The Final Four is set, with Connecticut and Kentucky, winners Sunday afternoon, joining Saturday night's victors, Florida and Wisconsin as the quartet of teams who will play for the 2014 college national championship in North Texas after three of four Elite Eight games essentially went down to the wire.
It's been a captivating NCAA Tournament, full of upsets and players emerging as stars and legitimate NBA prospects. The Final Four teams aren't exempt, as each of the squads have players with pro potential, to varying degrees.
Florida, the No. 1 team in the country for much of the second half of the college season, is led by its group of seniors: Wilfred Yuguette, a blue-collar forward; chiseled big man Patric Young; athletic swingman Casey Prather; and floor general Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year. However, none of them is regarded as a surefire NBA player.
Young was a highly-touted high school prospect who disappointed NBA personnel types with his lack of progress on the offensive end, but he has found a niche as a role-playing defender and rebounder with basic post moves, to go along with his pro-ready frame and athleticism. Prather has made huge strides in his final campaign and could earn some looks, while Wilbekin's defense, intangibles and size for his position could always give him some consideration.
But although none of that trio is likely to be a first-round pick--even the second round is a bit of a stretch--the Gators have some underclassmen who are seen as top prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Freshman point guard Kasey Hill backed up Wilbekin, but has seen extensive playing time and with his quickness and playmaking ability, he will be scrutinized closely next season. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, a Virginia Tech transfer, was the SEC's sixth man of the year and due to his length, rebounding prowess, three-point range and fluidity, he projects well at the next level.
But perhaps the player with the most potential on Florida's roster is freshman big man Chris Walker. One of the top players in last year's high school class, Walker missed half of this season because of eligibility issues, but while he doesn't play big minutes, his combination of size and explosiveness allows him to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
Wisconsin isn't traditionally a program that produces a lot of NBA prospects due to their system, which is usually features a slow-paced, methodical offense and a heavy emphasis on defense. The Badgers' defense is still there, but it's also a much more potent scoring team, in large part because of the presence of junior big man Frank Kaminsky, the star of Saturday night's thrilling overtime win over top-seeded Arizona.
A product of suburban Chicago's Benet Academy, Kaminsky is a versatile post player with the ability to score on the block and step out beyond the three-point line. The nephew of long-time Bulls employee Karen Stack, Kaminsky is drawing rave reviews from people around the NBA, and it's easy to envision his pick-and-pop game fitting in the league.
Two other Chicagoland products, sharpshooting senior guard Ben Brust of Mundelein and reserve junior forward Duje Dukan, a Deerfield product and son of Bulls' director of international scouting Ivica Dukan, are also contributors. Sophomore small forward Sam Dekker is another Wisconsin player on the NBA radar, while rugged Badgers freshman forward Nigel Hayes, the Big Ten's sixth man of the year, is worthy of being monitored.
Connecticut, guided by former NBA player and ex-Husky point guard Kevin Ollie, is perhaps the most surprising of the Final Four teams, especially after defeating Michigan State, one of the tournament favorites, in the Elite Eight. Senior floor general Shabazz Napier is the team's unquestioned leader, leads the team in scoring, assists and rebounding, and is willing his way into being a possible first-round draft pick, as well as an NBA rotation player immediately upon entering the league, as a relative clone of former teammate and current Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker, with slightly less scoring ability, but perhaps more talent in other aspects of the game.
Ollie's tutelage is also clearly benefiting junior forward DeAndre Daniels, who is finally starting to turn his potential into production and deftly blending his versatile inside-outside game, though he could stand to stay at UConn for his remaining year of eligibility, despite the buzz he's created with his recent play. Napier's backcourt mate, cat-quick junior Ryan Boatright, a native of nearby Aurora, Ill., has also greatly improved, particularly in terms of maturity, and will run the show next season, with Daniels and freshman shot-blocker Amida Brimah, an intriguing prospect because of his defensive prowess, beneficiaries of his burgeoning playmaking ability.
Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team in the country on the strength of its much-ballyhooed recruiting class, had a largely disappointing regular season, but is peaking at the right time, as Wildcats head coach John Calipari has molded his young squad into a force as time has gone on, made evident by the team's clutch play in close wins over Michigan and rival Louisville, the two NCAA finalists last year. Southpaw power forward Julius Randle, a beast on the interior, is regarded as a top-five draft prospect and has been Kentucky's best player all season because of his seemingly automatic double-double performances, which should translate to the next level because of his physical nature, knack for rebounding, athleticism and developing scoring tools.
The backcourt features the polarizing Harrison twins--Andrew is the point guard and Aaron, who hit the game-winner to beat Michigan, is the shooting guard--who struggled for most of the campaign, but are playing their best basketball down the stretch. While Andrew he isn't a speedster or a traditional floor general, he does possess great size for the position, though he could use some seasoning to improve his playmaking. Aaron was billed as more of a scorer, but his outside shooting has been inconsistent and like his identical twin, another year of college would certainly help his pro prospects.
Another freshman, James Young, is intriguing because of his slashing ability, but even though his outside shooting hasn't been as advertised, the left-handed swingman is a potential lottery pick. Two big men, massive center Dakari Johnson and slender shot-blocker Marcus Lee, also have high ceilings, but are seen as far too raw to consider making the leap, though Johnson's frame alone could warrant him being drafted as a project, regardless of his readiness to contribute.
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein has endured an up-and-down season, but the former wide receiver's agility and shot-blocking prowess make him a first-round lock, something that won't be affected by an ankle injury suffered in the Louisville game holding him out against Michigan. Forward Alex Poythress might have been a first-round pick himself if he had declared for the draft last season, but opted to return to school and has been relegated to a reserve role, in which he's displayed the ability to be an athletic, high-energy, defensive-minded role player, a niche that could help him make an NBA roster.
Besides the players in the Final Four, other collegians have opened up some eyes or solidified their standing, in terms of their draft projection, such as Michigan sophomore sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, Michigan State senior stretch power forward Adreian Payne, UCLA sophomore point forward Kyle Anderson, high-motor Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon, athletic Wichita State senior forward Cleanthony Early, talented Iowa State senior point guard DeAndre Kane, crafty San Diego State senior point guard Xavier Thames and intimidating Tennessee junior big man Jarnell Stokes.
A few of the upper-echelon draft prospects had surprisingly early exits from the tournament, including: top freshmen Andrew Wiggins of Kansas (the athletic swingman had only four points in a round-of-32 loss to Stanford), teammate Joel Embiid (the center didn't play due to a back injury) and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis (the floor general announced that he's leaving school, following a loss to upstart Dayton, which advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Florida); sophomores Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State (the phyiscal point guard had big game in a loss to Gonzaga to conclude a tumultuous season), T.J. Warren of North Carolina State (the ACC's player of the year and nation's second-leading scorer made his departure official); and Creighton senior forward Doug McDermott, the national player of the year and nation's top scorer.
While all of the aforementioned prospects have either already announced their intentions to declare for the draft or are expected to do so in the near future, Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker is reportedly on the fence. The Chicago native didn't have his best showing in the Blue Devils' shocking loss to Mercer and because he enjoys the college environment, some observers think he could return to school, potentially teaming up next season with friend, former high school rival and AAU teammate Jahlil Okafor, the Whitney Young center, No. 1 high school player in the nation and incoming Duke recruit.