Monday, February 19, 2018
Sports

Final Four teams take different paths

ARLINGTON, Texas

A team can shoot its way here. Or, it can get here by making sure the other guy doesn't shoot.

A team can rebound its way here. Or, it can pass its way here.

A team can get here because of its seniors. Or, it can get here because of its freshmen.

The truth of it is, there are a lot of ways to dribble down the Road to the Final Four, the ultimate destination in college basketball. You can get here behind a crafty old coach, or you can get here behind a relative newcomer. You can get here because of guards, or you can get here because of big men. You can get here by sailing through your schedule, or you can get here by stumbling just enough for the critics. You can get here by recruiting off the top shelf, or by coaching a lesser athlete here.

That's the Dallas area for you. There are five airports, and seven interstates, and assorted railways, rental cars and cattle drives.

And in the end, it doesn't matter how you get here.

Just that you do.

Consider the four teams that have gathered here for the Final Four. They are all as distinctive as they can be.

There is Florida, the lone No. 1 seed standing, a team that is here because of its four seniors, because of its defense, and because of its player development.

There is UConn, a team that has ridden Shabazz Napier all the way here, a team that has improved mightily since a 33-point loss at Louisville, a team that has responded well to coach Kevin Ollie after a generation with crusty Jim Calhoun.

There is Kentucky, a team that has ridden its talented freshmen to Texas, a team that overcame three losses to Florida, a team that follows slick John Calipari.

There is Wisconsin, a team that follows 66-year-old Bo Ryan, a team that lost five of six in one January stretch, a team that has uncovered a star in 7-foot Frank Kaminsky.

Who wins?

Depends. What brand of basketball do you like?

There is Florida, with its seniors. There is Kentucky, with its freshmen. There is Wisconsin, with its big man. There is UConn, with its point guard. There is Florida, with a two-time champion at head coach. There is UConn, where the coach is replacing a legend. There is Kentucky, with its heralded recruits. There is Wisconsin, where the basketball has entered this century.

Start with the Gators, who have now won 30 games in a row with a team filled with overachievers. These days, a lot of players arrive on campus as stars, and they leave soon afterward as brighter stars. But Florida's players took some developing along the way.

Time was, of course, coach Billy Donovan recruited a lot of players who left campus early: Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Marreese Speights, Bradley Beal. You wonder: Has Donovan changed his approach to recruit players he can keep for four years?

"My recruiting philosophy has not changed," Donovan said Thursday. "We're going to try to get guys who fit our philosophy and our style of play. A couple of years ago we had Beal, who left after one year. I really am not bothered with it one way or another.

"I haven't changed and said, 'Oh, I'm not going to recruit this guy because he may only be in college for a year or two. If it's a fit for us, I look at it as it's a blessing we had him for a year. If it's a guy like Patric Young, who has elected to stay in school for four years, it's a great thing for us as well."

Oh, the breaks have fallen for Florida. If the Gators were to beat UConn, then beat Kentucky in the final, they would be the only team in the past decade not to beat a No. 1 or No. 2 seed on its way to the title. Guess what? The trophy would still shine.

Still, the Gators are a direct contrast to a team such as Kentucky, which has built its success on recruiting the best freshmen in the country and keeping them for one year. Then doing it all again.

This Kentucky group seems to have finally arrived. The players seem a little more cohesive, a little more mature.

"We know our guys are going to get in front of 75,000 fans, look around and think, 'Oh, my,' " Calipari said. "It took us four months. It takes time. You cannot skip steps. We all want freshmen to be sophomores and juniors. They're not. They're still freshmen.

"We got here through an absolute minefield and happened to not step on a mine. My whole mission is to make sure we're not satisfied."

Then there is Wisconsin, which has one of its finest offensive teams. For years, the Badgers were a slow-it-down, grind-it-out team that couldn't survive once the opponents became too athletic. This team could be different.

If so, a lot of praise will come the way of Ryan, who won four Division III titles while at Wisconsin-Platteville. Also, Ryan says, "A lot of cheese will be sold."

Then there is Ollie, the second-year coach still trying to fill Calhoun's shoes. Give Ollie credit for this: His team found new life after being ripped by Louisville in its final regular-season game.

"I think everyone was looking at the 33-point loss as a problem," Ollie said. "We were looking at it as a possibility to get better. I think that's the kind of mind-set that we have. The whole of our team is better than the sum of its parts."

Four coaches. Four teams. Four approaches.

In the Final Four, four ways to win.

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