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Mike Lopresti | | April 1, 2014

Lopresti: The battle-tested final foursome

final_four_set_03302014.jpg From left, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, UConn's Kevin Ollie, Florida's Billy Donovan and Kentucky's John Calipari.

Four survivors, all in the end toughened by hard nights and long days.

No. 1 Florida. Wisconsin and its second wind. Unexpected Connecticut. Cinderella Kentucky.

Wait. Cinderella Kentucky? Well, the Wildcats are the lowest-ranked team in the field, though they might be the scariest No. 8 seed ever witnessed.

Behold a Final Four crammed with possibilities. Come next weekend in North Texas, we might see ...

Kentucky go from preseason No. 1, to unranked, to national champion. And do it with five freshman starters, which Michigan’s Fab Five could not even manage.

Billy Donovan win his third national championship at Florida in nine years, passing the likes of Dean Smith and catching the likes of Bob Knight. How is it Donovan gets so little renown?

Bo Ryan finally coach in the Final Four, and become the third-oldest national championship coach at 66, just behind Jim Calhoun and Phog Allen. “I’m still the same guy I was three hours ago,” he said after winning the West Regional.

Connecticut become the first No. 7 seed to win the national championship.
We will see ...

• Kentucky’s toughness. The young Wildcats have marched to North Texas on a trail of epics, winning by a combined 10 points against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan -- three opponents that entered the game with a combined 94-13 record. The last two classics were delivered on 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds by Aaron Harrison, one of seven Kentucky freshmen to play Sunday.

They have grown up from their early doubts and questions and defeats. If the 28-10 Wildcats win next week, they will have the most losses for a national champion since Kansas 26 years ago.

“We’re just a group of tough young guys,” Harrison said. “It doesn’t matter about the age anymore.”

• Florida’s resilience. Between injuries and suspensions, only three players on the roster have been in all 38 games. But now they’ve won 30 in a row. “They’re better players today by going through what they went through,” Donovan said.

• Wisconsin’s stability. This is a team that has started the same lineup in all 37 games, and was able to erase any doubts from losing five of six at midseason.

• Connecticut’s resolve. Three weeks ago, the Huskies lost by 33 points to Louisville. “I don’t even want to remember that,” coach Kevin Ollie said. To revive his players’ confidence after that disaster, he hit on an idea: show them a tape of their Dec. 2 game. They watched Shabazz Napier hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Florida, the Gators’ most-recent defeat.

Connecticut and Florida meet again Saturday. The only other team to beat the Gators this season -- Wisconsin -- will be there, too.

We will see new folk heroes ...

• Such as Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, the former volleyball player who had scored only nine points since Nov. 27 and played only 126 minutes all season, but came off the bench Sunday to torment Michigan with 10 points in the first half on four dunks -- or only four fewer than he had all year. “This is crazy,” he said afterward. “I can’t stop smiling.”

And what would he have thought had someone told him Sunday morning he would end up on the all-Midwest Regional team? “I would have thought he was insane.”

• Such as Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and his story of redemption. He started the season as a suspended head case -- Donovan once suggested he consider transferring -- and ends it as an unquestioned leader of the Gators. In 140 NCAA-tournament minutes, he has scored 67 points and had one turnover.

• Such as Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the 7-footer who has been known to talk himself on the court, and can bury opponents with 3-pointers.

• Such as Napier, doing a Kemba Walker impersonation, as he and his 23.3 NCAA-tournament average relentlessly carry a Connecticut team that nobody saw coming. He might not even still be a Husky had he not promised his mother he would get his degree.

We will see the cold value of numbers ...

• Kentucky is one the best rebounding teams in the nation. By the way, the Wildcats got 17 offensive rebounds against Michigan.

• Connecticut is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the nation. By the way, the Huskies shot 44 free throws in the East Regional, and missed three.
• Florida is one of the best scoring defenses in the nation. By the way, the Gators have allowed 55 points a game in the tournament.

• Wisconsin is one of the most error-free teams in the nation. By the way, the Badgers have only 33 turnovers in four tournament games.

But we will also see the unmistakable passion of emotions, too ...

• Such as Kentucky’s Julius Randle returning to his hometown Dallas to play in the Final Four. His mother had to leave Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday early to get back to work and did not see the finish. “I’m coming home to my mom,” he said afterward.

• Such as Connecticut’s Ollie resurrecting his alma mater a year after it was barred from the postseason due to academic sanctions, and marching to the Final Four in his first NCAA tournament.

• Such as Ryan savoring this chance of lifetime, wishing only the father he lost nearly eight months ago could still be here to watch. The first thing Ryan said in his regional championship news conference, where there was so much glory to discuss: His father would have been 90 on Saturday.

• Such as the four senior starters at Florida, enduring three consecutive Elite-Eight losses and last summer’s off-court turbulence, seeking a happy ending.

What if, next Monday night, they have to play Kentucky a fourth time this season to do it?

They have all gone through so much to get to North Texas. That’s one reason it will be so meaningful to the champion, and so painful to the losers.

"There is no easy way out at this time of year,” Donovan said. “Each team is more and more invested.”

Especially this Final Four.

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