To win four consecutive games in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, when the pressure to perform on every possession is incredibly intense, is a terrific accomplishment in and of itself.
In 2011, on their way to a national championship, the University of Connecticut had to win five Big East conference tournament games in five consecutive nights just to get into the NCAA tournament.
But when you reach the white hot spotlight of the NCAA Final Four, that intensity is ratcheted up even higher. So much so that coaches have to work very hard to get their players to relax and not go beyond their basketball job description: Be successful on 50 percent or more of your shots from the field, box out and rebound, play defense, make your free throws, and don't turn the ball over.
Kentucky, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Florida have all been able to do that so far, through the first two weeks of NCAA tournament action. One very important aspect of the game for all four schools is defense. Whether it's harassing the other team's prime scoring option or disrupting the opponent's offensive flow, defense is critical to determining the outcome.
The first national semifinal matchup pits tournament and South region top seed Florida against East champ Connecticut. According to NCAA.com, the Gators are third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing their opponents just under 58 points per game. Offensively, Florida relies on guard Scottie Wilbekin to run their offense and hit the outside shot. Center Patric Young patrols the painted area under the basket for the Gators.
The UConn Huskies enjoyed a better season this year, so they didn't need to win a conference tournament to get an NCAA bid. Four March wins later and they're back for the school's fifth Final Four. Shabazz Napier is reprising the role current NBA scoring guard Kemba Walker played for UConn on the way to the 2011 national title. Napier paid close attention to Walker that year as a freshman and the lessons learned are paying huge dividends for the Huskies. The other burgeoning UConn star is DeAndre Daniels, a junior forward who is averaging 17 points per game so far in the NCAA tournament.
UConn and Florida played each other earlier this season, with the Huskies winning. Gators head coach Billy Donovan appreciates the kind of player Napier has become.
“I would probably say like ourselves, playing them back in December, they're a much, much better team today than when we played them, and hopefully we've improved as well. But Napier to me is one of those guys that's been in college for four years, he has evolved into an elite guard in this country, as good as anybody out there," Donovan said Monday.
The second National semifinal match Saturday features Midwest region champ Kentucky and West champion Wisconsin. In the tournament so far, the Wildcats have defeated Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan – three of the region's top four teams this season and the trio of Final Four teams from a year ago. Throughout this season, much has been made of freshman forward Julius Randle and rightfully so. The frosh compiled double figures in both scoring and rebounds in 24 out of 38 games. But it's been the three-point shooting of another freshman, Aaron Harrison, that has Kentucky two wins away from the school's ninth NCAA title.
Wisconsin sophomore forward Sam Dekker knows what kind of game the Badgers are in for Saturday evening.
"We've played big teams before. We've been outsized in multiple matchups this year, and I thought we've done all right with it. It's just going to be another fight and another test for us against a good team," Dekker said to reporters Tuesday.
For Big Ten basketball fans, they've seen Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky ply his trade over three years now. The seven-foot junior had a national coming-out party last Saturday night in the West region final against Arizona, scoring 28 points on a variety of shots. However, if Kentucky concentrates too much on Kaminsky, the Badgers have three other starters who average double figures in scoring.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari understands what a veteran team like Wisconsin will bring to the game.
“Great, great passing team, movement team, keeps you on defense, make you stay in a stance. The minute you fall asleep, like if you have a lot of young guys, then somebody is falling asleep. You have to play 30 seconds. They are a defensive rebounding team. I would imagine their whole thing is that they are getting one shot at the basket and that is it," Calipari told reporters Tuesday.
This reporter's thinking has Florida and Kentucky moving on to play for a fourth time this season to decide a national championship. Both teams are playing with a lot of momentum in the postseason. Sean Hojnacki of bleacherreport.com is in agreement. Other veteran college basketball observers, such as ESPN's Andy Katz, like Wisconsin and Florida.
With an opportunity to win a national title in sight, the successful teams Saturday night who make the fewest mistakes will make it to Monday night's brightest lights.