Go back two weeks ago, back when Kendall Marshall had two healthy wrists, when Duke and Missouri were both legitimate threats to reach the Final Four, when Fab Melo was preparing to lead a veteran-laden Syracuse squad to the promised land. Self-proclaimed bracket experts were diligently breaking down each of the tournament’s 32 pairings, laboriously pursuing every angle of every matchup to find this year’s VCU, Butler, or George Mason.
The first weekend of Madness—no, not “March Monotony”, Greg Anthony—produced several notable upsets, including two No. 15 seeds knocking off their superiors, marking the first time said feat has been accomplished. Lehigh and Norfolk State were on the good end of that bargain, and for their improbable upsets they will forever be remembered; Duke and Missouri, on the other hand, had to watch as their successful 25+-win seasons come to a screeching halt.
But the upsets were few and far between. The only true “Cinderella” that survived the first three rounds of this year’s tourney was Ohio, who saw its improbable run come to an end at the hands of a debilitated North Carolina squad, bereft of anything resembling a point guard save for the timid, moppy-haired freshman known as Stilman White.
This year’s field—once believed to be the perfect breeding ground for new upset-minded mid-major’s Final Four run—has been overwhelmingly chalky. To wit: three of the tourney’s top four seeds comprise this year’s final quartet in New Orleans, and the underdog—four-seeded Louisville—is led by future Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino, who’s leading his team down a path eerily similar to last year’s National Championship UConn squad.
While some may lament the lack of Cinderella intrigue in this year’s Final Four, one thing remains certain: there will be no lack of riveting storylines, nor will there be any lack of drama.
On one side, you have Kentucky-Louisville, easily the most heated rivalry in college basketball—Sorry Duke-Carolina. For the battle of the Commonwealth to make its way onto college basketball’s biggest stage—in the Big Easy, no less—one has to wonder whether the NCAA Tournament Gods are at work here, the way they have blessed us with an epic showdown that stretches so far outside the lines that this Kentucky fan thought it important enough to offer his wife in exchange for tickets and these fans fans believed it proper to engage in fisticuffs at a Georgetown, Ky, dialysis clinic.
The other matchup is just as rich in college basketball tradition. Kansas, fresh off its eighth consecutive Big 12 title and led by National POY candidate Thomas Robinson, will look to take down Ohio State for the second time this season. To its credit, Ohio State played that game at the unwinnable fortress that is Phog Allen FieldHouse, and it was without its best player, Jared Sullinger, who figures to wage a fierce frontcourt battle with T-Rob and 7-foot-2 shot-blocking specialist Jeff Withey.
The Calipari-Pitino rivalry, Bill Self trying to win a championship in an apparent “rebuilding” year, Robinson and Sullinger, the Wildcats’ coterie of precocious freshman trying to bring Big Blue Nation its first championship since 1998, Coach Cal attempting to silence his critics. Seriously, what else could you ask for?
Intrigue abounds this weekend in NOLA, but the most important question remains unanswered: who advances to Monday’s National Championship game?
Calipari has been the biggest beneficiary of the one-and-done rule, and this year is no exception. In Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats have two freshman who will hear their names called early in round 1 of this summer’s NBA draft. But those two first-year studs are just one aspect of the Wildcats’ potent attack.
Once believed to be UK’s Achilles heel, point guard Marquis Teague has improved drastically throughout the season, and especially during tournament play, where he’s led the Wildcats to four impressive double-digit wins with his heady, turnover-averse play.
But let’s not forget about senior Darius Miller, UK’s consensus “glue guy” who’s hit big shot after big shot and provided a calming influence for coach Cal’s young roster; or Doron Lamb—one of the few player from last year’s Final Four squad who eschewed the NBA Draft—who gives the Wildcats another dimension on offense with his spot-on three-point shooting.
Lousville can’t match their Bluegrass rivals in talent, nor do they have the same depth. But what they do have is Pitino, who’s mid-second half switch to man-to-man defense against Florida is just one example of the way that the former Wildcats headman has managed to outcoach his opponents, often overcoming more talented opposition.
The Cardinals will need Pitino to be on his game Saturday, as he will have to find a way to slow down one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng was key in Louisville’s come back win over the Gators in the Elite 8, but how will he fare against Davis’s length and athleticism?
Another key matchup to watch will be at the point guard position, where Peyton Siva will need to outplay Teague if the Cardinals have any hopes of pulling off the upset. Siva elevated his play throughout Louisville’s improbable Big East Tournament run, improving his shot selection and cutting down on turnovers.
If Siva can find ways to penetrate against UK’s elite defense, the Cardinals will be able to keep it close. But that’s just the problem, this Kentucky team—unlike many of Calipari’s recent squads—doesn’t tighten up when the stakes are high, when its opponents are making runs.
Pitino’s savvy in-game tactics and Siva’s improved play will be enough to keep this game interesting well into the second-half, but the Wildcats’ talent will prove to be too overwhelming for an undermanned Cardinals squad.
Prediction: Kentucky 79, Louisville 66
This Buckeyes squad is far less imposing than last year’s, which fell to Kentucky in the Elite 8. But with Aaron Craft running the offense and Sullinger manning the low block, its no surprise that the scarlet-and-grey have made it to New Orleans.
The Buckeyes survived a Melo-less ‘Cuse squad thanks to some spotty officiating and Jim Boeheim’s refusal to play senior point guard Scoop Jardine late in the second half. Bill Self won’t make that kind of crucial mistake, not with a chance to win his second national championship on the line.
When these two bluebloods met back in December, Sullinger was held out with back spasms, robbing us of a T-Rob-Sullinger frontcourt duel. I don’t expect those spasms to magically reappear—sorry, Jayhawks fans—so Sullinger will be at full strength, ready to make his claim as the nation’s best big man.
The matchup between the All-American big men will grab the headlines in this one, but the most important player on the floor Saturday night may be DeShaun Thomas. Thomas has averaged 21.75 ppg in tournament play, forcing opponents to direct their attention away from Sullinger.
The sophomore forward has certainly made his presence offensively, but he will need to prove that he is just as capable defensively Saturday night, as Thomas will likely be matched up with either Robinson or Withey. Either way, Thomas will be at a disadvantage.
Robinson and Withey will be too much for Sullinger and Thomas, and the Buckeyes lack the firepower out on the perimeter to overcome that disadvantage. Craft will cause problems for Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks hot-and-cold point guard, but Self’s squad will prevail.
Prediction: Kansas 68 Ohio State 62