Last week on Skyway Shout Out we highlighted the sites’ predictions for the four regions of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Our projected regional champions survived a wild and crazy first weekend of March Madness; however, the same cannot be said for the Billion Dollar Bracket challenge. When Memphis beat George Washington on Friday, all of the potential entries were busted, and Warren Buffett’s money remained safe and sound in Omaha, Nebraska. Alas, the road to Dallas moves onward, with Sweet Sixteen action beginning on Thursday evening. To cap off our 2014 NCAA Tournament Predictions, we’ll highlight our projected Final Four match-ups and crown a National Champion.
(1) Florida Gators vs. (3) Iowa State Cyclones
April 5th in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium
Players To Watch:
Scottie Wilbekin, Guard, Florida Gators; Melvin Ejim, Forward, Iowa State Cyclones
Scottie Wilbekin is arguably one of the top point guards in the entire country, leading the Gators in scoring with 13 points per game. Through the first weekend of the tournament, Wilbekin has only turned the ball over twice and he shot 60% from the field against the Pittsburgh Panthers. His leadership cannot be overstated, as he is the heart and soul of the top ranked Gator squad. Scottie will be celebrating his 21st birthday in Dallas at the Final Four, and he holds the key to the Gators success.
Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year, averaged almost a double-double on the season (18.1 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game). If Iowa State is going to make moves in the Final Four, it’ll be on the shoulders of Ejim, who facilitated both wins for the Cyclones during the tournament’s opening weekend. Melvin shot over 61% of the field, which was good for 36 points over that two game span. Add in his 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals, and you get a microcosm of what Ejim has done all season long.
Florida’s strength lies in their defense–the Gators rank second in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing only 88.8 points per 100 possessions to an average offense. Billy Donovan has the flexibility to roll out a variety of defensive schemes, and Florida’s full court pressure helps facilitate turnovers (2.6 turnover margin) and transition points for the Gators. On the season, Florida has held opponents to under 40% shooting from the field–this will be critical against Iowa State’s high-powered offensive attack.
In direct contrast to the Gators, Iowa State touts one of the best offenses in the country, averaging almost 83 points per game. Three point shooting is critical for the Cyclones, as they have averaged 8.3 buckets per game from behind the long line. Through two games in the tournament, Iowa State has attempted 43 three pointers, making them at 48% rate. The Cyclones play at an extremely fast tempo (top 15 in the country), and they are second in the nation in assist to turnover ratio (1.77).
It’s hard to identify weaknesses in teams that have advanced to the Final Four, and in the case of these two teams, weaknesses are few and far between. It is worth pointing out that Iowa State lost third leading scorer Georges Niang in the opening round to a broken ankle. However, DeAndre Kane did more than enough to compensate for this loss in the Round of 32 victory over North Carolina.
If asked to identify a potential weakness for the Gators, it would be the lack of a true star player. At various points throughout the season, opponents made Florida look pedestrian when they forced the Gators into a half-court offense. While Florida fields a plethora of athletes and players in their rotation, there isn’t one specific player that can truly create their own offense. The Gators rely heavily on transition offense and man-to-man mismatches to create open looks; a zone defense could expose the Gators (to some extent) and force them out of their comfort zone.
At first glance, the other Final Four bout seems like a more intriguing game; however, this clash between a top offense and top defense should make for an exciting match-up. It will boil down to which team can exploit the other team’s weaknesses and impose their style on the game. The game will be close, and both teams have seasoned veterans leading the charge. In the end, the variety of looks and pressure from the Gator’s defense will prove to be just enough to tip the scales in Florida’s favor. Billy Donovan will advance to his fourth National Championship game.
(1) Arizona Wildcats vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals
April 5th in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium
Players To Watch:
Aaron Gordon, Forward, Arizona Wildcats; Russ Smith, Guard, Louisville Cardinals
Aaron Gordon is a freshman phenom out of San Jose, California that is averaging over 12 points per game to go along with almost 8 rebounds and 2 assists. While he received less hype then fellow freshman Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, Gordon was an integral part to a team that only lost four games on the season. Chad Ford of ESPN has Aaron ranked as the sixth best player on the board in this year’s draft, with his main drawback being his perceived lack of a position at the NBA level. He is an excellent compliment to Nick Johnson and his presence on the boards could cause problems for Louisville.
Russ Smith has been there before. The senior returned to Louisville in hopes of defending the National Championship, and has led them back to the Final Four. If the Cardinals want to return to the promised land, they’ll need Smith to step up his game. In the first two games of the tournament, Smith shot just 32% from the field (down from his season average of 47%) and had 13 turnovers. Arizona has a much better defense than Manhattan or St. Louis, so look for them to exploit Smith’s inability to hold onto the rock.
Louisville is a defensive powerhouse. The Cardinals rank third in defensive efficiency and on the season, they held their opponents to under 40% shooting from the field. They rank second in the nation in steals and their turnover margin is tops in the country at 6.8.
Arizona is a defensive powerhouse. The Wildcats rank first in defensive efficiency and on the season, they held their opponents to under 40% shooting from the field. They average over 26 defensive rebounds per game, out rebounding their opponents by almost 8 per game.
Louisville entered the tournament feeling shafted with their 4 seed, as the Selection Committee severely undervalued the American Athletic Conference. One could argue that the Cardinals faced lesser competition throughout the season, and they didn’t help their cause by losing their only two big non-conference games against UNC and Kentucky. Forward Montrezl Harrell got into foul trouble against UNC, fouling out with almost 7 1/2 minutes left in the game. Kentucky forced Louisville to take shots from outside the paint in their victory over the Cardinals. The common factor seems to be that if Louisville fails to establish a paint presence, they are vulnerable.
It’s hard to identify a specific weakness on this Wildcat squad. In their loss to Cal, they were beat on a last second shot in a game in which they lost star player Brandon Ashley. In their double overtime loss to Arizona State, they shot poorly from the field and didn’t share the ball. Oregon was playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament; UCLA was able to score early against the Cats. In essence, a team needs to catch Arizona on an off-night, or beat them at their own game. They’ll face an eerily similar team in Louisville–built upon strong defense with a more than serviceable offense.
This will be a battle of epic proportions and will be decided on the offensive side of the ball; however, given the strength of both teams’ defensive units, this will prove no easy task. Louisville has been there before, having been in the Final Four in 2013–that experience will help them deal with the pressure on Saturday evening. It’ll come down to which offense makes the fewest mistakes, and can capitalize on the smallest of opportunities. Louisville has the better overall offense and this gives them the edge in the game. Russ Smith & the Louisville Cardinals advance to the National Championship in hopes of defending their title.
(1) Florida Gators vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals
April 7th in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium
This National Championship would be a fitting ending to an excellent Final Four and an amazing NCAA Tournament. The potential story lines are endless: Rick Pitino pitted against his protege Billy Donovan; the defending champions against the number one overall seed in the tournament; Louisville seniors Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, and Stephan Van Treese against Florida seniors Casey Prather, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, and Wil Yeguete; a battle of top points guards in Smith and Wilbekin. Both teams are top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency and top three in defensive efficiency. It will be strength against strength in a true battle to the finish. This game will come down to the last five minutes, and a solid run by either team could seal the championship. Michael Frazi3r is the difference maker and game MVP as the Gators cut down the nets in north Texas.