The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is known for outstanding games with thrilling finishes, but it also delivers more than its fair share of inspirational stories. Whether it's the run of a Cinderella team like George Mason or Virginia Commonwealth, or the refuse-to-lose drive of an undersized player like Kemba Walker, who leads his team to victory after victory, the tales that come from the tournament can be as good as the on-court action.
This year is no different. Look closely at the four remaining teams in the 2014 Tournament, and you'll find a reason to root for each of them. Here are four of the most inspiring storylines from this year's Final Four teams.
UConn: Shabazz Napier Plays for His Mom
If you've flipped on a UConn game during the team's surprising run to the Final Four, you've probably caught a glimpse of Carmen Velasquez. Dressed in a white No. 13 Huskies jersey over a long-sleeved white shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and (usually) clutching a cell phone in her hand, the single mother of UConn's phenomenal point guard Shabazz Napier has been on her feet cheering the entire tournament.
Napier, who has scored 24, 25, 19 and 25 points in four tournament games, has a very close relationship with his mom. He grew up without a father, and he frequently mentions the encouragement his mother provided him throughout his childhood.
"She's the person that gets me up in the morning," Napier told the New York Post. Growing up, seeing everybody else's family, and I didn't have a father, and I saw how happy everybody else's family was, and they had more than I had, and my mother always made it seem like we had a lot. But I knew deep down inside, we didn't have a lot. It just pushed me to want to be the best I can possibly be in whatever I do. She made me play basketball at a very young age, at five and a half, and it just stayed with me."
Napier has a tattoo on his left arm of a quote his mother said often, and he has promised her that he will complete his college degree at UConn.
Napier's rise from the streets of Roxbury, Mass. was as improbable as the Huskies current run to the championship. In both cases, Carmen Velasquez has been right alongside him, pushing him forward.
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan's Breakthrough
Bo Ryan has been the head coach of the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team for 13 years, but this will be his first time roaming the sidelines during the Final Four. After edging No. 1-seeded Arizona by a single point in an overtime thriller last weekend, the Badgers will take on a Kentucky team that is packed with talent.
As joyful as Ryan's Final Four experience surely is for him, it is not without sadness. Ryan's father, Butch, who had attended every Final Four since 1976 with his son, passed away last August, just before Wisconsin's magical season began, leaving Ryan unable to celebrate one of the greatest moments of his career with his closest friend.
Butch Ryan is gone but not forgotten. Throughout the tournament, Wisconsin fans carried signs like this one, which read, "This One's For Butch," and the day of Wisconsin's monumental victory over the Arizona Wildcats happened to fall on what would have been Butch's 90th birthday.
Kentucky: The Harrison Twins Live Up to the Hype
Kentucky was supposed to be a juggernaut. At last summer's Jordan Brand Classic, some of the team's high profile new recruits boasted that the team might not lose a game all season. John Calipari's starting lineup would feature three or four players who will be in the NBA next year, and in the meantime, they were going to steamroll every other team they faced. Or so they thought.
The regular season did not go as planned. The Wildcats dropped nine games, including head-scratchers to less-talented teams like LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas (twice). Florida, a team Kentucky could face in the national championship game, stomped them by 19 points in early March.
Much of the criticism landed on freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the twin brothers from Texas who were the faces of Calipari's recruiting class. Their decision-making and play were questioned, as was their negative body language on the court, which many saw as evidence of a poor attitude.
""The biggest thing we had to help them with was body language," Calipari told the Chicago Tribune. "As that changed, they became different players."
But at the SEC Tournament. Kentucky streaked to the finals, where they played Florida, then the No. 1 team in the country. They lost by one point, a huge improvement over their previous performance; and their momentum carried over to the NCAA Tournament, where they knocked off previously undefeated Wichita State, defending champion Louisville, and a potent Michigan team on their way to the Final Four. The Harrison twins led the charge. The brothers' penchant for hitting big shots at key junctures, combined with their attitude adjustment and Julius Randle's banging down low, has brought the once-counted-out Kentucky squad to the brink of a championship.
Speaking of Julius Randle, he has an inspiring story of his own. Like Napier, Randle was raised by a single mother, Carolyn Kyles. She had to leave at halftime of Kentucky's Elite Eight win over Michigan to fly home to Dallas so that she could get up and go to work the next day. She won't have to worry about that anymore, since the Final Four will be played at Cowboy Stadium. As Randle was quoted saying after Kentucky's win, "I'm coming home to my mom."
Florida: Scottie Wilbekin Finds His Way
Averaging 16.7 points per game during the tournament and splashing every big shot he takes, Scottie Wilbekin has many reasons to smile. It's strange to recall that he was nearly kicked off the Gators team at the beginning of the year.
Head Coach Billy Donovan suspended Wilbekin for five games in June of 2013—for the second time! Two suspensions in as many seasons would end the careers of many college basketball players, and Donovan even told Wilbekin that he would need to transfer.
But Wilbekin had other ideas. "I didn't want to transfer," Wilbekin told the Tampa Bay Times. "I couldn't see myself playing for another coach with other teammates. The relationships with the guys have been so special, and it's near and dear to me. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
So the Florida native moved back in with his parents, got into ridiculous shape, and earned back his spot on the team. During the first game of his return, he dropped 12 points and dished seven assists against Jacksonville. He then went on to be named the SEC's Player of the Year and MVP of the conference tournament. Now his team is two victories away from being crowned national champions.
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