The Road To The 2014 Final Four

Just three years removed from making a surprise run to the national title, the University of Connecticut had an even more out-of-nowhere run to the top of college basketball. Here’s a look back at how UConn, along with Kentucky, Florida, and Wisconsin, all reached the 2014 Final Four in Dallas.


After the 2011 NCAA championship, the Huskies had been knocked out in the second round in 2012. That was followed by the retirement of legendary head coach Jim Calhoun and NCAA probation. New boss Kevin Ollie went 20-10 in 2013, but was ineligible for tournament play.

The 2014 edition was led by 6’1” guard Shabazz Napier, who averaged 18 points/6 rebounds/5 assists. Ryan Boatright was another little guy, at 6’0”, who played above his size, at 12/4/3. He along with Niels Giffey were the three-point shooters. DeAndre Daniels was at forward, averaging 13/6 and able to stretch the floor himself with his shooting behind the arc.

UConn was ranked #18 to start the season and a good start got them into the Top 10. But a January slump sent them tumbling from the polls. They recovered to finish where they had begun in the rankings—at #18. But the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee was less impressed, and seeded the Huskies on the 7-line in the East Regional.

They began the tournament in Buffalo against St. Joe’s. A game where both teams were efficient, UConn shot 11-for-24 from three-point range, with Boatright knocking down four treys. In an overtime battle, the Huskies won 89-81. The defense showed up against 2-seed Villanova in the Round of 32. UConn held ‘Nova to just 35 percent shooting. Napier scored 25. An offensive outburst in the second half—52 points after intermission, keyed the Huskies’ 77-65 bracket-busting upset.

It was on to Madison Square Garden in New York for the regionals and a date with 3-seed Iowa State. Daniels had a big night, going off for 27/10, while Napier scored 19 and hit four three-pointers. UConn won it 81-76. And on the other side of the bracket, the top seed fell. Virginia lost to 4-seed Michigan State, 61-59 in a defensive battle.

The regional final was about defense. Neither the Huskies nor the Spartans got over 40 percent from the floor. UConn was an ugly 5-for-22 from behind the arc. But they forced 16 turnovers and committed just six. They got to the free throw line, where the Huskies enjoyed a 21-7 scoring edge. The final was 60-54, with Napier’s 25 points getting him Most Outstanding Player. UConn was making an improbable trip to Dallas.


John Calipari came to Kentucky in 2010, made the Final Four a year later, and won the national championship in 2012. After missing the NCAA field entirely in ’13, Calipari had the Wildcats back with a loaded freshman class so highly regarded they were ranked #1 in the preseason polls.

Julius Randle led the way, averaging 15 points/10 rebounds at the power forward spot. James Young, along with the Harrison twins—Aaron and Andrew—were all 6’6” and all double-digit scorers. Willie Cauley-Stein was a 7’0”  rebounder and shot blocker.

But freshmen, no matter how talented, have growing pains. Kentucky had a lot of them. They lost to Baylor, North Carolina, and Michigan State in non-conference play, while still beating in-state rival Louisville. The Wildcats went 12-6 in the SEC schedule and finished well behind league champ Florida. The ‘Cats lost again to the Gators in the conference tournament final. Kentucky was handed a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional, with all the expectations of November long forgotten.

Rebounding keyed an ugly win over Kansas State in the opening-round game in St. Louis. Kentucky won the board battle 38-23. Randle put up a 19/5 line, while Aaron Harrison scored 18 in the 56-49 final. That set up a showdown with top-seeded Wichita State. The Shockers were undefeated. It was a game that deserves a place on any list of NCAA classics. Both teams shot better than 50 percent. It was nip-and-tuck all the way. The Wildcats got a combined 39 from the Harrison brothers, and 13/10 from Randle. They had just a little bit more balance and preserved a 78-76 win when a final Wichita three-point shot missed.

A big rematch awaited with Louisville in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. Even though Kentucky only shot 43 percent from the floor, they made up for it with a 32-25 edge in rebounding and 22-13 advantage in free throw scoring. Randle’s 12 boards, along with Cardinal misses at the foul line, led to the 74-69 win. Meanwhile, second-seeded Michigan survived a terrific game against 11-seed Tennessee 73-71.

The Wolverines and Wildcats had once played a magnificent Final Four game back in 1993. This one wasn’t far behind. It was tied 72-72. Aaron Harrison, who had already the hit game-winner against Wichita, came through again. He drilled a three-pointer in the closing seconds. Kentucky was going back to the Final Four. Randle, whose 16/11 game keyed another decisive rebounding advantage, was the Most Outstanding Player.


Billy Donovan already had two NCAA titles under his belt in Gainesville, the back-to-back runs of 2006 and 2007. He had reached the championship game in 2000. And they had been knocking on the door in recent years—the Elite Eight in each of the last three seasons.

This year’s Gator squad was led by the perimeter trio of Casey Prather, Michael Frazier, and Scottie Wilbekin. Collectively, they averaged 37 ppg. Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete did the grunt work on the boards. And what really set Florida apart was a stingy defense that ranked in the national top 10.

Early losses to UConn and Wisconsin tempered expectations for a team that had been ranked #10 in the preseason. But then the Gators found their mojo. They tore off 23 straight wins. That included the entire SEC schedule. An 18-0 league record cleared the field by six games, and then they won the conference tournament. Florida was flying high, the #1 seed in the South and the #1 seed overall for the NCAAs.

Opening weekend was in Orlando. The Gators got 16 apiece from Prather and Finney-Smith in a workmanlike 67-55 win over Albany. In the Round of 32, Florida got 21 from Wilbekin, controlled the boards and locked down defensively in a 61-45 win over Pitt. They were going to Memphis for the regionals.

The South was a bracket that had been heavily gutted on opening weekend. Kansas and Syracuse, the 2-3 seeds, had both lost. So had Ohio State and New Mexico, the 6-7 seeds. Basically, the Sweet 16 game between Florida and #4 UCLA on the top half of the bracket, had the feel of a regional final.

A 19-point night from Frazier, combined with a 35-29 rebounding edge, and some vintage defense—holding the Bruins to 42 percent shooting—all came together for a comfortable 79-68 win. On the gutted side of the bracket, Dayton had knocked off Stanford.

In Florida’s Elite Eight losses of the previous three years, two had come as a higher seed, so nothing would be taken for granted. The Gators attacked the glass and won rebounding 37-21. They jumped out to a 14-point lead at halftime. Wilbekin scored 23 points, captured MOP honors and the final was 62-52. Florida was going back to the Final Four and was expected to cut down the nets on Monday night.


Wisconsin had made the Final Four along with Florida back in 2000 and was looking for its first return trip since then. Bo Ryan became the Badger coach in 2002 and had developed the reputation—for better or for worse—as the best coach not to make the Final Four. Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament every year under Ryan, and reached five Sweet 16s over the next 12 years, while still looking to take the next step.

Frank Kaminsky occupied the low post and averaged 14/6. Sam Dekker was a good forward, with a 12/6 nightly average. Traevon Jackson and Ben Brust were a complementary backcourt, each scoring in double figures. The Badgers used a highly efficient offense to overcome what could be spotty defense.

After starting at #20 in the rankings, that non-conference win over Florida had been part of a 16-0 start that vaulted UW all the way to #3 in the polls. Then they lost five of six in January. The roller coaster turned back upward with eight straight wins to close the regular season. Wisconsin got one more win in the Big Ten tournament. It was enough to get the 2-seed in the West Regional.

Playing close to home in Milwaukee, the Badgers steamrolled American 75-35, allowing just 13 points in the second half. The Round of 32 with Oregon got hairy. Wisconsin was down 49-37 at the half. The combination of three-point shooting and Kaminsky would save them. UW hit 11/28 from behind the arc. Kaminsky scored 19. Playing in a raucous home atmosphere, the Badgers rallied to win 85-77.

Anaheim was the destination for the regionals. Baylor, the 6-seed, had knocked out 3-seed Creighton. The Bears proved easy pickings for the Badgers. Kaminsky hit 8-for-11 from the floor, Wisconsin was up 29-16 by half and never tested in a 69-52 win. On the other side of the bracket, top-seeded Arizona held serve with a 70-64 win over San Diego State.

Wildcat coach Sean Miller was considered Ryan’s rival for the “Best Coach Never to Make a Final Four” label. Somebody would shed that in the Elite Eight. The game was a thriller. Arizona got a big game from Aaron Gordon. Kaminsky took his March heroics to a new level, going off for a 28/11 night. The battle went to overtime. Clinging to a 64-63 lead, the Badgers were on the wrong end of a ferociously debated call over possession in the closing seconds. But they made one last defensive stand and got Ryan his long-sought Final Four berth. Kaminsky was an easy choice for Most Outstanding Player.


Florida and UConn was the early evening game. That the Gators had a rough offensive night wasn’t unprecedented—they only shot 39 percent and went 1-for-10 from behind the arc. More surprising is that the Huskies solved the Florida defense. UConn shot 56 percent. Daniels had a big game, with 20 points/10 rebounds. The Huskies not only won, but the 63-53 triumph came surprisingly easy.

It was up to Kentucky to salvage SEC pride. Their prime-time battle with Wisconsin was riveting, tight the whole way. The Wildcats shot a little bit better—50 percent to 46 percent—and did their usual rebounding work. Although the 32-27 edge on the glass wasn’t as substantial as what they’d gotten accustomed to. They got 17 points from Young and 16 from Randle. Wisconsin countered with better three-point shooting and led 73-71 in the closing seconds. There was enough time for Aaron Harrison. He drilled one more massive three-pointer, delivering Kentucky an epic 74-73 win.

The Wildcats looked like nothing could stop them. They had beaten an undefeated 1-seed, an archrival 4-seed, and a pair of Big Ten 2-seeds. But that plucky 7-seed would be too much to handle. Neither Kentucky nor UConn shot well on Monday Night. But the Wildcats missed their chances at the foul line, going just 13/24. The Huskies only got 10 free throws, but they made them all. And they took 53 shots from the floor against just 46 for Kentucky.

While Young had a good night for UK, with 20 points, Napier was the star of the show. He scored 22 points and took home Most Outstanding Player honors. The final was 60-54, just like UConn’s win over Michigan State to get here. In their most improbable title run yet, the Huskies were national champs.