INDIANAPOLIS — Forty thousand people witnessed a pair of exhilarating Midwest Region semifinal tilts Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan and Kentucky barely emerged with victories, moving on to Sunday’s championship match with a chance to garner a trip to Cowboys Stadium and the Final Four. This edition of my rankings categorizes the top eight teams left in the Big Dance while noting the team’s placement in the post-Selection Sunday Top Freking 10.
1. FLORIDA (last ranking: 1)
Today’s South Region final matchup with Dayton is the last chance for the Gators’ Core Four – seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Wil Yeguete and Casey Prather – to reach the Final Four in what is the quartet’s fourth straight trip to the Elite Eight. In the Flyers, Florida also has its fourth straight regional final matchup against a Midwestern squad, having lost to Butler, Louisville and Michigan the past three seasons. Nervous Gator fans can pin their hopes on this tidbit, though – the last two times Florida reached the Final Four, it won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
2. ARIZONA (LR: 3)
For the first 37 minutes and 14 seconds of Arizona’s West Region semifinal game against San Diego State Thursday, Nick Johnson had zero points on 0-of-10 shooting. But with his Wildcats up 56-53 with 1:52 remaining in regulation, Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, drained an open 3-pointer. Sometimes the old basketball adage of a player flipping the switch after simply needing to see the ball go through the net comes true, and that certainly seems like it happened to Johnson Thursday. After the 3-pointer, Johnson made a layup and all 10 of his free-throw attempts to finish with 15 points in Arizona’s 70-64 victory.
3. MICHIGAN STATE (LR: 4)
The Big 12 and Big Ten were billed as the top two conferences in the country all season long. After Friday night’s developments, the Big 12 was left with zero teams in the Elite Eight. The Big Ten? Three, with Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. After a 26-point, 9-rebound game in the Round of 32 vs. Harvard, MSU’s Branden Dawson was unexpectedly huge again Friday in the Spartans’ 61-59 win over Virgina, delivering 24 points and 10 rebounds. Tom Izzo & Co. are making all of the people who jumped on the Green and White bandwagon after their Big Ten tournament championship look pretty smart right now.
4. KENTUCKY (LR: NR)
Kentucky was down 18-5 to Louisville with 12 minutes and 27 seconds remaining in the first half. Coach Cal was just forced to burn his second of five timeouts. The KFC Yum! Center, err Lucas Oil Stadium, was rollicking with Cardinal chants. But just as they did against undefeated Wichita State, the Wildcats remained calm. They rallied to within 34-31 at half, went ahead for the first time at 67-66 on an Alex Poythress free throw and wound up winning 74-69. The UK freshmen stole the show again, with Aaron Harrison canning a big corner three late and Julius Randle nailing some clutch free throws. The Wildcats also handed Louisville just its second loss in 11 Indianapolis-based NCAA tournament games. These aren’t the dysfunctional Baby Cats from February; these are the five-star recruits fully realizing their potential.
5. MICHIGAN (LR: 9)
The Wolverines’ litany of prolific shot-makers struck once again Friday night in a gripping 73-71 win over Tennessee. In the first half, Michigan shot 61.5 percent from the field, made 7-of-9 shots from 3 and scored 45 points – the most first-half points surrendered by the Volunteer defense all season. The Wolverines shot 55 percent for the game, though they did cool off from three in the second half, going 4-of-11 from beyond the arc.
Michigan coach John Beilein credited his team’s overall offensive knowledge for the shooting display.
“We’re going to take what people give us,” he said. “And if you have good shooters, you have good passers, and you have good patience at getting the right shot, you can make a lot of those shots. And they all did.”
6. WISCONSIN (LR: NR)
The Bo Ryan Curse is nearly ancient history. With a victory over Arizona tonight, the Badgers can earn their first Final Four berth under the 13-year Wisconsin coach. Wisconsin lost its only other trip to the Elite Eight under Ryan in 2005. Why is this particular unit having success? An improved offense. Per Athlon Sports, this is the highest-scoring Badger team since 1995, Wisconsin’s top 3-point shooting team in nine years and the first UW squad to crack 70 points per game since 2007. The Badgers also entered Friday’s games as the fourth-ranked team in kenpom.com’s offensive efficiency rankings.
7. CONNECTICUT (LR: NR)
Four Marches ago, a freshman from Roxbury, Mass., watched senior guard Kemba Walker put the Huskies on his back and carry them to 11 straight elimination game wins through the Big East and NCAA tournaments, a run that ended with Connecticut’s third national championship. Shabazz Napier was that freshman guard, averaging 7.8 points and three assists off the bench. Now, Napier is doing his best Kemba impression. After UConn’s 81-76 win over Iowa State Friday night, Napier is averaging 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Huskies’ past six games, which includes a run to the American Athletic Conference tournament title game and a berth in the Elite Eight. Friday, Napier received some major help form DeAndre Daniels, who scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
8. DAYTON (LR: NR)
Friday morning, ESPN radio’s Mike and Mike asked Flyers’ coach Archie Miller about the Dayton campus raucously celebrating each of his team’s three tournament wins – images have surfaced on TV and the internet portraying what looks like Project X-level partying by the UD faithful – and Miller’s reply was golden: “Hey, they have a good time all the time. It’s just the first time you guys put it on television.” Classic one-liners aside, the guy who used to be better known as Arizona coach Sean Miller’s younger brother now has the Flyers in the Elite Eight for the first time in 30 years. One more win and Dayton is in the Final Four, and the 1967 team is the only other team in UD history to own that distinction. The ‘67 squad lost 79-64 in the national title game to UCLA, which got 20 points and 18 rebounds from Lew Alcindor, who later changed his named to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Dropped out: Wichita State (2), Louisville (5), Virginia, (6), Kansas (7), Villanova (8), Duke (10)
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at email@example.com.