Columnists, Sports

Foul Shots: Experience matters

Like everyone else in the good old United States of America, my bracket is crap. I have one Final Four team still alive, and it’s the top overall seed in the tournament, the University of Florida Gators.

So, I guess I can say that I was 25 percent correct in picking the last four teams standing. That’s something. I’m not all that surprised that the University of Wisconsin got this far; Bo Ryan is a solid coach and the Badgers have outstanding upperclassmen that lead and push their teammates.

But the remaining two teams have absolutely shocked me. The eighth-seeded University of Kentucky, a team so youthful that they start five freshmen — the first time a team has done this since the University of Michigan’s Fab Five of 1991 — looked inconsistent all year, losing to lowly University of South Carolina and the University of Arkansas in late February and early March. But the Wildcats, behind the steady play of forward Julius Randle and the twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, upset top-seeded Wichita State University and No. 2 seed Michigan on its way to the Final Four.

The last team in the Final Four is the seventh-seeded University of Connecticut, fresh off of a one-year postseason ban for violations committed under former coach Jim Calhoun. UConn started off strong before faltering down the stretch with two losses to Southern Methodist University and one to the University of Houston. But, the Huskies have pulled it together in the tournament, beating the second, third and fourth seeds in their region on their way to the Final Four.

It’s this Huskies team that is still flying under the radar, despite the fact that they’re hotter than a nuclear reactor. The Huskies remind me a lot of the 2010-11 UConn team, which beat Butler University in what was undoubtedly the worst game of basketball I’ve ever seen to win the national title.

Both UConn teams sort of snuck into the Final Four without much fanfare; they’re not exactly Cinderella teams, given Connecticut’s storied history. However, both teams were overshadowed by lower seeded squads in the Final Four, with Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 and Kentucky this year. This year’s UConn team will face a Florida team hasn’t lost since early December.

So you could say the Huskies have their backs up against a wall. But honestly, I’ll be shocked if they don’t beat Florida. There’s something about UConn teams that forces you to never rule them out. In 2011, the Huskies had a vocal, experienced leader in Kemba Walker, who now plays for the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA. This year the Huskies have senior Shabazz Napier, a player eerily similar to Walker in skill and style. Napier scored 25 points and snagged six rebounds in the Huskies’ win over Michigan State University.

Napier is “Mr. Do-Everything” for Connecticut, a player capable of hitting a fadeaway 3-pointer, playing inspired defense, snagging a defensive rebound and leading a fast break in quick succession. His versatility, much like Walker’s three seasons ago, is one of the reasons UConn will knock off Florida and whoever wins the Kentucky-Wisconsin game. But, the biggest reason that UConn has the inside track to the national title is their experience. Napier is a senior, and the Huskies’ best player. Napier has been here before. He knows how to handle the pressure. That’s where he, and the Huskies, will have an edge over Florida, a team that hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2007.

If the Huskies can top Florida, they’ll face either Kentucky (the mowst inexperienced team in the country) or Wisconsin. Wisconsin could be a troublesome matchup for the Huskies. The Badgers haven’t been to a Final Four since 2000, but Bo Ryan’s team runs a slow, plodding offense that could overpower the Huskies. Forward Frank Kaminsky could present a matchup problem; he dropped 28 points and 11 rebounds on No. 1 seed Arizona in the Elite Eight. He’s a bruiser on the inside, and can step outside to hit the three-pointer.

There’s an excellent chance that I’m completely wrong, and Florida will bulldoze UConn on its way to the Gators’ first national title since Joakim Noah was running the show back in 2007. But I have a gut feeling that UConn is going to win. Normally, my gut feelings are about as reliable as public transport, but I’m feeling strong about this one.

If, by some act of god, you had UConn in your Final Four, or even winning the national title, pat yourself on the back. You saw past all of the hype surrounding Wichita State and Michigan State, and picked a team that’s smart and has been here before. College basketball is quickly becoming a one-and-done association, but every so often a team shows us the value of experience.

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