FLORIDA VS. UCONN
That is the average time opponents have taken this season to get up a shot against the Gators, which is a lot considering transition scores that take just a few seconds off the clock. Florida plays man-to-man approximately 80% of the time but Billy Donovan will go zone – mostly 1-3-1 – against teams that have short point guards or when he wants to trap the wings and corner. Florida presses not so much to turn the ball over although turnovers are indeed a bonus but to force tempo, bad decisions and take time off the shot clock. The Florida press didn’t turn Dayton over much, but the Flyers rarely got the offense going inside the 3-point line with more than 17-18 seconds on the clock. When the Gators played UConn the first time, they didn’t press nearly as much because Kasey Hill wasn’t available and Billy Donovan couldn’t afford for Wilbekin to get into foul trouble. As it was, Wilbekin missed the final 3:01 of the game with a sprained ankle. With Hill available, the Gators will press sporadically, mostly when Donovan thinks the Gators need to speed the tempo up.
55 vs. 232
These are the most important numbers for the key matchup between Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and UConn’s Shabazz Napier. Wilbekin, who is widely regarded as the best perimeter defender in the nation, has only committed 55 personal fouls this year in the 33 games he’s played. When you can play lockdown defense without fouling, you are light years ahead of the game. Napier, on the other hand, has gotten to the foul line 232 times in 37 games where he has hit 86.6% of his free throws. Napier averages 18.1 points per game of which nearly six per game come from the line. Wilbekin’s challenge is to make Napier take uncomfortable shots without letting him get to the foul line. Napier has an extremely quick trigger from the 3-point line which causes defenders to charge forward at the first hint that he might be launching, which, of course, gives him the chance to put the ball on the deck and drive to the hole where he has a chance to draw contact. Wilbekin’s challenge will be to keep his feet so Napier can’t blow by on the dribble and close quickly when Napier does decide to pull the trigger.
UCONN’S THREE LOSSES TO LOUISVILLE
Three of UConn’s seven losses were at the hands of Louisville by margins of 10, 12 and 33 points. In the 12-point loss back on January 18, Napier went off for 30, hitting 5-10 from the 3-point line and 11-13 from the foul line. Boatright only had 10 in that game, hitting 4-14 from the field and 0-4 from the 3-point line. In the other two Louisville wins, Napier and Boatright couldn’t get anything going. In They were a combined 7-22 from the field and 3-12 from the 3-point line in the 12-point loss and a disastrous 4-24 and 1-14 from the 3-point line in the 33-point loss. So what was the difference? How did Louisville manage to shut Napier and Boatright down completely in the last two meetings? The answer was tempo and pressure in the backcourt. Louisville wore Napier and Boatright out by alternating zone and man full court pressure then bringing double teams from all angles whenever Napier and Boatright touched the ball. They forced the two to take shots they aren’t happy taking. Also, in the last couple of games, Montrezl Harrell totally dominated the inside. UConn had no one capable of stopping him in the paint.
THAT FLORIDA LOSS TO UCONN
Florida dominated everything in the paint, outscoring the Huskies, 32-14, but UConn made up for the deficit at the 3-point line – both in putting the ball in the hole and keeping Florida from getting good shots from the outside. UConn hit 11-24 from the 3-point line while limiting the Gators to 3-9. Michael Frazier II played 39 minutes but he only got five shots off and was only 1-3 from the 3-point line. UConn had no answers for Florida in the paint where Patric Young scored 17 points and Casey Prather slashed for 19. UConn will not have any answers for Florida’s inside game again, but the Gators will have to defend the 3-point line better than they did back on December 2 or else the season will come to an end.
UConn essentially runs a 4-man offense. Whoever is at center is just there to rebound and block shots. The four guys involved in the offense can definitely shoot the ball and it’s their two bigger guys – 6-9 DeAndre Daniels (43.2%) and 6-7 Niels Giffey (49.1%) – who shoot the 3-ball better than Napier and Boatright. Both Boatright and Napier try to control the tempo of the game. Napier can get to the rim and while Boatright is pretty much a jump shooter, he has such a quick first step that he can get free pretty much whenever he wants. The key with both of them is to force them out of their comfort zones. The Gators have to force Napier to use his left hand. If he’s turning into his shot off the right handed dribble, he can be lethal. The best way to defend Boatright is to crowd him. Daniels likes the straightway 3-ball and will take it from the corner. He’s really good in getting the ball down low then maneuvering off the dribble to take a quick jumper from about 10 feet. Giffey will only score inside in transition or backdoor cuts. He’s lethal from the corner. Florida might go big with the zone by putting Prather or Dorian Finney-Smith out front to make the smaller UConn guards (Napier 6-1, Boatright 6-0) throw the ball over the top, but mostly it’s going to be man-to-man. Napier is a scorer so you figure he will get his. The idea for the Gators is to force the other four guys into having a sub-par night. Expect a lot of full court pressure.
In the first game, UConn was willing to let the Gators score in the paint but not from the 3-point line. Against Michigan State, UConn did just the opposite and dared the Spartans to beat them from the 3-point line. Whatever the Huskies do it will be from a man-to-man set and there won’t be a lot of pressing although the Huskies do like to trap on the wings. One thing for certain, UConn’s defensive strategy will start with the concept of taking Michael Frazier II out of the game. Boatright will get that assignment unless the Gators go smaller and bring Kasey Hill into the game. That will put Giffey on Frazier and that might work very well for the Gators. The Huskies let Dorian Finney-Smith go free in the first game. Finney-Smith is like Frazier in that if he can hit his first shot or two, it could be a big night.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
FLORIDA (36-2): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier II (6-4, 199, SO)
CONNECTICUT (30-7): Phillip Nolan (6-10, 230, SR); DeAndre Daniels (6-9, 195, JR); Niels Giffey (6-7, 200, SR); Shabazz Napier (6-1, 180, SR); Ryan Boatright (6-0, 168, JR)
RATING THE STARTERS: Wilbekin vs. Napier is dead even. Florida is clearly superior at center (Young) and small forward (Prather) while UConn gets the edge with Boatright and Daniels.
RATING THE BENCHES: Florida gets plenty of production out of Finney-Smith and Hill and has an X-factor in Chris Walker. If the Gators can get some offense from DeVon Walker, that’s a plus. UConn gets very little production from its bench except for blocked shots from Amida Brimah and occasional offense from Lasan Kromah. Florida has a big edge.
PREDICTION: Florida dominates in the paint and while Napier gets his points, shuts down the other four. Gators advance to their fourth NCAA championship game since 2000.
WISCONSIN VS. KENTUCKY
50 vs. 276
These are the important numbers you need to know for Sam Dekker (Wisconsin) and Julius Randle (Kentucky), whose matchup is probably the most critical of the game. Dekker is a marvelous defender who knows how to clamp down on people without fouling. He has committed only 50 fouls the entire season. The 276 is the number of times that Randle has gone to the foul line this season. When he’s at the foul line, Kentucky is scoring points when the clock isn’t moving and the fouls are beginning to mount for the other team. Can Dekker stop Randle without fouling? He has to because there is no one on the Wisconsin bench capable of stepping in and stopping Randle, who is brute force around the basket. On the other hand, if Dekker is effective cutting off Randle’s dribble, will Randle be patient enough to get the ball out to the perimeter and then try to post Dekker up? Whoever wins this matchup probably wins the game.
THOSE LAST THREE GAMES FOR KENTUCKY
The hype is all about Kentucky knocking off three of last year’s Final Four on consecutive games in Wichita State, which came into the game undefeated; Louisville, last year’s national champion; and Michigan, which got to the championship game last year. It looks so good on paper, but was Wichita State really that good? When Kentucky beat the Shockers it was a great game, but it was only one game and Wichita State really hadn’t played anyone all season. Louisville was playing great until the NCAA Tournament. In the two NCAA games before going down to Kentucky, Louisville stunk. Louisville didn’t stink against Kentucky, but let’s face it, the Cards really didn’t play all that well. Was that because of Kentucky or was it they just weren’t playing all that well? As for Michigan, that was a team with little or no inside presence. Nobody is going to beat Kentucky without an inside game, but Michigan came within three points of doing it. Kentucky is clearly playing better than it did when the Gators hosed them by 19 in Gainesville back on March 8, but are the Wildcats playing well enough to beat Wisconsin?
THAT 1-5 STREAK FOR WISCONSIN
Wisconsin went through a 1-5 stretch from mid-January until February 1 when it couldn’t find the ocean from the end of the pier. Ohio State packed the middle and dared the Badgers to win from the outside. Wisconsin couldn’t do it. Minnesota took everything to the rack and only shot seven 3-balls and won by 13. Indiana and Michigan both killed the Badgers from the outside. Northwestern spread the Wisconsin defense and took away help defense. What this tells us is there is no magic formula for beating Wisconsin. The one constant is you can’t let the Badgers get their feet set beyond the arc with a clean look at the basket because they hit 37.5% of their 3-pointers.
There really isn’t a magic formula for why Kentucky is playing better since the start of the SEC Tournament. They’re making shots from the outside. That’s it. When the Harrison twins and James Young are all three hitting shots, Kentucky is really hard to defend. What makes the perimeter game go is the hard drives to the basket that (a) get the Wildcats to the foul line a lot and (b) force defense to collapse, which leaves open shooters on the perimeter. To beat Kentucky, you can’t foul and you have to defend the 3-point line. Wisconsin has ALLOWED opponents only 558 free throw attempts this season. The Badgers have committed only 556 fouls all season, which is 15 per game. For Wisconsin to win this game, the Badgers have to commit 15 or fewer fouls. Wisconsin is allowing 34% shooting from the 3-point line. Bo Ryan has to be concerned that in the NCAA Tournament Arizona went 5-12 from the 3-point line and Oregon went 8-18. If the Badgers give up that kind of percentage, they’re toast. The key matchup on the perimeter will be Traveon Jackson on Andrew Harrison. Jackson gives up four inches in height but he’s physically strong enough to handle Harrison and he’s quicker. Josh Gasser will have James Young on the other wing. He also gives up inches but he’s a sound position defender who is capable of cutting off the dribble penetration from the wing.
The offense is actually part of the defensive scheme for Bo Ryan. By putting five shooters on the floor at once is problem enough, but when you throw in this funky offense that is a version of The Wheel that keeps everyone in constant motion, it wears defenses to a frazzle. Against Arizona, the Badgers ran the Wildcats into the ground chasing shooters all over the floor. Zone them and they’ll kill you from the 3-point line. Play them straight man and you better have the legs to chase them all over the floor. Wisconsin is not going to turn the ball over. The Badgers throw it away only eight times a game. If the bigs won’t come out to challenge Frank Kaminsky, he will bomb away from 3-ball land and make you pay. Come out and challenge him and he’ll put the ball on the deck and blow by. Now that Willie Cauley-Stein isn’t around, Kentucky doesn’t have that safety valve to protect the rim. The key matchup will be whoever Kentucky puts on Ben Brust, who might be the best shooter from the corner in the country. Gasser hits 43.5% from the 3-point line and he’s particularly effective straight on. Dekker and Jackson are the guys Wisconsin counts on to score off the bounce although Jackson is a solid 38.4% shooter from beyond the arc. Kentucky has to be able to force everything out of the paint and make Wisconsin win the game from the 3-point line. That’s the same formula
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
WISCONSIN (30-7): Frank Kaminsky (7-0, 234, JR); Sam Dekker (6-8, 200, SO); Ben Brust (6-1, 196, SR); Traveon Jackson (6-2, 208, JR); Josh Gasser (6-3, 190, RJR)
KENTUCKY (28-10): Dakari Johnson (7-0, 265, FR); Julius Randle (6-9 250, FR); James Young (6-6, 215, FR); Andrew Harrison (6-6, 215, FR); Aaron Harrison (6-6, 218, FR)
RATING THE STARTERS: Wisconsin has the edge at center with Kaminsky and on the wing with Brust, but Kentucky is stronger at the other three positions although Dekker could even things out if he can play defense without fouling on Randle.
RATING THE BENCHES: Wisconsin has little front court depth so Kentucky has the clearcut edge with Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee coming off the bench. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are the depth for Wisconsin, which really only plays seven players.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin plays good defense without fouling. Without all those points from the foul line, Kentucky comes up short and Florida gets its rematch with Wisconsin, the only other team to beat the Gators this year.