Column: Final Four preview: Florida over everything
This Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas was, according to most premonitions, supposed to feature Florida, Michigan State, Arizona and Louisville. The Gators held true to their end of the bargain, while MSU, Zona and Louisville all bowed out last weekend. You shouldn't be asking yourself "What went wrong?" with those goliaths. Rather, the correct inquiry is "What went right?" with Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky.
My point is this: Forgive Keith Appling, who was never close to the player he was earlier in the year thanks to a wrist injury. Go easy on Nick Johnson, even though he may still be dribbling at this moment in search of that game-winning shot. Let Russ Smith live-his improved maturity has become as impressive as his ball-handling (see his postgame quotes if you don't believe me). Restrain yourself from hating on these guys and simultaneously begin to embrace March's real stars: UConn's Shabazz Napier, who has hit 14 threes, 25-27 free throws and an unquantifiable number of big shots through four NCAA Tournament games thus far; Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin's "stretch-five" center who won West Regional Most Outstanding Player in a mini-bracket stacked with Johnson, Doug McDermott and Xavier Thames; and Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, who hit all four of his three-pointers in the final nine minutes of UK's Elite 8 win over Michigan, including the game-winner with three seconds remaining.
One teams stands above the other three, however. While I think Kentucky has a legitimate shot to cut down the nets due to their immense talent, Florida is above and away the heavy favorite this weekend.
It's pretty easy to make a case for Florida, which is 30-2 on the season and has hardly been tested in the Big Dance yet. The Gators' last loss came to UConn on Dec. 2nd, when Lorde's "Royals" was the top song on the charts. In the setback to the Huskies, Florida was without dynamic backup point guard Kasey Hill to an ankle injury, and do-it-all starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin left with around three minutes left due to a gimpy ankle himself. UF, which led by 2 upon Wilbekin's departure, still would have won if it wasn't for Napier's nightly magic, which in that game entailed six points in the final 34 seconds (including an implausible buzzer-beater that's arguably the shot of the year). Florida's only other loss was at Wisconsin in November, in an affair that Wilbekin and super sixth-man Dorian Finney-Smith did not partake in. Put simply, the Gators have not lost with the roster they have now and don't plan on doing so.
Why is everyone so high on this Billy Donavan-coached squad? For one, Florida starts four seniors and a sophomore, and those seniors have been to four straight Elite 8's. Also, much like the back-to-back national champion Gators in 2006 and 2007, they're so balanced. Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II, Florida's four go-to guys on offense, have all taken between 303 and 340 shots this season. Wilbekin is an elite decision maker, and Hill may be the best passer on the team despite coming off the bench. Florida's frontcourt is extremely efficient on offense, particularly Prather (60 percent FG) and Young (54 percent FG).
As far as weaknesses go, Florida can really stretch the floor with just two outside shooters: Frazier II and Wilbekin. Both can be deadly, though, as exemplified by Frazier II's 11 made trifectas against South Carolina on March 4th. The Gators close out games (they're 4th in the country with a +6.8 average second half margin), rebound an outstanding 34 percent of their missed shots on offense, and truly make opponents work to get a quality look on offense-Florida is 2nd nationally in fewest points allowed per game (57.6 PPG).
Once again, you can't count out two more heroic performances from Napier or Kaminsky. But, chances are it's going to be an SEC school that dethrones Louisville as king of the college hoops landscape. And, if I had to bet on it, there's going to be a lot of Gator chomps Monday night around 11 p.m. Eastern time.
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