Final Four Bracket Picks for 2014 NCAA Tournament
by Trevor Whenham - 4/1/2014
Well, darn. I had Michigan State beating Michigan in the championship game in all of the brackets I have done up to this point. Needless to say, it is time for me to rethink my NCAA Tournament brackets one last time as we head into the Final Four.
But first, let's briefly look back. What a weekend of basketball that was. The only finalist that was never in any real danger was Florida. Dayton had a heck of a run, but they finally ran into a wall they couldn't climb over. Wisconsin fought an epic battle with Arizona in a contest so close that the refs had as much of an impact on the outcome as anyone. UConn looked like they were absolutely done against Michigan State halfway through the second half, but they rode the energy of the pseudo-home crowd to a strong win. Despite not being the lowest surviving seed, the Huskies are definitely the least-likely member of this quartet. That's because Kentucky doesn't look anything like a No. 8 seed - not after beating Wichita State, Louisville and Kentucky in consecutive games. Their ridiculous collection of talent if finally gelling, and they are playing lights-out basketball. Most impressively, though, they won an absolute war against Michigan with a near-impossible shot in the closing seconds by Aaron Harrison - the last shot in an instant classic of a game that was the best of the tournament, surpassing Kentucky's win over Wichita State for that distinction.
We can only hope that Saturday's games are half as good as the four that came before them. Here are my Final Four bracket picks for the short but brutal road ahead:
Florida vs. Connecticut
Needless to say, this wasn't a matchup that I - or anyone else - was prepared to handicap heading into the tournament. Florida's presence is far from a surprise, but the Huskies are a full on shock. They are also a serious headache for bettors. They stood up to a very good Michigan State team and punched them right in the mouth. They also beat an Iowa State team that I really liked - even without Georges Niang. It was a very impressive second weekend of the tournament. Playing in Madison Square Garden gave them a massive advantage, though, so it is tough to determine how much of their strength was just a sign of how good they are and how much was circumstance. On top of that, there is an added complication - Florida lost only twice all year, and the most recent - way back on Dec. 2 - was to UConn. That game was played in Storrs, though, and it needed a last-second shot to get the win, so it was far from dominating. I have failed twice in a row in picking the Huskies to lose, and I have been very impressed by the coaching job Kevin Ollie has done. However, the Gators are much deeper, more talented, and on a serious role. The Gators are the pick.
Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
The Badgers are a very good team - they beat Florida, fared well in a very tough Big Ten, and have had a very strong tournament that included an eye-opening crushing of Baylor. I like a whole lot about this team, but I can't pick them here. Kentucky has just been too impressive. All you need to know about this team is that Marcus Lee, the little-known freshman who had been glued to the bench for months before starring against Michigan, was a five-star recruit who was ranked as the 17th-best recruit in the country by Rivals. The team hadn't needed him until this game, though, because they had five other five stars from this year and one from last year on the roster as well. This is an impossibly talented team. That hadn't mattered until now though because they wouldn't play together and weren't tough enough. They have finally figured things out, though, and their length, athleticism and creativity are just too much to bet against.
Championship Game - Florida vs. Kentucky
I would have bet a whole lot of money against an all-SEC Championship Game two weeks ago - never mind two months ago. Yet here we are - or at least that's where I expect us to be. Beyond that, the most intriguing storyline is how different these teams are - the wildly-experienced, senior-laden Gators versus the ridiculously young Wildcats. They couldn't be any different.
These teams have already played three times this year, so nothing will be new. Florida beat Kentucky on Feb. 15 in Lexington. It wasn't close. Then they crushed them again on March 8 in Gainesville, but that game meant nothing to the Wildcats, and the Gators were looking to maintain their seeding, so it means little.
Of more interest, the Gators lost by just one to the Wildcats in the SEC Tournament Championship Game. As much as anything, that game seems to be what awoke the giants within the Wildcats. Kentucky was close then, and they are much better now, so they have to be the pick. Florida hasn't lost in four months, but they have rarely been tested by top-level opponents since, and they have had a remarkably manageable path through the tournament. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have been dealing with adversity in bulk, and they have grown as a result.
We are about to have our second No. 8 seed win the tournament, but this will be nowhere near as shocking or historic as the last one. After all, Jim Valvano et al were not the preseason No. 1 in 1985.
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