CONNECTICUT vs. FLORIDA
The Florida Gators were supposed to be in this position. The UConn Huskies? Nope. After UConn got blown out of the gym, 81-48, by Louisville on March 8, few could have predicted such a stunning turnaround. Fewer still could have predicted Dec. 2 that a visit from the Gators to Storrs, Conn., would be a Final Four preview. The Huskies won on a dramatic buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier, taking advantage of an undermanned Florida. The Gators were without the injured Kasey Hill, lost Scottie Wilbekin to a sprained ankle in the first half and did not have athletic freshman Chris Walker, who was academically ineligible. Since that game? Florida has won 30 consecutive. The Gators will be at full strength Saturday when the team tries to avenge one of its two losses this season. The other team that beat Florida was Wisconsin.
Connecticut Huskies, East Region No. 7 seed
The leader and unquestioned catalyst for UConn is Napier, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard who has already won one national championship, as he played sidekick to Kemba Walker in 2011. Napier has grown into a superstar, leading the Huskies in points, rebounds and assists during the regular season. He has shown the penchant for hitting the clutch three-pointer, while also able to drive to the hoop and get easy buckets for either himself or his teammates. His tag-team partner is Ryan Boatright, a lightning-quick junior who has shown some nifty moves with the basketball. Both guards are ferocious defenders, as well, and will play heavy minutes against the Gators.
It's no secret that the backcourt is the strength of the Huskies. However, their ascension to the Final Four would not have been possible without improved play by DeAndre Daniels. The 6-9 junior forward torched Iowa State for 27 points and 10 bounds in the Sweet 16, then added 12 points, eight baords, two blocks and two steals against Michigan State. Daniels gives the Huskies a legitimate low-post threat, meaning that opponents cannot simply focus on stopping UConn's guards. Seven-footer Amida Brimah has also seen an uptick in minutes as the season has worn on. He gives them froncourt size and shot-blocking ability on the defensive end. Add in 6-10 sophomore Phillip Nolan, and the Huskies were eighth in the nation in blocks per contest during the regular season. Meanwhile, Neils Giffey mans small forward and can get hot from the three-point line, as well.
Free-throws. The Huskies have been incredible from the foul line in the tournament, closing out games by going 47-of-52 (90.4 percent) in the last two minutes and overtime. Connecticut hit 20-of-22 free-throws in the Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State; then hit 21-of-22 free-throws in the 60-54 win over Michigan State in the regional final. On the flip side, the Gators shoot just 67.3 percent from the foul line, so the Huskies could have an advantage if the game comes down to free throws.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
St. Joseph's, 89-81 OT
Iowa State, 81-76
Michigan State, 60-54
They'll Win If:
they can limit turnovers. The Huskies did not reach double-digits turnovers in either of the games at Madison Square Garden last weekend. The Gators are one of the top defensive teams in the nation, and coach Billy Donovan will employ the press after most made baskets. Although the Huskies have veteran ballhandlers in Napier and Boatright, that doesn't mean they're automatically immune from giving the ball away. In fact, the Huskies turned the ball over 14 times when these teams first met in early December. However, if Napier and Boatright take care of the basketball, the Huskies will have a great shot at coming away with the victory.
-- Jesse Siegel
Florida Gators, South Region No. 1 Seed
The Gators are the No. 1 overall seed, but not because they have a number of NBA prospects. They have depth and experience at every position, and the backcourt is no exception. Wilbekin, a senior, has played 16 tournament games in his four-year career, and his progress has been steady. He has scored 20 points twice in the tournament and leads the team with 3.7 assists. Wilbekin is partnered with sophomore Michael Frazier II. The 6-4 wing hit five three-pointers to help beat UCLA. Earlier in the season, he had a 37-point game, hitting 11 shots from beyond the arc, against South Carolina. The freshman Hill is the backup point and provides a change of pace from Wilbekin. He could get extra minutes against the Huskies because he has the quickness to stay with the UConn guards.
The forwards for the Gators are even more versatile and imposing than the guards. Casey Prather leads the team with 13.8 points, but has provided just 10.5 points in the four tournament wins. He only played a combined 41 minutes in wins over UCLA and Dayton, but could see more playing time if Donovan decides to go small and use Prather as a power forward. Fellow senior Patric Young looks the part of a dominant enforcer. While the numbers do not generally back up his looks, he did block four shots against both Pittsburgh and Dayton. Dorian Finney-Smith is a transfer from Virginia who leads the team in rebounding at 6.7 per game, and defensive ace Will Yeguete provides frontcourt support.
Florida's trap is an X-factor, but the clear edge is Donovan's experience. He has coached 46 NCAA Tournament games, while UConn coach Kevin Ollie is in his first tournament. Donovan has shown the cagey ability to employ the trap at just the right time, but he has also played his team's seven-man rotation like a virtuoso. This year's squad is quite unlike the two that won championships in 2006 and 2007, teams had three NBA lottery picks.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
They'll Win If:
they can control Shabazz Napier. The Gators should be able to hold their own in the paint against the Huskies. That leaves Napier. In the December loss, it was Napier who led the Huskies with 26 points and the buzzer beater. UConn's last four victims have not gotten a handle on the senior, who has averaged 23.4 points and hit 45 percent of his three-pointers. Donovan can put Wilbekin, Frazier, Hill and maybe even Yeguete on Napier to give him all sorts of looks. If Napier doesn't have a tremendous game, the Gators should continue their relatively smooth path to the final.
-- Perry Missner
The Huskies have been doubted at every turn during this year's NCAA Tournament. They needed Overtime to beat St. Joe's, yet now find themselves one step away from their second national final in four seasons. The Gators, however, have even more experience, a backcourt to match wits with the Huskies and a tenacious frontcourt. It should be a thrilling contest, but the Gators will ride Scottie Wilbekin to the win in what should be a defensive struggle.
Connecticut has defied expectations in every round. Many thought St. Joseph's would knock the Huskies out in the Round of 64, and it took an extra period to put the Hawks to sleep. Any team requires a bit of luck to make it to the Final Four, but UConn has had the good fortune to play Iowa State without Georges Niang and Michigan State with Keith Appling in foul trouble. The problem against Florida is there is no one pressure point to hit. The Gators are long, deep and experienced. While Connecticut beat Florida at home in December, it's too much to expect a repeat. The Gators will be challenged, but in the end they have too many options and too much experience to be stopped. Make it 31 straight wins for Florida.