Breaking down the Final Four, then covering the bases around the college hoops world:
Coach: John Calipari
Top player: Brandon Knight
X-factor: Doron Lamb
Most underrated quality: Toughness. Calipari's teams the past few seasons have been synonymous with the dribble-drive motion offense and their ability to beat their man to the basket. This unit is all about what it does on the defensive end of the floor. Thanks to veterans Deandre Liggins, Darius Miller, and Josh Harrellson, the Wildcats have maintained a feisty blue-collar approach despite a tight six-man rotation.
Kentucky will win the national championship if ...: It continues to make 3-point shots and Terrence Jones has an impact on both ends of the floor.
Coach: Jim Calhoun
Top player: Kemba Walker
X-factor: Jeremy Lamb
Most underrated quality: Team depth. The young Huskies might be a product of Walker's greatness, but he has had plenty of help. In addition to Lamb, freshmen Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith along with sophomore Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel have all helped Walker with their scoring during this magical run that started in the Big East tournament.
UConn will win the national championship if ...: Alex Oriakhi regains his double-double form and the Huskies' perimeter defense continues to stifle the opposition.
Coach: Brad Stevens
Top player: Shelvin Mack
X-factor: Khyle Marshall
Most underrated quality: Perimeter defense. The Bulldogs' overall experience might be their greatest strength near the end of games, but their ability to overwhelm the opponent's backcourt with their guards might be their biggest weapon. Both Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant have shown a knack for doing all the dirty work and not asking for any of the credit.
Butler will win the national championship if ...: It dictates the tempo and Andrew Smith and Matt Howard dominate the backboards.
Coach: Shaka Smart
Top player: Jamie Skeen X-factor: Bradford Burgess
Most underrated quality: Inside toughness. Known for their ability to get out in transition and pick apart defenses with their 3-point shooting, the Rams have displayed plenty of toughness on the interior during the tournament. Skeen, Toby Veal and D.J. Haley have all proven they're more than capable of holding their own in the paint.
VCU will win the national championship if ...: Point guard Joey Rodriguez plays 80 minutes of nearly turnover-free basketball and Skeen dominates with his inside-out game.
This and that
• It is absolutely remarkable how well Calhoun has used seniors Donnell Beverly and Charles Okwandu in spot minutes. Both career reserves, Beverly and Okwandu have had an impact on the Huskies' run to the Final Four with solid defense and timely baskets. Against Arizona on Saturday in the West Regional final, Okwandu played stalwart defense in spurts against Derrick Williams and Beverly hit a huge floater to get UConn a bucket in the second half.
• One of the more interesting things about this run for UConn has been the alteration in the Huskies frontcourt. Since Emeka Okafor arrived in Storrs in 2001, UConn has had a dominant shot blocker. This year, Roscoe Smith and Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel have given the Huskies extra versatility at the four spot. In the 1990s, Calhoun regularly used more power forwards, such as Kevin Freeman and Donny Marshall.
• Until he's free to speak to other schools, Shaka Smart will be linked to many jobs on the open market, but I really believe if he decides to leave VCU the best fit for him would be Missouri. The Tigers have a ready-made winner in Columbia and the personnel on the roster are perfect for Smart's high-octane attacking style.
• The emergence of Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson is similar to what we saw a year ago from Duke big man Brian Zoubek, except Harrellson is a more talented scorer with his back to the basket.
• Could we see some four-guard alignments from Florida next season? The Gators return starting guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton and add Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario along with highly touted freshman Bradley Beal.
• It's easy to understand why UCLA forward Tyler Honeycutt bypassed his final two years of college to put his name in the NBA Draft, but I sure would have liked to have seen him return to Westwood. With Honeycutt, the Bruins were a potential top-10 team. They will still be very good without him but it will be interesting to see how Ben Howland molds this group on the perimeter. Guard Malcolm Lee will also test the draft waters but won't hire an agent. Look for UCLA to count heavily on freshman guard Norman Powell and sophomore Tyler Lamb for immediate minutes.
• For a coach to succeed at a place like Providence, he has to be comfortable and familiar with finding under-the-radar players. That's exactly why Ed Cooley is a perfect fit for the Friars. Cooley was ultra successful at identifying unknown talent when he was an assistant at Boston College under Al Skinner and helped the Eagles land quality players such as Louis Hinnant, Craig Smith and Jared Dudley.
• As long as Jared Sullinger stays true to his intent on returning to Ohio State for his sophomore season, the Buckeyes could once again be picked to win the Big Ten. Sullinger, Aaron Craft and William Buford give Thad Matta three returning starters and Deshaun Thomas and Jordan Sibert figure to be ready for more prominent roles as sophomores.
• Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said he'll know sometime next month the status of forward Allan Chaney. Chaney, a transfer from Florida, sat out last season when he was diagnosed with a heart condition in August. Even without Chaney, Greenberg is excited for next season as the Hokies return guards Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson along with forwards Victor Davila, J.T. Thompson and Cadarian Raines. Blue-chip freshman Dorian Finney is expected to be the incumbent at small forward.
• DePaul coach Oliver Purnell told me freshman forward Cleveland Melvin is fully recovered from a late-season thumb injury and ready to resume offseason workouts. The 6-foot-8 Melvin was Big East Rookie of the Year and should pair nicely with point guard Brandon Young.