeks, and that number is significantly deflated by a great performance against Kansas State. Over its last three games, the Wildcats' defense has been torched for 1.19 PPP; only four defenses in college basketball averaged worse than that mark this season, and though Kentucky has suffered that rain against great teams and still come out shining, it's a cause for concern.
Forget about Kentucky's "best NCAA Tournament run ever" or "best John Calipari coaching job ever" hype for now: To even get to that drool-worthy fourth matchup against Florida, the Wildcats must beat a fourth consecutive KenPom top-10 team, one that also happens to be their worst matchup of this Tournament so far.
And no national champion in the KenPom era has beaten four consecutive top-10 teams.
No. 4: UConn
Last Week: No. 11
Road to the Final Four: Overcame Saint Joseph's, 89-81 (OT); Shabazzed Villanova, 77-65; lined up and knocked down Iowa State, 81-76; grounded Michigan State, 60-54.
Record vs. Final Four teams: 1-0 (1-0 vs. Florida)
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.14 points per possession, 1.02 PPP allowed
No national champion in the KenPom era has been under the .9000 mark in KenPom's Pythagorean rating, either. As of this moment, UConn sits at .8903.
The Huskies are very different from what they were when Florida first saw them. Amida Brimah, now a superb paint defender for UConn, played just 17 minutes in that first game, and was mostly a non-factor; Omar Calhoun started, and Tyler Olander played long enough to rack up five fouls, and those two Huskies have played a combined 10 minutes in the NCAA Tournament. And UConn has developed an excellent defense, and a consistent offense — based on threes and free throws, rather than dependent solely on Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright making inefficient two-point jumpers off the bounce — to go with it.
UConn's also been to the valley of the shadow of a bad season and come back out. The Huskies moved to 8-0 with their win over Florida, and to 9-0 with a win over Maine four days later, but they went 17-8 over their next 25 games, accruing three losses to Louisville, two to SMU, and one to lowly Houston over that span. They were briefly No. 9 in KenPom in November, but would fall all the way to No. 44 at one point, and only just recently got back into the top 20. After all of that tumult, UConn is a different team, and a better one.
Florida's different and better, too, but the Gators struggled to prevent UConn from raining threes (the Huskies made 11 of 24 triples) and got little from Frazier, who took just five shots, and just three treys. Keeping Frazier under wraps has been most teams' aim since he scorched South Carolina in early March, and it's mostly kept Florida from having a truly great day on offense since, but UConn was the first team to really bottle up Frazier this year, and the Huskies could well do that again, potentially by siccing the lanky Lasan Kromah on him.
And then there's Shabazz, the one player who has given Florida, now in possession of the nation's best defense by KenPom's sights, more fits than any other. He made all sorts of bad shots against the Gators in Storrs, and seared this Florida's team's last loss in the Gators' collective consciousness with his buzzer-beater.
Florida hasn't lost since that night. But it hasn't seen a dynamic guard quite like Shabazz since, either.
If UConn beats the Gators, and then beats either Kentucky or Wisconsin, the Huskies might yet get to that .9000 plateau. The national championship would probably be slightly more important.
This week's EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson, and this is the last time I'm gonna include that disclaimer, so thanks, Chip, if you read this — covers only the four NCAA Tournament games all four Final Four teams have played. (For good measure: Four, once more.)
Florida was without Wilbekin (suspended) and Hill (fouled out) on the floor at the end, and without Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith (also suspended) for the full game. Walk-on Jacob Kurtz played 21 minutes for Florida in that game; Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, so limited after breaking his leg earlier this year that he would eventually take a medical redshirt, played 10. Kurtz played in the first half last Saturday against Dayton, so he could theoretically play for the Gators against UConn, but Carter couldn't play if he wanted to, and hasn't even been traveling with the team throughout this NCAA Tournament. At that point, we thought Damontre Harris was going to play for Florida this season. And Chris Walker, who has played in all four of Florida's NCAA Tournament games, wasn't even enrolled at Florida then.
It was a different time.