By Travis McMullen Contributing Columnist
April 1, 2014
Your brackets are busted, your team has been eliminated and Warren Buffet sits smug in Omaha, Neb., knowing that the $1 billion bounty he put on a perfect bracket will go unclaimed. But who cares about all that: March Madness peaks in April because it’s Final Four time.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is unique because it has reached a point where getting to the semi-finals, better known as the Final Four, is almost as big of a deal as winning a national championship. It’s like a national championship lite that can be split four ways.
This year’s Final Four features three teams that have won national championships in the last decade, and Wisconsin, who won their first and only in 1941. No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 7 Connecticut and No. 8 Kentucky all have a legitimate chance to take home the highest honor in college basketball but you might be sitting there wondering where you should offer your support.
I know many of you are Missouri Tigers fans and refused to watch the tournament at all since they neglected to include Ol’ Mizzou. But there are a few who probably paid attention long enough to make sure that the Kansas Jayhawks were sufficiently eliminated. (Thanks, Stanford!)
But there is still more basketball to be had and you might as well choose a team to support.
The Team: No. 1 Florida Gators
The Program: Historically a middling basketball team, the Florida Gators really started to become a national power in the mid 2000s when they won back-to-back national championships in ‘06 and ‘07. They’ve made the Sweet 16 every year since 2006, and the Elite Eight since 2011. They’ve been sitting near the top of the SEC and the country ever since. The 2014 season is only the second time they’ve won both the SEC regular season and tournament; the first time came during their ‘07 national championship run. But they’re not even in the top 50 winningest programs of all time, and probably won’t be any time soon. The Gators are new money. I may or may not be holding a grudge against them for eliminating Florida Gulf Coast University last year.
The Story So Far: Of the four semi-finalist teams, Florida’s path to the Final Four was the easiest. They beat a 16, a 9, an 11 and their highest seeded win was against No. 4 UCLA. They’ve beaten all their tournament foes by at least 10 points and have generally looked like the overall No. 1 seed that dominated the Southeastern Conference.
The Verdict: Some people are into the whole conference pride thing, but as annual Missouri SEC opponents I wish Florida nothing but pain. Besides, you should never bandwagon the overall No. 1 seed, I think that’s a federal law.
The Team: No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers
The Program: All the Big Ten basketball programs kind of blur together in my head. Wisconsin has a rich history of playing fresh meat to all of the other teams in the Big Ten that we traditionally associate with basketball success but they have made the Final Four three times, which ranks them above a large majority of Division I basketball teams. National championships should really have a statute of limitations — 1941, really?
The Story So Far: Wisconsin has honored their conference by playing technically proficient but excessively slow and boring basketball. It’s what the Big Ten does, and it’s what Wisconsin does. Their path went through 15, 7, 6, and 1. When you beat the No. 1 seed in your region to earn your spot in the Final Four I can’t complain, but No. 1 Arizona was their only real challenge to get here and they did only beat them by one point.
The Verdict: Do you like underdogs? How about teams that aren’t traditionally national powerhouses? Wisconsin might be the lesser evil here. And they probably have the best football team of the pack, which is a plus in my book.
The Team: No. 7 Connecticut Huskies
The Program: UCONN is new money, too. Despite their three national championships (‘99, ‘04 and ‘11) they are still playing second fiddle to the Connecticut women’s team. Those other Huskies, the defending champions of the women’s tournament, are 8-0 in championship games and tied with the Tennessee Lady Volunteers for all time women’s national championships. UCONN is the first and only Division I school to win the men’s and women’s tournaments in the same season (‘04).
The Story So Far: With a 15, 2, 3 and 4 seed notch on their belt it’s been just about as tough as you can get without hitting the No. 1 seed.
The Verdict: They’re not in the SEC, they don’t have a high seed, and they’re not a historic power — supporting UCONN would be all right, too. Mizzou fans might have a soft spot for them, since star Tiger Alex Oriakhi transferred from UCONN.
The Team: No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats
The Program: Kentucky is the winningest college basketball team of all time. (2111 and counting) They are third in the Final Four standings and second in the national championship count. They have a legitimate claim at being the greatest college basketball program ever. The Kentucky Wildcats are to the SEC and the game itself as the Alabama Crimson Tide are to the SEC and football. The most recent of their 16 national titles came two years ago, when they thankfully kept Kansas from their fourth.
The Story So Far: Don’t let the relatively low seed fool you. This Kentucky team is among the best the program has ever seen and they had one of the toughest roads to the Final Four in the history of the tournament. Their last three games were against three-fourths of last year’s Final Four and their last two games were against both of the participants in last year’s national championship game. There was a 9, 4, 1, and 2 and it’s quite a region when the defending national championship Louisville Cardinals are only the fourth seed.
The Verdict: Should the basketball rich get basketball richer?
For the first time in the history of the tournament, we could see a national championship contested between two teams from the SEC! Florida has already beaten Kentucky three times this season, maybe they can do it one more time for the national championship. I bet ESPN would love to see that, what with their financial stake in the new SEC Network.
What I’d like to really see is a good slate of games.