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NCAA Final Four: UF brings experience, UK hones talent in tourney

Senior Scottie Wilbekin leads a Florida Gators team that is the favorite to become the 2014 NCAA national champion. (Source: Tim Casey/UF Communications) Senior Scottie Wilbekin leads a Florida Gators team that is the favorite to become the 2014 NCAA national champion. (Source: Tim Casey/UF Communications)
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(RNN) - Three times they stood at the door, knocking, only to be turned away. This season, Florida seniors Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young kicked it off its hinges.

The quartet saw playing time of varying degree in each of the last three seasons as the Gators reached the Elite Eight. Whether it was a game they let slip away late (Butler, 2011; Louisville, 2012) or one where they got blown out of the water (Michigan, 2013), it fell short of the high expectations set in the Billy Donovan era.

Now, the well-seasoned group gets one of its first new experiences in a while: the bright lights centered on the circus that is the national semifinals.

"I've never been to the Final Four before," said Wilbekin during a news conference Monday. "[Our opponent] could have went any way and I would have been happy. I would have been happy with our chances just because I'm confident in our team regardless of who we're playing.

"But at the end of the day, if you're in the Final Four it's never going to be easy."

Saturday (all times Eastern):

Florida Gators (1) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7), 6:09 p.m.

The Gators come in on a 30-game winning streak that saw them become the No. 1-ranked team and the top overall seed in the tourney along the way. Their last loss came Dec. 2 by one point … to UConn. However, that was a time when Donovan's club was still coming together following injuries and suspensions. This version has torn through the SEC and NCAAs not only winning but imposing its will to make every game the style they want to play.

Few fans or "experts" gave much thought to the championship prospects of the Huskies. It was a team one year removed from a postseason ban with a young coach that closed the regular season with a 33-point loss to Louisville. A silver lining to that loss may have been the turnaround of DeAndre Daniels - the 6'9" junior has scored 11 or more points in every game since, including a magnificent performance against Iowa State in the Sweet 16 (27 points, 10-of-15 shooting, 10 rebounds).

UConn guard Shabazz Napier caught the magnificence bug in the Elite Eight, with 25 points including 9-for-9 free throws. The proficiency at the line isn't an anomaly for this team; they hit better than 77 percent on the year. Their successful gameplan involves pushing the pace, attacking the rim and drawing fouls. Coach Kevin Ollie - a player under his predecessor, Jim Calhoun - has his Huskies looking a lot like the version that won the championship in 2011.

Meanwhile, Florida forms a stronghold with excellent on-ball defense at the perimeter and big, athletic bodies in the paint. Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith can take control of the rebounding battle around either basket. Their team is comfortable getting the shot clock down to single digits on offense, a by-product of the leadership from their coach and the seniors on the floor.

Wisconsin Badgers (2) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (8), 8:49 p.m.

Bo Ryan's Badgers blew away the perception that their defensive-minded, deliberate style of play didn't work in the Big Dance by breaking through with an Elite Eight win over Arizona. Prior season's teams received a tournament berth every year since the coach took the helm in 2001, but only one made it to the Elite Eight. The 2014 bunch may also be the best group of scorers assembled in Madison, with four guys averaging double-digit points.

The centerpiece of the Big Blue Nation had its share of disappointment in 2013-14, with many of its ails blamed on the backcourt of twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison. So it seemed fitting that a game-winning shot in the Elite Eight came from the hands of Aaron after a pass from Andrew to bring the story of Kentucky's tournament turnaround full circle. The so-called "best ever" recruiting class finally formed its talents into a cohesive unit.

The Wildcats showed plenty of determination on the road to Arlington/Dallas. Games against Kansas State (9), Wichita State (1), Louisville (4) and Michigan (2) gave freshman Julius Randle a chance to show he could bang with the country's best big men - averaging 15.8 points and 12 rebounds. The team will probably be without Willie Cauley-Stein, but they have plenty of big men to stand alongside Randle who can score and grab boards.

Battling them underneath the glass will be Wisconsin's 7-foot junior, Frank Kaminsky. He scores in the low post, shoots with accuracy (38 percent) from 3-point range and anchors a defense that suffocates opponents in the lane. Point guard Traevon Jackson may do something few would expect if they haven't watched the Badgers in a while - lead a fast break. This team relies on its defense first, but it will look to take advantage on turnovers and challenge the Wildcats to react quickly.

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