The road to redemption goes through Arlington, Texas, for a fearsome Final Four of power programs with something to prove.
Florida, the top overall seed, is in the Final Four for the first time since winning consecutive titles in 2006 and 2007, this time without a bunch of first-round NBA draft picks.
Waiting for the Gators at Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar AT&T Stadium on Saturday will be Connecticut, back after being barred from the tournament a year ago because of academic problems.
Wisconsin and coach Bo Ryan will be there, too, finally in the Final Four after coming close so many times — even though his father won’t be there.
Facing the Badgers will be the newest group of Kentucky kids, once written off as too young and inexperienced to play for a title before they head off to the NBA.
This Final Four contains no upstarts or midmajor party crashers. Just big boys with big chips on their shoulders.
Gators coach Billy Donovan won a pair of national titles with Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford; all were top-10 picks in the 2007 NBA draft. Donovan continued to produce winning teams, but the biggest wins eluded the Gators. They lost in the regional finals the past three seasons.
That changed when the Gators (36-2) rode their defense through a 30-game winning streak, capped by Saturday’s 62-52 win over bracket-buster Dayton.
To win another title, Florida will have to go through either the last two teams to beat it this season (UConn and Wisconsin) — or their biggest Southeastern Conference rival (Kentucky).
Connecticut last won the title in 2011 with coach Jim Calhoun and one-man show Kemba Walker. Things went sour after that. Calhoun retired in 2012, and UConn was barred from the NCAA tournament last season for failing to meet the NCAA’s academic-progress measure.
UConn’s upperclassmen decided to stick it out under coach Kevin Ollie instead of transferring, and they put together another magical bracket run behind another do-it-all-player, Shabazz Napier. The Huskies (30-8) beat Florida 65-64 on Dec. 2, the Gators’ last loss this season.
As for Ryan, he has been a regular at the Final Four, taking his father, Butch, to every one since 1976 as a birthday gift. But Ryan never made it with his team, despite making the NCAA tournament 13 straight years and reaching the Sweet 16 six times.
The Badgers (30-8) finally are there after pulling out a 64-63 win over top-seeded Arizona on Saturday, which would have been Butch Ryan’s 90th birthday. He died in August.
Rounding out this foursome could be the most-fearsome bunch of the bracket.
Kentucky won the 2012 championship behind coach John Calipari’s get-the-best-players-no-matter-how-long-they-stay philosophy. He brought in another heralded group of one-and-doners this season, and they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason.
But after an up-and-down season, the Wildcats (28-10) are playing with a cohesiveness and confidence, racing into the Final Four after pulling out a last-second victory over Michigan.