ARLINGTON, Texas — They're playing in the Final Four, this quirky basketball quartet of Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin. But when the top-ranked Gators face the Huskies at 6:09 this evening on TBS, followed by the Wildcats and Badgers at approximately 8:49, it might be more accurate to call them the Fortunate Four.
For instance, what were the odds that UConn would return to college basketball's final weekend for the first time since winning the national title in 2011 after being banned from last year's NCAA tournament for academic shortcomings? Especially after Louisville blasted the Huskies 81-48 in the final game of the regular season?
Good as the Gators are, what if Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin -- the most outstanding player of both the Southeastern Conference and last week's South Regional -- had opted to transfer rather than accept Gators boss Billy Donovan's four-month suspension for a violation of team rules?
What if Kentucky coach John Calipari hadn't "tweaked" his team's game plans after the Wildcats lost three of their last four regular-season games?
What if Wisconsin hadn't rebounded from losing five of six Big Ten games from Jan. 14 to Feb. 1?
As much as all four deserve to be here, only Florida has won all four of its tourney games by 10 points or more, and Wilbekin is the Gators' leading scorer in the postseason.
"For us," Badgers boss Bo Ryan said Friday, "it was like a batting slump for a baseball player, only it was three or four guys rather than one guy. We just couldn't hit shots for a few games. Then we got our confidence back, which always helps."
Kentucky coach John Calipari blames himself for whatever forced him to inject his secretive "tweaks" into Wildcats practices after an 84-65 loss at Florida in early March.
"That's on me," he said Friday. "When I [finally] tell you what I did to change, the tweak that I made, you will say, 'Why didn't you do it earlier?' I have no good answer."
Yet his Wildcats have survived the toughest draw of the four semifinalists. Moreover, should they beat the Badgers tonight, then upset Florida on Monday, the seeds of the teams they have defeated will total 19, the lowest total since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985. Oddly, the team with the current record of 20 (when adding the six seeds together), belongs to the only No. 8 seed to win the championship: Villanova from that same 1985 season. And those Wildcats knocked off top-ranked Georgetown on UK's home court (Rupp Arena) to win the title.
To advance to Monday's final, UK will have to slow Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who totaled 28 points and 11 rebounds in last week's West Regional final over Arizona.
"I had to stand by him just to make sure he was really 7 feet tall," Calipari said with a grin. "Can I tell you something? He's really 7 feet tall. He handles the ball better than you'd think, and he's their best 3-point shooter. He's playing with a swagger right now, like, 'None of you can guard me.' So that's a challenge in itself."
Yet if Friday's news conferences are any indication, Cal's biggest challenge might be finding a way for his five freshman starters to stop acting like freshmen at all times rather than some of the time.
Asked a question during his team's presser, UK rookie wing James Young replied, "I really didn't hear it. Can you repeat it?"
After a brief outbreak of laughter subsided, Cal said, "And you think they're no longer freshmen?"
Though UConn's players didn't focus many comments on Wilbekin, the Florida point guard was only too happy to address the exploits of counterpart Shabazz Napier, who has averaged 23 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 made 3-pointers in the tournament.
"He's the best in this tournament," Wilbekin said. "He can pull up [and shoot the 3] at any time or he can stop and start. He can drive and he's got a midrange shot. I can't stop Shabazz by myself. I'll need help."
They all needed help to get here. They'll all need help from unlikely teammates to reach Monday night.
A year ago it was Louisville's Tim Henderson, a walk-on who hit two 3-pointers in 42 seconds to help the Cardinals erase a 12-point deficit in their national semifinal win over Wichita State.
A week ago it was Kentucky freshman Marcus Lee, who'd scored all of nine points since Jan. 1 but scored 10 and pulled down eight rebounds in the Cats' Midwest Regional final win over Michigan.
"That's why you come to a school like Kentucky," Lee said Friday. "To make it to the big show and be a part of something special."
With a record crowd expected to top 85,000 in AT&T Stadium, this is the biggest Final Four show ever -- a chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance, as the songwriter once wrote.
"That's why I think people are so captivated by watching the tournament," Florida's Donovan said. "It's a one-shot game. Anything can happen."
As these Fortunate Four keep proving.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...