First, a quick aside. I have a poor memory when it comes to things like this, but has the Final Four always been broadcast on TBS on Saturday nights? Whose idea was this? The Final Four isn’t meant to be streamed illegally on a laptop by just a couple of hardcore fans while the rest of the universe stumbles drunkenly down the hall on their way to parties. The Final Four should be an event, right up there with the Super Bowl. It’s the culmination of a chaotic process in which 64 teams (Wait, there’s 68 team and 60 get first round byes?) are whittled down to four in a haze of buzzer beaters, blowouts, upsets, tears, celebrations, and anything else you might want to throw in. It’s the coolest thing in sports, and it should be a bigger deal. OK, if I don’t stop myself I’ll end up spending 1,000 words on a list of ways to improve college basketball. Maybe someday I will. But now is not the time, because we had two great games Saturday night.
This is really a story of two different games. The first game took place from tipoff to the 11-minute mark. During this time, it looked like UConn might finish the game with 20 points. Seriously, after 11 minutes they had four points and were on pace for a grand total of 15. Florida was pressing, trapping, and blowing up UConn’s offense on every possession. Patrick Young looked like a professional wrestler standing next to UConn’s forwards, and when he, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather started using their size and athleticism to execute rapid defensive rotations, it looked like UConn would never score.
And then, just like that, the second game started. I’m still not sure what flipped. DeAndre Daniels hit a three. Then Ryan Boatright hit a three. Then Terrence Samuel drove to the hoop for a layup. And so it more or less continued for the rest of the game. Florida, who for the first 11 minutes looked hyped enough to do wind sprints during timeouts, began to drag. UConn kept applying the pressure in a slow, controlled manner, and Florida deflated. There were brief moments of life when Florida surged back and seemed to regain its confidence, but UConn didn’t panic. Just more of the same, and Florida inevitably wilted every time. UConn might not have been the better team, but for those 40 minutes, they were unstoppable.
I was pulling slightly for UConn in the first game, only because they were the lower seed, but I wasn’t too invested. In this contest I was blatantly rooting for Kentucky. I love Kentucky for the same reason most people hate them; I love that their roster consists entirely of freshman McDonald’s All Americans who will be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft this year.
Before the game, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan took a not so subtle shot at Kentucky’s approach, saying his own players “are student athletes who are actually here for the purpose of an education first and playing ball second.” Right.
Big time college hoops is a business just like the NBA and the NFL, and Kentucky makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. You want to make a rule that players have to wait a year before going to the NBA? Fine, Kentucky’s going to load up on players who would have gone straight to the NBA and will leave after a year, because they’re the best players in the country. They’ll showcase their talent for a year while Kentucky wins a bunch of games, and then they’ll part ways, both sides better off for it.
So sides were drawn, and the clash began. Kentucky and Wisconsin employed different strategies, which amounted to exactly zero separation on the scoreboard. Kentucky used their athleticism to dominate the paint, while Wisconsin drained jumper after jumper from outside. A layup on one end for Julius Randle; a jumper for Frank Kaminsky on the other. And back and forth and back and forth until Kentucky had the ball down two with just 16 seconds left. Aaron Harrison, a freshman and top-10 recruit, received the ball on the perimeter in the exact spot where he drained a game-winning three in the final seconds against Michigan in the previous round. And so with 5.7 seconds left he let it fly yet again. Swish. Take that Bo.