NCAA Final Four story lines go beyond compelling matchups

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Final Four has grown so large they had to move it from Planet Earth to Jerry World.

It actually makes sense a stadium nicknamed "The Billion Dollar Play Pen" should host college basketball's billion-dollar end games.

It makes less sense that everyone except the players seems to be cashing in.

This being Texas, of course, one host city was not enough to handle the event, as the NCAA granted this bid to the wide-open-spaces sweep of "North Texas."

That means Amarillo, technically, got a Final Four in the modern era before Los Angeles.

A fan Friday posed for a picture beneath a sign outside AT&T; Stadium that read "The Road Ends Here."

In fact, this is just the beginning.

"There are things coming down the road," said Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan. "Where they end up I'm not sure. But it's not something that needs to be discussed here in this forum."

Where did Ryan have in mind … his vacation villa?

There are two narratives taking place in "North" Texas. There is the compelling story of four teams who have fought hard to reach the sport's pinnacle final weekend.

And there is the story about how much, if at all, the players are being exploited.

"I've never done the math on what we're bringing into the school or anything like that," said Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle. "I don't really get into the politics and stuff like that about whether it's fair or not."

Part of the story here is the joy of competition, but the other part isn't going away.

Florida plays Connecticut in Saturday's first semifinal game followed by Wisconsin against Kentucky.

The players will put on a show, in a thriving business, before an expected crowd in excess of 75,000, in a football stadium that could be a prototype for space colonization.

This year's tournament, according to Nielsen Media Research, is averaging 9.8 million viewers, the highest in 21 years.

There are compelling matchups in both games.

Florida has won 30 straight games since it lost on Dec. 2 to Connecticut. The Gators have been unstoppable since the defeat while the Huskies sputtered and spun, losing one game at Louisville by 33 points, before getting hot in the NCAA tournament.

"It definitely gives you confidence to know that you can beat this team," said Connecticut senior guard Niels Giffey. "But it has been awhile.… It's going to be a whole different game."

Florida also represents the anti-Kentucky template of "renting" players for a year before they go off to the NBA.

Kentucky started the season at preseason No. 1 but was overtaken by a Florida team that starts four seniors.

Florida's journey has been about perseverance, reaching the Final Four after three straight exits in the round of eight.

The Gators must somehow contain Shabazz Napier, Connecticut's one-man, point-guard wrecking crew. Napier is doing a good impression of former teammate Kemba Walker, who carried the Huskies to the 2011 NCAA title.

Napier made the game-winning basket that defeated Florida in December, but the Gators have also since evolved into a defensive coffee grinder. Senior Scottie Wilbekin will draw the defensive assignment on Napier, but he'll need help.

"Scottie is not going to be able to deal with Shabazz one on one," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan.

Kentucky versus Wisconsin is a matchup of misconceptions.

Kentucky isn't the freelance, run-and-gun team you might expect a starting five of freshmen would be, and Wisconsin isn't the one-dimensional team it used to be in the offensively challenged days of Dick Bennett.

Kentucky has dramatically evolved and matured during the tournament.

Randle, the freshman forward, is the most physically dominant player left in the tournament. Coach John Calipari said, "He's being played like [Shaquille O'Neal] was played in college."

Kentucky lost 10 games this year, but Calipari said a midseason tweak in his lineup turned the Wildcats around. He's not revealing the tweak until after the season.

The Final Four buildup has had to share the platform with news conference questions about "one-and-done" players, "pay-for-play" and unionization.

Calipari has grown defensive about the negative connotation of "one-and-done" and resents assertions he is exploiting the system.

He said he doesn't listen to the chatter — "I literally watch History Channel," he said.

Calipari correctly noted the age limit is dictated by the NBA and its players' association.

"It's not my rule," Calipari said. "It's fine. If you want to pile it on and say it's me, I'm OK."

Calipari said the term "one-and-done" should be renamed "succeed and proceed."

Coaches are becoming uncomfortable explaining how their salaries can go up while the players' situation remains stagnant.

Donovan and Connecticut's Kevin Ollie have been on both sides as former NCAA players who are now coaches.

"I think the players do deserve more things," Donovan said. "They make an incredible investment. I don't know what the solution is. I do know that there needs to be a better way to take care of them."

Ollie finished his career at Connecticut with a loss to UCLA at the 1995 regional at the Oakland Coliseum.

"We wasn't getting paid and you see our jerseys getting sold," he said.

Wisconsin's Ryan got testy Friday when his salary came up at his news conference.

"I've never seen a check in 40 years," he said. "Every place, wherever I was an employee, it always went into the account. My wife gives me $150 a month as allowance, whether I need it or not."

Expect the testiness to continue as there is no one riding in on a white horse to save the day.

Embattled NCAA President Mark Emmert, who is definitely gray-haired, will give his annual news conference Sunday.

This is a format change as the NCAA president has traditionally conducted his Q&A; on the Thursday before Saturday's Final Four games.

Maybe Emmert needed a couple more days to prepare for this one?

Twitter: @dufresnelatimes

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