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Florida favored in Final Four, but young Kentucky is legitimate threat

Floridhead coach Billy Donovan speaks his players against UCLA during first half regional semifinal game NCAA college basketball tournament Thursday

Florida head coach Billy Donovan, speaks to his players against UCLA during the first half in a regional semifinal game at the NCAA college basketball tournament, Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) ORG XMIT: TNMS183

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Updated: May 2, 2014 6:20AM



Going in, this Final Four looks like the Gator Bowl.

The only two teams that beat Florida this season — Wisconsin and Connecticut — will be there. So will Kentucky, a team the Gators beat three times.

The question is, after the nets are cut down in suburban Dallas, will this NCAA tournament be remembered as another Wildcat strike?

This gathering at Cowboys Stadium might be a crowning moment for Florida coach Billy Donovan. If the favored Gators win, it would be the third national championship for Donovan, a Rick Pitino disciple who led Pitino’s 1987 Providence team to the Final Four.

Only three coaches — John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (four) and Mike Krzyzewski (four) — have won more than three national titles. Two others — Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun — have won three. That would be pretty serious company for Donovan, who’s only 48 and should have many more chances.

Winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 with a trio of top-10 NBA picks (Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah) was impressive. To finish off a two-loss season with a roster that doesn’t have a top-40 NBA prospect on it would be even more impressive.

Florida, which has won a mind-boggling 30 consecutive games, will be the favorite. But even though they’re the only No. 1 seed in this Final Four, the Gators are hardly a prohibitive favorite.

First off, Florida will have to deal with UConn guard Shabazz Napier, who has put the seventh-seeded Huskies on his back. Napier would be a strong candidate to be the most valuable player of the tournament, if the NCAA awarded such a thing.

No team looks more dangerous at this point, though, than Kentucky, a No. 8 seed playing like a No. 1 seed. Yes, the Wildcats, who start five freshmen, are young. But the way they have taken down Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan has been dazzling.

If you could put this Kentucky team back together in five years, it might win the NBA Finals. If you revisited disrespected No. 2 seed Wisconsin — the Wildcats’ opponent Saturday — in five years, you might encounter one of its players giving you a good deal on a TV to watch the NBA Finals.

That’s only a bit of an overstatement. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes might draw NBA interest down the road. But Wisconsin fans have been looking forward to next season, when everyone except Ben Brust returns. And, unlike at Kentucky, the Badgers will return.

Having next year arrive this year is a foreign concept in Chicago. That said, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan probably spent about 24 seconds enjoying having his name removed from the list of ‘‘best coaches who haven’t reached a Final Four.’’ He’s going to need every waking moment to figure out how to deal with a Kentucky juggernaut that features five potential first-round NBA draftees — for this year.

Julius Randle is a load. James Young can shoot. The Harrison twins are moving up fast. All are freshmen. Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is projected as a first-round pick, too.

And when Cauley-Stein sat out Sunday with an ankle injury, 6-9 freshman Marcus Lee stepped in with 10 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Dakari Johnson and sophomore Alex Poythress also are significant contributors.

Yes, the Wildcats are young. But the way they’re playing, Florida’s perch as the favorite is precarious.

How young is Kentucky? When Wisconsin beat Florida 59-52 on Nov. 12 in Madison, most of the Wildcats were still in eighth grade.

How young? When UConn beat Florida 65-64 on Dec. 2 in Storrs, Conn., the Kentucky freshmen were sophomores in high school.

Now they’re all grown up.



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