The first Final Four game will be played between the top overall seed Florida Gators and the surprise out of the Eastern region in UConn Huskies (Saturday, 6:05pm ET; TBS).
All attention turns to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, BCS Cotton Bowl and now the Final Four and Championship of the NCAAB Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.
Kevin Ollie Makes Huskies Contenders
A few years ago the basketball program in Storrs, CT was on a downward spiral. Marred with recruiting violations, academic sanctions, conference realignment and the retirement of long-time stalwart head coach Jim Calhoun, the UConn men’s program looked to be going the way of the old Big East – extinct. Not helping matters was the soaring success and popularity of the best basketball dynasty ever, the UConn Women’s team.
But in 2013, the Huskies began their turnaround. They hired a new coach, adjusted to their new conference in the AAC and now find themselves in the Final Four for the first time in the second Kevin Ollie (pictured) era.
The first Ollie era took place from 1991-1995 during which UConn’s best was reaching the Elite Eight once and the Sweet 16 thrice. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Huskies, who had previously made 23 tournament appearances, won their first championship. Their other two championships came in 2004 and again in 2011, where Ollie served as assistant coach.
Under Ollie, UConn became a revitalized team and it showed this season. Their biggest win of course came against Florida back in December and was the last loss the Gators sustained before their 30+ game winning-streak.
UConn finished as the third best team in the AAC and lost to Louisville in the Championship game. The Huskies then went on to defeat Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State en route to becoming the first seven-seed to reach the Final Four since 1985.
Billy Donovan Continues Line of Florida Athletic Successes
In 1996, the University of Florida hired Billy Donovan in a move that has since changed and improved their basketball program tremendously. Under Donovan, who is now the winningest coach in Florida basketball history, the Gators won their first of four SEC tournaments and reached two of the program’s five Final Fours. Donovan also led the Gators to their first ever championship titles and did so in back-to-back years.
Donovan changed the face of the Florida basketball program and did so at a time when the team really needed it. The basketball program was being vastly overshadowed by an Urban Meyer led football squad that would go on to produce a handful of NFL products.
Under Donovan though, the basketball team became just as relevant and they continue to be one of the best in what is quickly becoming college basketball’s best conference in the SEC.
Their season was not without blemishes but ultimately Florida still secured the top overall seed. They are the oddsmakers’ favorites and according to ESPN’s bracket numbers were picked by nearly 25% of the country to win their third championship. If accomplished, Florida would match UConn with both teams having three titles each.
(UConn) Shabazz Napier vs (FL) Scottie Wilbekin
UConn may owe their renaissance to Kevin Ollie but if it wasn’t for Shabazz Napier this team would be nowhere near the Final Four. In fact in many ways, the leadership of Napier resembles that of Kemba Walker, who led his upstart Huskies to the Championship title.
A senior guard, Napier has been the best player for UConn all season long averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 4.9 APG. Only four times did he score less than 10 points, none of which have come in the tournament. During March Madness, Napier is averaging over 20 points per game, including dropping 25 in the team’s last win against perennial Final Four team, Michigan State.
In each of UConn’s tournament wins, Napier has been instrumental. In all of UConn’s losses, Napier shot below 50% and in wins he was well over that mark. He is the one player on this team’s roster that is single-handedly capable of taking over a game. With a quickness and ability to finish at the rim, Napier presents matchup problems for any team including Florida, who he dropped 26 points on in their earlier win this season.
In a battle of senior guards, Napier will once again likely go up against Florida’s own secret weapon, Scottie Wilbekin.
Wilbekin has been a quiet star for Florida but a star nonetheless. He has been consistent all season, averaging 13.4 PPG and is at his best in the biggest games. As a result, some of Wilbekin’s best numbers from this season have come in the NCAA tournament.
The head-to-head battle between Napier and Wilbekin will go a long way to determining which team emerges victorious but it won’t be the only storyline.
Napier is added by DeAndre Daniels, who when he is on is on. If he can come up big the way he has the past three weeks, UConn will have a great chance to pull off the upset. Wilbekin has the aid of one of the best defenses in the country and a supporting cast that has incredible athleticism throughout. Their bigs can rebound effectively and considering the Huskies are ranked 246th in defensive rebounding, this is a lopsided matchup that could be a difference maker.
Florida Gators vs UConn Huskies Betting Picks
UConn and Florida have taken different paths to reach the Final Four but now that both are there, all bets are off. Both teams are extremely talented and have stars that will likely be on NBA rosters next year.
That being said, there is a reason Florida was given the top overall seed and a reason why the top overall seed has won the NCAA tournament each of the past two years. Florida is the best team and even though they have yet to be challenged this March, doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of that top rank.
Expect Florida to get the win and cover the somewhat lofty 6 point spread. The Gators will be challenged and this will be a tough game but with the talent on the Florida roster, expect a late push to bring the Gators back to the National Championship for the first time since 2007.
- Bet On Florida Gators -6pts @ odds of -115 with Bovada Sportsbook. If you fancy giving away another half point for slightly better odds then take the -6.5pts @ -110 with BetOnline Sportsbook.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.