Florida coach Billy Donovan has his hands full preparing for Shabazz Napier and Connecticut in the Final Four, yet he couldn’t help but look across at the other side of the bracket.
Kentucky, with its waves of athletic freshmen against defensive and deliberate Wisconsin, yeah, that’s going to be interesting to watch – even for a coach with more pressing things on his mind.
“It should be a great game,” Donovan said during a conference call with the Final Four coaches Monday. “Two, I think in a lot of ways, contrasting styles.”
Contrast. This year’s Final Four is full of it.
Kentucky relied almost entirely on freshmen (again), while Florida followed a road paved by seniors.
The Gators’ middle is muscular, anchored by lane bully Patric Young. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky is a 7-footer who is just as comfortable on the 3-point line as he is on the low block.
The Badgers’ shot clock is more like an hour glass, offensive spacing and precision cutting setting up the perfect shot. The athletic Wildcats barge their way past opponents, getting out on the break or flying in for rebound slams.
Even the coaches have divergent paths: Donovan and Kentucky’s John Calipari are Final Four regulars, UConn’s Kevin Ollie and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan have crashed the party for the first time.
The 66-year-old Ryan is finally in the Final Four after several near-misses, but has at least seen a version of the big stage before after taking Wisconsin-Platteville to four national championships before moving on to Madison.
Ollie has never been this far; he’s only been a head coach for two seasons and the Huskies weren’t eligible for the NCAA tournament a year ago. He does have plenty of experience, though, playing for 11 teams during 13 NBA seasons before ending up in Storrs.
“I always prided myself as being a coach on the court,” Ollie said. “I didn’t really pride myself to looking over at the coach for the play. I wanted to be the extension of the coach so he didn’t have to call the play. I knew exactly what he wanted on the court every minute of the game.”
The contrast in big men runs the spectrum in this year’s Final Four.
Florida’s Young is built like a 6-foot-9 bodybuilder, using his strength to bull opponents out of the lane and get to the rim. Kentucky’s Julius Randle is of a similar barge-past-them mold, though with more of a face-up game, and UConn go-to big man DeAndre Daniels can shoot, slash and soar.
On the far end of the big-man spectrum is Kaminsky. A lanky 7-footer, he uses his length to score around the basket, but also has good shooting touch from the arc and an ability to find gaps in the opposing team’s perimeter defense.
“Kaminsky for them is a unique player just in the fact that with his size, he can step away from the basket and shoot threes, he obviously can post up and score around the basket,” Donovan said.
The range in experience couldn’t be any wider between SEC rivals Kentucky and Florida.
The Gators are the most seasoned team left in the bracket, led by seniors Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. Those four alone had played nearly 400 combined games before Kentucky’s freshmen had played one on the college level.
But the start-em-young mindset is nothing new in Lexington.
Calipari already perfected the ring-and-done, earning a national championship in 2012 behind Anthony Davis and his talented freshmen cohorts. After some shaky stretches during the regular season, Coach Cal has guided another group of young Cats – seven freshmen in the top eight of the rotation – into the Final Four.
“Every one of these kids averaged 25 (points), were McDonald’s All-Americans in some form or fashion,” Calipari said. “All of a sudden you’re asked to do way less. That’s really hard.”
Now, about that matchup of Badgers and Wildcats in North Texas Saturday.
Kentucky’s Wildcats are thoroughbreds, athletic players who seem to rotate in like it’s a hockey game.
Offensively, they fly in for dunks, drop in 3s, relentlessly pound the glass. Defensively, they play with a swarm mentality, the guards hounding opponents into mistakes, the long-armed big men soaring in to send shots into the stands.
Wisconsin … is … more … deliberate.
The Badgers work their offense like a precision craftsman, screening and cutting and spacing themselves perfectly to get the best possible shot, whether it’s in the lane or beyond the arc, where just about everyone on the roster can hit from.
Defense is a priority at Wisconsin since Ryan first arrived in Madison and little has changed in the 12 years since – other than the frustration level of teams trying to score against the Badgers.
“We are who we are right now, we’re not changing,” Ryan said. “They’re who they are right now. Whatever people want to say about styles and all that, I leave that up to them. I’ve never gotten caught up in that kind of a conversation.”
With so many contrasts – styles, players, coaches – there’s plenty to talk about.