PUT ME IN COACH: Creme De La Creme
As we get set for the Final Four games to tip off a little after 5 p.m. today, the main thing I noticed is that, even after the upsets, the wild finishes and the drama, the cream has risen to the top.
Whether by name recognition (Kentucky and UConn) or by seeding (Wisconsin) and Florida (which could easily fit into both categories based on its 21st century hardcourt success), the best teams have arrived at one of the grandest sports stages in Arlington Texas.
Though Kentucky entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed, the Wildcats have the strongest hoops tradition of the Final Four teams, maybe combined. You are probably familiar with some of the accolades, but let’s go over it again.
The Wildcats are the winningiest program in college basketball history (76.1 percent) and have the most NCAA tournament appearances with 53 overall and wins with 117.
If a man named John Wooden (who was a snowstorm away from becoming the Gophers men’s basketball coach), hadn’t stopped by UCLA, the Wildcats eight NCAA basketball championships might be the most all time, as well.
For the record, UCLA has 11 championship trophies.
The Bruins are third All-Time in appearances in the event taking place this weekend with 16 Final Four appearances.
UConn also has a rich basketball tradition, which is also only slightly disguised by its No. 7 seed. The Huskies have taken home three NCAA championships, which is tied for sixth on the all-time list and have been to five Final Fours, which is ninth on the all-time list, along with 32 NCAA tournament appearances.
UConn is guided by one of the up-and-coming coaches in the nation in former NBA player Kevin Ollie, who has taken the Huskies to a Final Four in just his second year at the helm. He took over for Jim Calhoun, who decided to retire after the 2012 season.
The Gators’ successful basketball roots don’t run as deep, but they are a name you definitely recognize. Coach Billy Donovan and Florida splashed onto the scene ever since the millennium turned. The Gators have won three national championships in the past 15 years, including back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
Donovan, alone, has become the winningest coach in Florida history with those back-to-back titles as well as three Final Four appearances, 12 NCAA tournament appearances and 15 consecutive postseason appearances.
His 28-10 mark in the NCAA tournament puts him third all-time with the likes of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina coach Roy Williams – not a bad group to share a table with.
Of the four, the Badgers would be considered the new kids on the block and have ushered in a new era of Wisconsin basketball.
While their success may be of the more recent and modern variety, the Badgers are led by an old school coach in Bo Ryan, who took over in 2002 and won Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first two seasons.
Ryan has a career winning percentage of .757 and has joined the likes of Wooden, Coach K, Williams, Jerry Tarkanian and Dean Smith in the wins discussion.
Under Ryan, the Badgers have reached 12 straight NCAA tournaments, including five trips to the Sweet 16. Wisconsin has now reached its first Final Four under Ryan and the program’s first since 2000 – the year Florida won the national championship.
With Florida being the lone team remaining in my bracket (I had Florida, Michigan State, Arizona and Louisville in the Final Four), this is the part where I’m going to admit what went right and what went wrong up until now.
What I got wrong: UConn really messed up my bracket and took out the likes of Michigan State and Iowa State en route to Arlington. The Huskies, like the Wildcats, are a program with players that turn it up a notch come March.
Kansas and Syracuse are two other teams that I expected to go a lot farther than they did, but Dayton was the Cinderella of this year’s tournament in my opinion – if we were going to name one that is.
What I got right: Florida was one of the hottest teams heading into the tournament and one of the most popular picks to win it all across the country. The Gators have lived up to expectations. I had Michigan losing in the Elite Eight, but had them losing to Louisville. Still, Florida is a team I believe lived up to expectations for the most part.
It’s going to be hard for coach Greg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers to win the “You didn’t play anyone” argument after losing to Kentucky in the third round – even if it was just by two points.
Biggest surprises of the tournament: I’m going to throw UConn in here and leave Kentucky out just because Kentucky turned it on under John Calipari in March, which is somewhat expected. The Huskies, under Ollie, were not expected to make a Final Four run. Dayton, of course, should be in the mix after knocking off Ohio State and Kansas before losing to Florida.
Creighton surprised me in a disappointing way, getting blown out by Baylor in the third round.
Biggest disappointments of the tournament: Duke, Syracuse and Kansas all had very favorable matchups and none of them made it past the third round of the Tournament. Duke’s loss to No. 15-seeded Mercer was the tournament’s biggest upset.
Predictions: The Huskies were the last team to beat Florida when the two teams squared off Dec. 2, 2013, in Storrs, Conn. Gator’s star in Scottie Wilbekin was out for the final 3 minutes of the game with an injured ankle and UConn’s star Shabazz Napier drained a buzzer-beating jumper from the free-throw line to give the Huskies the 65-64 win.
Chris Walker, another key Gator, was out due to eligibility issues, which he has since cleared.
While both teams can boast that they’ve improved since then, I think the Huskies tank is finally going to run out of gas and Florida will have too much talent to lose to this team twice. The Gators advance to the title game.
The Kentucky-Wisconsin matchup should be a very competitive game as the Badgers are a legit team with the No. 2 seed against arguably the hottest team in the country in the Wildcats. Kentucky just keeps finding ways to win.
The signs started to come when the Wildcats knocked off the No. 1 seed Wichita State and, then, it became even clearer when Aaron Harrison hit a highly-contested 24-footer in the waining seconds to knock off the Wolverines.
Kentucky won’t let anything stop it from reaching the title game, and I don’t know how, but they will find a way to beat Wisconsin and take on Florida for the fourth time this season – this time for the national title.