ARLINGTON, Texas —
They play the same game, though they come at it from opposite sides of the court.
Kentucky has a coach labeled a renegade, a rotating stable of McDonald’s All-Americans and sky high expectations every year. Wisconsin has a coach who has stayed firmly in one state for three decades, a lineup filled with juniors and seniors and an aw-shucks attitude about its first trip to the Final Four in more than a decade.
They meet today in the national semifinals — the One-and-Done Wildcats (28-10) two wins from the program’s ninth national title and the Badgers (30-7) making their first trip this far in the tournament since 2000.
“Frank Sinatra, wasn’t that the song? We did it our way?” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Everybody’s doing it their way. If you’re a coach and here’s the landscape, you do it the best way you can.”
In his 13th season at Wisconsin, Ryan is at his first Final Four at this level after winning four national titles at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
Asked about the biggest difference between getting this far at Division III and Division I, Ryan espoused the virtues of enjoying a good doughnut, diet soda and a crossword puzzle before the big game, as opposed to heading to a room filled with reporters who want to dissect his every move.
The trappings of big-time college basketball have not changed him.
“Every place I’ve been, wherever I was an employee, (the paycheck) always went into the account,” Ryan said. “My wife gives me $150 a month as an allowance, whether I need it or not. I don’t get caught up in all that other stuff.”
That is more the domain of the man he’ll coach against, John Calipari, whose news conferences at the NCAA tournament usually grow more prickly as the Wildcats make their way deeper through the bracket.
He is labeled by some as a pariah, the primary exploiter of the “One-and-Done” rule — really an NBA rule — that so many feel are ruining the game. Calipari attempted to put a different spin on it Friday. “Succeed and Proceed,” he called it, adding that the T-Shirts with said slogan are at the printer.
“When you’re changing the whole direction of a family, does it matter if it’s one or four years, unless you’re ingrained in, this is how it has to be?” he said. “That’s why I don’t read it, don’t care. All I do is, let me take care of these kids.”
Nobody at Kentucky is complaining, though they certainly were earlier this season.
Led by lottery pick-to-be Julius Randle and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, Calipari recruited six McDonald’s All-Americans to the bluegrass this season. The national title and an undefeated season were expected to be mere stopping points for these kids on the way to bigger things.
But it was way more complicated than that as recently as March 1, after the team had lost ugly in back-to-back games against Arkansas and South Carolina to fall to 21-8.
Calipari tweaked something — he’ll reveal exactly what when the season is over — and the march to the Final Four began. Never in the recruiting process or the season has the NBA been brought up, he insists.
“It’s the elephant in the room that we don’t need to talk about,” he said.
It’s a different story at Wisconsin, where the talent doesn’t always jump out to NBA scouts and Ryan’s swing-offense system gets credit for getting the most out of his players — even in a season like this, when the Badgers are playing more up-tempo and making more shots. Their 73.5 points are the most Wisconsin has averaged in 20 seasons.
“Sometimes, we kind of fail the eye test,” said 7-foot, 234-pound center Frank Kaminsky, he of the scraggly beard and the sweatjacket that nearly droops off his shoulders.
“I know that, me, personally, I’ve heard comments about how I look like I’m asleep all the time. I don’t know where that came from,” the center said, drawing laughs as he looked over at Ryan.
Yes, they are having fun on this trip to the Final Four, where the chance awaits to see how they stack up against the “One and Dones” — the likes of which don’t walk through Ryan’s door all that often.
“I had a Three and Done,” he said of Devin Harris, a lottery pick in the 2004 draft. “He came into my office and said, ‘Coach, what do you think?’ I told him that I would get back to him after I found out what the NBA people really felt. And when I did find out and sat down and talked to him, he was just so relieved that I would allow him to go make a lot of money.”
Florida, UConn tangle in rematch
ARLINGTON, Texas — The last time Florida lost there were still 23 shopping days until Christmas.
The Gators have won every game since that loss at Connecticut on Dec. 2. The teams meet again today in the Final Four. They both have changed and they both have stayed the same.
“They are high right now. They are playing great basketball. They are sharing the basketball. They are all playing hard. They haven’t lost since then. It will be really tough,” Huskies forward DeAndre Daniels said Friday. “We feel great. ... I feel like nobody is playing harder than us right now. We are just out there having fun and not playing for ourselves, but playing for each other.”
Connecticut, the seventh seed in the East Regional, has won nine of its last 11 with both losses to Louisville. That’s no 30-game winning streak but it’s enough to have the Huskies two wins from a fourth national championship and the first under a coach besides Jim Calhoun.
Florida, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, is looking for its third national title, the first two coming in consecutive years under coach Billy Donovan.
“These guys understand what goes into playing and competing, they’re really good as it relates to scouting report and preparation,” Donovan said. “I think they understand how hard they have to play, how well they have to play defensively together, offensively together.”
Shabazz Napier hit a buzzer-beating jumper from the free throw line to give Connecticut (30-8) the 65-64 victory in Storrs, Conn., four months ago. The dramatic win didn’t exactly propel the Huskies as they lost three of their next five games.
Napier was named the American Athletic Conference player of the year and was a first-team All-America. He took advantage of a freak play to hand the Gators (36-2) one of their two losses — the other was to Wisconsin, another Final Four team.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “I put up a lousy shot and DeAndre tipped it back out and I was able to get off a great shot. I got a second chance and was fortunate enough to make it.”
Now Connecticut, just like that day before winter even started, has a second chance at Florida.
The Gators were different that day in that freshman guard Kasey Hill was out with an ankle injury and freshman forward Chris Walker was clearing up eligibility issues. Scottie Wilbekin, the do-everything guard who was chosen Southeastern Conference player of the year, was playing in his third game of the season after being suspended for the first four. He had 15 points but injured an ankle with 3:01 to play, was taken to the locker room and never returned.
“I was in the locker room and there was a clock but no score,” he recalled Friday. “I kept asking one of our managers to go check the score. He came back and said we were up one and there was only a couple of seconds left. I was laying there with ice on my leg and I heard the roar from the crowd and I knew we lost. That was the low point of our season.”
“We’re familiar with them, and they’re familiar with us. They’ve done a great job of improving the defense since we played them, especially in the postseason.”
The aim of Gator defense today will be stopping the 6-foot-1 Napier, who leads the Huskies in scoring (18.1), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9), a first for the program. He has scored at least 19 points in the four NCAA tournament games and there hasn’t been a big play made by the Huskies that hasn’t started or ended with the ball in his hands.
Wilbekin will have the ball in the final minutes for the Gators. He had a career-high 23 points in the win over Dayton in the South Regional final. The Huskies, specifically Napier, will focus on Wilbekin.