Wiedmer: Final Four should include Duke, UNC next year

Wiedmer: Final Four should include Duke, UNC next year

April 9th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Document: 2014 NCAA Men's Bracket

Bracket for the 2014 NCAA Men?s Division I Basketball Championship

ARLINGTON, Texas - In another time, in a different sport, what Connecticut used Monday night to defeat Kentucky in NCAA basketball championship game inside the AT&T Stadium the Dallas Cowboys also call home was known as "Doomsday Defense."

And the Huskies certainly turned in some very big D in Big D to top the Wildcats 60-54 and claim their fourth NCAA crown in 15 years.

As losing coach John Calipari said late Monday night, "Kevin [Ollie, UConn's coach] had them playing the perfect way for them to win. They really defend."

But as good as UConn was in the 2014 NCAA tourney, are Ollie's Hungry Huskies -- as Final Four MOP Shabazz Napier labeled the champs -- good enough to repeat, or even to return to college basketball's final weekend?

Or should we expect an entirely different Final Four for 2015, one free of UConn, UK, Florida and Wisconsin?

The Huskies could well have the talent to return, especially if rising senior guard Ryan Boatright becomes the same unbreakable rock as Napier, who finally graduates after seemingly having been around for all four of the Huskies' championships.

In fact, when you consider that the Huskies have won twice as many NCAA titles since 1999 as any other program -- four to Duke's and North Carolina's two apiece -- Ollie is merely speaking the truth when he says, as he did late Monday, "We're not chasing championships -- championships are chasing us."

Kentucky could always get back, too, depending on how many of the seven freshmen Calipari played Monday night (a Final Four record) opt to remain in Lexington for another year or head on to the NBA, their mandatory year of college now behind them.

The guess here is that no more than three of those freshmen return, quite possibly the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, and reserve Marcus Lee. And only Lee appears a certainty at this moment. Should that happen, UK will have trouble returning to the Final Four of the SEC tournament, especially if Calipari exits also, which has been rumored of late.

As for Wisconsin, the Badgers always are a threat with Bo Ryan as coach, and should big man Frank Kaminsky, the MOP of the West Regional, and wing Sam Dekker both return -- as they pledged to do after their Saturday loss to UK -- Wisconsin might not only reach the Final Four again but even stick around until the final game.

Then there's Florida, which loses four terrific seniors in Casey Prather, Will Yugete, Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin but might actually be better next year with a faster, more physical Kasey Hill replacing Wilbekin at the point and big man Chris Walker eligible for the whole season.

Yet however strong those four are, expect them to face incredibly stiff competition from Arizona, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina when it comes to reaching Indianapolis for next year's Final Four.

Arizona almost got there this season, falling to Wisconsin by one point in the West final. The Cactus Cats probably will say goodbye to freshman forward Aaron Gordon and junior guard Nick Johnson, but point guard T.J. McConnell will be back, as will Brandon Ashley, whose broken foot in early February probably cost Zona a Final Four berth this season.

Throw in rising sophomore Rodae Hollis-Jefferson and incoming freshman Stanley Johnson -- the most complete wing in the 2014 recruiting class -- and Arizona coach Sean Miller might claim the school's second national championship in the same city where the Wildcats won their first one 18 years earlier.

Two words for Kansas fans -- Joel Embiid. If the big kid comes back for a second season, there's almost no way the Jayhawks don't reach Indy. If he goes pro, they still could get there, but their path becomes much tougher.

Especially if they have to face North Carolina, which just might have the talent, experience and focus to hand Roy Williams the third national title of his career a decade after he claimed the first.

Assuming the Tar Heels learn to shoot free throws between now and next March -- study Kentucky to see what happens when a team doesn't -- North Carolina just might be the most dangerous team in the land, despite losing senior shooter Leslie McDonald and watching James Michael McAdoo declare for the NBA draft.

UNC's strength comes from point guard Marcus Paige, who can score from anywhere; a deep, athletic front line; and a freshman class that includes wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, who both have the talent and demeanor to become immediate contributors.

Yet the most intriguing scenario -- and scariest for Duke foes -- is how good the Blue Devils could be if Jabari Parker returns for his sophomore year.

It sounds too good to be true, if only because Parker figures to be a top-three NBA pick along with Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins and Embiid. But academics have always been important to Parker, and the NCAA tournament loss to Mercer left a bad taste in his mouth.

Duke is going to be really good regardless, thanks to a top-rated recruiting class that includes 6-foot-11 center Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones, forward Justice Winslow and shooting guard Grayson Allen. But add Parker, unsigned big man Myles Turner or both and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski just might claim his fifth title in the same city where he won his first 24 years ago.

Then again, a seventh seed and an eighth seed could come out of nowhere -- as UConn and UK did this spring -- to play for the championship. That's what makes the NCAA tournament the greatest three weeks in sports. Not because of the raw but outrageous talent of Calipari's one-and-dones, but because of the tourney's one-loss-and-you're-done format.

So even if it's hard to believe that Cal's Cats had 12 possessions in Monday's second half in which they were down one and failed to score a single point on all 12, they also got to that moment by the slimmest total victory margin in tourney history.

"These kids aren't machines," Calipari said. "They're not robots; they're not computers."

In other words, don't plan on winning next year's Quicken Loans Billion-Dollar Challenge, either. But don't be surprised if Arizona, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina are the last four standing a year from now.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.