by Kent Sterling
Once your favorite team or alma mater is eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, all you can really hope for is context so you have someone to root for and/or against as the Saturday semifinals tip off. There is plenty of both heading to Cowboys Stadium.
The only team about which their is no passion – at least outside of Storrs, Connecticut – is UConn. They are the mediocre seven-seed that found their mojo and went on a roll, but arouse no national angst or love. Shabazz Napier has become a great college basketball player as a senior, but whether Kevin Ollie’s Huskies win or lose is of little interest to non-gamblers. The other three teams all provide plenty of reason to watch and cheer.
Wisconsin is headed to the Final Four for the first time under Bo Ryan, who has long been the best coach in the Big Ten not to reach a Final Four. Ryan’s career is a little different from the typical marquee coach. He started as a junior high coach, and worked his way up through Sun Valley High School in Pennsyvania to be an assistant at Wisconsin to head coach at Wisconsin-Platteville – where he won four NCAA DIII national championships – and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before getting the gig with the Badgers in 2001 at the age of 53.
Since then, Ryan has never finished outside the top four in the Big Ten, and has qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year. If you can’t find a reason to pull for Ryan, you aren’t looking very hard. He works exceptionally hard, has no interest in the spotlight, and builds consistent winners without a hint of impropriety.
Ryan and the Badgers represent all that is good about college basketball. They win the right way, and they win consistently. A national championship would be a wonderful valedictory moment for an under-the-radar great coach.
Incredibly, this is 48-year old Billy Donovan’s 18th season at Florida. Even more odd, when conversations about the top five or ten coaches in college basketball are had in bars outside of Gainesville, his name is rarely mentioned until later when someone digs deep and the rest of the guys at the table say, “Oh yeah, how’d we miss him?”
Donovan draws very little attention to himself in the media, preferring to invest his energy in the kids who play for him. The Gators have played in seven elite eights, qualified for their fourth final four this year, and have a chance to win their third national championship under his leadership.
Among the top seven Gators in minutes are four seniors – Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete. Nine of the players on the roster are from Florida.
If Florida can lay claim to a team of players that was built not bought, Kentucky is what they always are under John Calipari – a collection of highly touted freshmen who would likely have been drafted into the NBA if not for the draft ineligibility of those not yet one year removed from high school. Sometimes that scheme works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Last season, the mismatched parts of the Wildcats roster were eliminated in the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris. This year, the recipe clicked late, and Kentucky found their collective heart. Winners of three straight games against teams who played in last year’s Final Four, Kentucky has a mix of athleticism, size, and execution that has proven a very difficult match-up.
Sure, it would be nice to watch college basketball played by college students hoping to earn their degree while playing, but Big Blue Nation doesn’t worry themselves about such trivialities. Status in the Blue Grass is measured by banners, not degrees. That makes Kentucky my villain in this tournament – or any tournament.
As long as Florida beats the seventh-seeded UConn Huskies, the championship game a week from tonight should be great TV. With only three teams qualifying for the tournament, the SEC was a longshot to place both teams in the championship when 68-teams began the quest to crown a champ. Now, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all.
I would love to see Florida play Wisconsin in the final, with Ryan cutting down the nets. A lifetime of hard work by the coach from Chester, PA – a hardscrabble paper mill town – resulting in a trip to the mountaintop of his profession at the age of 66 would be a great story.
Donovan’s team winning it all would be my second choice.
A bunch of freshmen awaiting entry into the NBA Draft from which they were forbidden last year – not such a great story. But it would beat UConn winning it, the only team about whom I am apathetic. At least with a Kentucky win, I would have something to gripe about until November.