Cinderella is, as usual, back home scrubbing floors and daydreaming about her next chance at the Big Dance.
The NCAA Tournament is hyped as the most receptive stage in sports for the underdog. But the Final Four is almost always occupied by teams of the highest college basketball pedigree.
There are no Cinderellas in Saturday’s semifinals. It would be fun to have a No. 11 seed such as George Mason or Virginia Commonwealth or Louisiana State in the mix. No. 8 Butler made it all the way to the 2011 championship game and lost to Connecticut.
But no one is mistaking this year’s lowest-seeded team — No. 8 Kentucky — for true long shot No. 8 Villanova, which upset Georgetown in 1985 to win the championship. No one considers No. 7 seed Connecticut’s journey to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to be a fairytale, either.
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Wisconsin makes only a weak case as beloved mutt because the Badgers are seeded No. 2, beat top-seeded Arizona in the Elite Eight and are consistently among the top teams in the Big Ten.
Florida, ranked and seeded No. 1, is riding a 30-game winning streak, won its four tournament games by double digits and has only two losses all season by a total of seven points (and could avenge both, to Connecticut and Wisconsin, in Texas).
The two reasons why Florida isn’t getting more attention as one of the most dominant teams in history are because it has no surefire NBA Draft picks and because people outside of Florida fail to recognize that this so-called football school is actually more successful of late as a basketball school.
If Connecticut and Kentucky take their 18 combined losses and meet in the title game, their No. 15 combined seeding would be the lowest in the 36 years that seeds have been given. But Florida can take confidence from this trend: Since 1985, 18 of 29 champs have been No. 1 seeds.
March Madness is not a myth. Thanks for the memories, Mercer and Dayton.
But this is April. Talent rises to the top.
Florida, with its four senior starters, is rated No. 1 in defensive efficiency, has the strongest bench and is coached by Billy Donovan, the best tactician in the Final Four. The only Cinderella among the Gators is small forward Jacob Kurtz, who used to be team manager.
Connecticut, Florida’s opponent in the first semifinal on Saturday night, is led by the hottest player in the tournament, guard Shabazz Napier, who is averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds, 4.5 assists and two steals. He is joined by Ryan Boatright to make the best backcourt in the Final Four. Connecticut, coached by former player Kevin Ollie, defeated No. 2 seed Villanova, No. 3 seed Iowa State and No. 4 seed Michigan State to get to Texas.
Kentucky’s freshmen starters are the Kiddie Cats and are expected to join the 29 players John Calipari has coached who became NBA Draft picks.
Kentucky, which has outrebounded opponents by an average of 10 per game, has the best frontcourt in the Final Four, even without the injured Willie Cauley-Stein. The Cats, who began the year No. 1, have grown up during the tournament, winning their past three games in the final seconds.
“We got here through an absolute minefield,” Calipari said of his Midwest Group of Death. Kentucky beat No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 2 seed Michigan to arrive at its third Final Four in four years.
Don’t let Wisconsin fool you.
“White guys,” was what center Frank Kaminsky said when asked how he thought Arizona would describe the Wisconsin roster of zero McDonald’s All-Americans.
But the Badgers, perennially damned with the faint praise of “fundamentally sound,” can jump and score. Their offensive efficiency was rated No. 4 in the nation, and they had the fewest turnovers. Coach Bo Ryan, the former junior high and Division III coach making his first trip to the Final Four, is known for his slow, deliberate “swing” system, but he has shown remarkable adaptability against opponents.
Kaminsky could give Kentucky trouble inside and outside, and he likes to talk, but it’s not trash. It’s self-recrimination.
“Usually, it’s something along the lines of, ‘WTF, Frank?’ ” he said.
Kaminsky wryly described his greatest obstacle while growing up: doorways.
“I used to hit my head on everything,” he said. “Learning to duck was my first big battle.”
Could he be the underdog the Final Four lacks? No way. Cinderella wasn’t 7-foot.