The road to the Final Four is never easy -- not even for the teams who have made it all the way to North Texas. Florida's best player has been suspended twice and was nearly kicked off the team, UConn is one year removed from a postseason ban, Wisconsin lost three straight and four of five early in Big 10 play and Kentucky lost consecutive games to Arkansas and South Carolina.
Here is how each team got to this point:
- Nov. 19, 59-53 at Wisconsin: In picking the two worst losses of the season, Florida leaves little choice in the matter with only two total losses. It just so happens that the two defeats are to half of the Final Four field. In the second game of the year for both teams, one was at full strength while the other was not. The Gators were without starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, missing the second of three games due to his suspension. The Badgers took a three-point lead into halftime and slowly built on it; UF battled late, but it wasn't enough.
- Dec. 2, 65-64 at UConn: The only other team to defeat Florida this season is none other than its Final Four opponent. UConn was able to chase the Gators from the three-point line, and the SEC leaders in three-pointers made, who average 18 threes attempted per game, went just three-of-nine from deep. Wilbekin injured his ankle, and as a result Florida was one of many to struggle in slowing down Shabazz Napier. More on that later.
- Dec. 10, 67-61 vs. Kansas: Of all of Florida's "Best wins" and "
Worstlosses," this is the only one where the opponent isn't in the Final Four. In this game, the Gators overcame a huge performance from Kansas' star freshman Andrew Wiggins, who scored 26 points on 7-of-15 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds. UF was out-rebounded by double-digits, but pushed through with strong three-point shooting (7-of-14) and a big game from Wilbekin.
- Feb. 15, 69-59 at Kentucky: Florida beat the Wildcats three times over the course of the season, but the battle in Rupp Arena had the largest margin of victory. The Gators went into Lexington against one of the most talented teams in the country and pulled off the win. Wilbekin went 11-of-12 from the charity stripe and Casey Prather led all scorers with 24.
Wilbekin has taken a roundabout path to leading the Gators to the Final Four. He has been suspended twice throughout his career for violations of team rules, and Alligator Army mused that the violations were for failing drug tests. He has come back to play on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Wilbekin always draws the most difficult perimeter assignment for the Gators, and usually does his job very well when healthy. He has led the Gators in scoring in the NCAA Tournament, and he led them in assists and steals this season.
Billy Donovan is the longest-tenured of the coaches left in the Final Four. The Rick Pitino disciple has been at Florida since 1996, and has been very successful in his time there. He has led Florida to six trips to the Elite Eight in the past decade, and this season made it four straight. The 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons brought him back-to-back National Championships, and the 48-year-old isn't close to being done.
- Dec. 31, 75-71 vs. Houston: The first half of this game might have been the lowest point of the season for the Huskies. UConn trailed Houston by 21 points with less than a minute left in the half. The second half was a different story, but it wasn't quite enough to get the win. The Huskies came out of halftime desperate, and took the lead within eight minutes. It didn't stick, however, with the Cougars grabbing the four-point victory.
- Feb 23, 64-55 vs. SMU: SMU came out on top twice in the two meetings between these teams, but in this one the Huskies were at home, making this the choice. UConn was unable to hit anything from the field, shooting under 30 percent, while Larry Brown's Mustangs shot 6-for-12 from behind the arc.
- Dec. 2, 65-64 vs. Florida: Napier took advantage of a hobbled Wilbekin to the tune of 26 points. None of them were bigger than his final two. The game went back and forth throughout, and neither team was able to pull far ahead. It came down to luck in the end, as the final basket to win it came from Napier squirming his way through a double team, losing the ball, regaining possession, missing, having the rebound tip straight into his shooting pocket. He then hit the shot -- after he hurt his ankle on a four-point play earlier in the contest.
- March 30, 60-54 vs. Michigan State: One doesn't have to look far into UConn's past to find the next-most impressive win for the Huskies. In their most recent victory, MSU was finally healthy (aside from Keith Appling's everything) and Adreian Payne was putting his season averages to shame. That wasn't enough for the Spartans, as Napier put on another show with 25 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal.
As of right now, Napier, the heart and soul of UConn, could be considered the best player in the country. For the season, he led the Huskies in points, assists, steals and rebounding. He makes ridiculous pull-up threes from NBA distance, and he is well on his way to winning the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. For the Big Dance he is averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds, 4.5 assists and two steals. He's been not only the best player in the Tournament; he's been far and away the most entertaining.
Meet Kevin Ollie
Ollie hasn't been at this coaching thing for very long, showing that experience can be overrated. He played for the Oklahoma City Thunder after the relocation from Seattle. Ollie played for 11 NBA franchises in his 13-year career before retiring to his full-time gig on the sidelines. He immediately stepped into an assistant coaching position under his college coach, Jim Calhoun, and was was a part of the the Huskies' 2011 National Championship.
Ollie retired from playing in 2010, got his first gig as a head coach in 2012, and is now leading a team in the Final Four. That's a fast rise.
- Jan. 29, 65-56 vs. Northwestern: At home, against a clearly inferior opponent, the Badgers should not have lost this game. Northwestern's Dane Crawford put forth a Herculean effort, scoring 30 points with eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in 40 minutes. The Badgers could not buy a bucket all night long, going 26 percent from the field and 5-of-24 from behind the arc.
- Jan 14, 75-72 at Indiana: The choice could have been the loss against Minnesota a week later, but with the Golden Gophers raising the NIT trophy, we'll go with this one. For whatever reason, the Badgers were unable to get to the free throw line: UW attempted only four freebies all game long, hitting one.
- Nov.12, 59-53 vs. Florida: The Badgers decided not to go easy on themselves in their home opener, bringing in a team coming off of three straight Elite Eight appearances. It turned into the best win of the season. Ben Brust scored 11 points and surprisingly grabbed nine rebounds.
- March 29, 64-63 (OT) vs. Arizona: This is another one that could have gone either way, but UW's win against Virginia was before the Wahoos hit their stride. Frank Kaminsky used his skill to counter the Wildcats' athleticism, resulting in 28 points, including six in overtime, and 11 rebounds, the second double-double of his career.
Kaminsky broke out with 43 points early in the season against North Dakota and never looked back. He averaged 10.3 points per game in his sophomore campaign before making a huge leap this. He now leads the Badgers in scoring, rebounding and shot blocking. The 7-footer doesn't wow with his athletic ability. He scores using exceptional skill and coordination for a man his size, and having a jumper that extends to the three-point arc doesn't hurt.
Meet Bo Ryan
Ryan has made his way around Wisconsin and fought his way up. He served as the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before he was hired as the head man at Wisconsin-Madison, the big one. He had to win three Division III National Championships while at Wisconsin-Platteville before he got the job at the Division I Milwaukee. Two years later he was offered the gig at Madison.
In his time coaching the Badgers, he has won Big Ten Coach of the Year three times, and this is now his first trip to the Final Four. It means a lot to him.
- March 1, 72-67 at South Carolina: This is the bad Carolina. The same Gamecocks that went 4-12 in conference play beat current contender Kentucky. This is easily the worst loss of any of the teams remaining. UK couldn't put the ball in the basket, shooting 14-of-52 (27 percent) from the field. Julius Randle went 1-for-7 from the floor, contributing to the poor shooting.
- Jan. 28 87-82 vs. LSU: Kentucky is at least losing to schools that are good at football. Oh, SEC-SEC-SEC! that's right. This loss came at the hands of LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant III. He had nine rebounds to supplement 29 points in the upset. James Young had 23 points and seven rebounds of his own, but it wasn't enough to offset Randle finishing with only six points and five boards.
- March 23, 78-76 vs. Wichita State: It was one of the most entertaining games of the tournament. The schools traded baskets and leads like baseball cards until Young hit a three with less than two minutes remaining put the Wildcats up for good. Randle put up his usual double-double and added six assists, while the Harrison twins combined for 39 points.
- March 30, 75-72 vs. Michigan: Aaron Harrison will likely be playing in the NBA some time soon, where the three-point line will be moved back a bit. His buzzer beater with 2.3 seconds remaining was well beyond the NBA three-point arc, giving him 12 points off of four threes in the final nine minutes - the only points he scored all game.
Randle is one of the best pro prospects in the country. He has grown-man strength in the paint to go along with post moves and good mobility. He is a double-double machine, averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds. As the headliner of "The Greatest Recruiting Class in the History of Forever" Randle has had great expectations placed on him all season long, and he has delivered.
Meet John Calipari
The master of the one-and-done. If NBA commissioner Adam Silver gets his way and the age limit requires players to stay in college for two seasons, Calipari could be even better than he already is, and he already is one of the best coaches in the country. Coach Cal has a championship on his resume, and this will be his fifth Final Four, though two of them have been vacated.
Calipari is simply the best recruiter in the country. In this era of freshman phenoms, he might be at his very best.