No frauds among Final Four


DALLAS

Cinderella stayed home.

And it wasn’t because of the forecast for thunderstorms.

Forget that Kentucky is an 8 seed and Connecticut a 7. Of those teams that have advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, all are major programs and three have won multiple national championships.

All are heavy hitters, no matter the various roads each traveled to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys and where the national semifinals will be staged Saturday.

Where one of four teams will stand atop college basketball while cutting down a net Monday night.

Where Florida, Connecticut, Kentucky and Wisconsin have arrived to settle things.

Point spreads say that Florida is expected to be the last team breathing, a reasonable conclusion given the Gators are the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and last lost Dec. 2.

To, yes, Connecticut.

Its opponent Saturday.

It’s one small fact that supports a larger theory: Anyone can win this thing. There might be a favorite, but in no way is it a prohibitive one.

Here, then, is one strength for each of the four teams that could deliver a national title to their respective schools.

FLORIDA

Strength: Experience

The coach has it. Billy Donovan has advanced to a Final Four as a player, assistant and head coach. The players have it. The Gators start four seniors.

It’s a unique thing in today’s college game, so many veteran players on a top-ranked team. The Gators finish games better than most teams nationally, able to use their experience in those stretches of adversity that creep up over 40 minutes.

Donovan has won two national titles as Florida’s coach and many players on this team have advanced to four straight Elite Eights. The Gators even played a regional final at AT&T Stadium last year.

Nothing here will have them in awe.

CONNECTICUT

Strength: Star player

March is when legends are born.

We have seen it throughout the tournament’s history, great players raising their game to even higher levels than thought possible.

Shabazz Napier is having such a run for the Huskies.

Much as All-American point guard Kemba Walker did in leading Connecticut to a national championship in 2011, the senior Napier has lifted UConn onto his back and brought it within two games of another title.

He too is an All-American point guard. The comparisons are endless.

He has the same swagger as Walker, the same quiet but noticeable arrogance.

“What (Walker) did was just tremendous,” said Napier, who’s averaging just over 23 points and 4.5 assists in four tournament victories. “It’s never going to be done again. I’m not out there trying to replace what he did.”

Come late Monday evening, he just might.

KENTUCKY

Strength: Talent

Of the four remaining teams, the Wildcats have the most of it.

It just took five months to appear.

“It’s a process,” coach John Calipari said. “Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, you lose yourself in the team, and you understand less is more.

“So it’s a process. What anybody said or wrote before this had no bearing on us. When the season is over, I’ll go through point by point how I did it. You’ll be able to say, ‘Wow, I see it.’ The question becomes, when you hear it, ‘Why didn’t you do it earlier?’ I don’t really have a good answer right now.”

Here’s a possible one: Kentucky plays seven freshmen in its top eight, all kids who averaged in the mid-20s for scoring in high school, all kids who arrived in Lexington with countless stars attached to their recruiting resumes and more hype than LeBron’s next signature shoe.

All kids who, as their coach suggests, needed time to develop and mesh as one on the floor.

WISCONSIN

Strength: Continuity

The remaining team that plays together best, runs its stuff the best, knows how to play at both ends the best, has a name: Bucky.

Efficiency is key, especially when Final Four teams enter the colossal stadiums in which these games are now played. Sight lines are different. The depth for shooters becomes difficult to gauge. The team that is most balanced — Wisconsin has four players averaging between 10.7 and 14.1 points — often is able to best handle and execute in such extraordinary surroundings.

“Who we are right now is who we are,” coach Bo Ryan said. “We’re not changing. Whatever people want to say about styles, I leave that up to them. I have never gotten caught up in that conversation. We’ve had some players get hot, that maybe have developed more than others thought they would. I never sell players short. I always think they can get better. Some years, it just looks better than others.”

Bucky has never looked so good.

Any of the remaining teams can win it all.

This isn’t a Final Four for Cinderella.

She’s home, protected from the thunderstorms.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.