Lessons From The Final Four

If you’re trying to win in the modern basketball game, it’s wise to look at what the best teams are doing to try and figure out the recipe for success. 


With the 2021 NCAA Tournament completed we can now take a look back and look at things critically.


What did these Final Four teams do well, and how can Florida replicate it?


For Florida, figuring out exactly how they want to build their roster and how they want to play has been a work of progress under Mike White. They have gone through several different recruiting philosophies and have brought multiple different types of players into various position groups. Small guards, big guards. Stretch bigs, traditional back to the basket bigs. Defensive stoppers who didn’t provide offensively, and catch and shoot phenoms who couldn’t provide defensively. Their style of offense has wavered from dribble drive to Princeton to spread ball screen, and their defense has gone through various levels of pressure and intensity. 


Florida can look within for what they think might work the best, but they might be wise to look at the NCAA Tournament and who had success there for lessons that can teach them some ways to win in the modern game. 


Lesson #1: Backcourts win in modern basketball.


Right now the NBA is dominated by big wings. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, etc. However, that hasn’t exactly filtered down to the college game.


Look at Baylor and Gonzaga. Neither of them had a ball handling 6’7” forward who controlled the game. Baylor didn’t really play a true “wing” and while Gonzaga had a good one in Corey Kispert he is more of a catch and shoot threat than a typical slashing wing. Then let’s look at the frontcourts. Drew Timme was a bucket getter, but he wasn’t imposing on the glass or on defense. Baylor’s frontcourt was adequate defensively, but weren’t huge offensive contributors.


So, both teams in the National Championship game didn’t have the best wings in the country, or the best frontcourts.


They did, however, have unquestionably the two best backcourts in the nation.


Backcourts winning in modern basketball isn’t a groundbreaking idea, and the importance of guard play has already been amplified over the last couple of years. However, this NCAA Tournament was a huge reminder of just how important guard play is. Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, and Jared Butler (with Adam Flagler off the bench) were absolutely lethal, and it made up for a lack of wing players and a solid but not awesome frontcourt. 


When Florida is looking at how they want to win and how they want to build their roster it has never been more clear–guard is the most important position. Florida has had some great guards recently, but they have lacked depth and haven’t often had great backcourt players in wait to take over bigger roles. This is something that will need to be addressed, and it’s good to see them starting to build their backcourt again with Brandon McKissic from UMKC. 


Lesson #2: Defense still matters greatly in an offense-first world.


Was Baylor the best offensive team in the country? Probably not. That was almost unquestionably Gonzaga. However, that didn’t matter because of how much better than everyone Baylor was defensively. 


Watching the National Championship game, it was apparent in the first minutes of the game that Gonzaga was in serious trouble. Why was that? Because in a matter of a couple possessions you could tell that Gonzaga’s perimeter players were not going to be able to get separation from Baylor’s defenders.


In that moment, Florida should see what level you need to be at defensively to disrupt a great offensive team. They should also see how it didn’t matter what the best offensive team in the country did when faced with elite on ball defense. Mike White has always been a defense-first coach and watching how Baylor played certainly would inspire him to get back to those roots. Which leads into:


Lesson #3: Defense and toughness are often recruited, not taught or developed.


When you look up and down Baylor’s roster they aren’t loaded with 5-star or high 4-star talent. They are a lot of 3-star guys who perfectly fit Baylor’s system and mindset who therefore looked awesome together. Looking at how they built their roster and what these players were out of high school you can see that Baylor prioritized defense and toughness over everything else. Did that hurt them offensively? At times when those players were younger, yes. But coach Scott Drew, who preaches this philosophy, knows that defense and toughness are something that is more recruited, and offense and scoring can be taught.


Houston’s Kelvin Sampson is another example of this. Yes, he has some talented players on his roster, but they are largely under-recruited guys who simply play with a ton of intensity and defend and rebound better than most others in the country.


The fact that Houston made a Final Four and Baylor won the thing also teaches us this–toughness and defense wins in March. 


Mike White has begged his players to contribute more defensively and has challenged their toughness and competitiveness on multiple occasions. His constant attempts at getting guys to play tougher show Scott Drew’s belief to largely be true–toughness is recruited and not taught. 


For Florida, this might mean taking a guy or two that is a bit off the radar or doesn’t appear to offer the flash that some recent commitments have gotten. However, if you want to prioritize defense and toughness in your program, you’ve got to commit to it. 


Lesson #4: Three-point shooting truly does matter more than ever.


Baylor was first in the country in three-point percentage. UCLA was 35th, and Gonzaga was 45th. Looking at the other teams that made it deep you’ll see Michigan at 13th, and USC at 66th. Houston, Oregon State, Alabama, and Arkansas weren’t excellent from three but were top 115 in the country, meaning they were still well above average. This won’t be a surprise but confirms something that we have already known for a number of years–you need to be good from the three-point line if you want to win in modern basketball. 


The Gators have been a decent three-point shooting team recently (81st nationally) but they have lagged behind the trend in attempts. They were 264th in three-point attempts last season, which made it that they weren’t taking full advantage of their efficiency from deep. Looking at these NCAA Tournament games, they should strongly consider upping the three-point attempts and taking advantage of their capable shooters.


Lesson #5: You need multiple ball handlers and playmakers on the floor at all times.


When Gonzaga and UCLA had one of the greatest games of the year in the Final Four something really stuck out–there were so many elite passers on the floor creating shots for their teammates. Gonzaga had 25 assists in this game and UCLA had 21, both numbers that are well above the highest Florida had in a game this season. That’s because Florida didn’t have a lot of assisted buckets this year, ranking 322nd in this category nationally. That number might look ugly but it shouldn’t be surprising. Florida was 289th in this statistic last year, 207th before that, 235th before that, 285th before that, and 185th before that to round out the Mike White era.


The way Florida’s teams have been constructed is having a distributing point guard that can find shots for teammates…and that’s about it. The Gators have had spot up shooters like KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke at shooting guard, players who didn’t offer any playmaking or much passing ability, and wings like Scottie Lewis at the three who didn’t provide much ability to initiate any offensive actions.


It’s tough to play that way and be great offensively, something the NCAA Tournament showed us more than ever. Playing against teams that are well-coached and well-scouted, your primary offensive actions are often going to be taken away. That means you need multiple guys who can improvise and create shots, and here is where Florida had deficiencies this past season. Yes, Tre Mann and Tyree Appleby could create shots, but there weren’t any wings with them who could do the same when they had to give the ball up. Andrew Nembard and Chris Chiozza also were in the same situation when they were heading up Florida’s offense.


Long gone are the days where the point guard was the only player who needed to be able to handle the ball and initiate offense. If you watched the late stages of the NCAA Tournament it was clear you need at least two initiators on the floor at all times if you want to beat a good defense. 


Those were just some of many of the lessons the NCAA Tournament taught us, ideas that should give Florida some direction about what they need to do to get back to a Final Four and compete for championships.  


Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.