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.