The Final Four Includes 4 Major Programs, But 1 Giant Favorite

Despite a stacked 2012 Final Four, the heavy weight of expectation appears to be the only thing capable of preventing Kentucky from claiming its eighth national championship and head coach John Calipari from getting his first.

Featuring four of college basketball's top programs, perhaps the sports most heated rivalry, a quartet of coaches who have all appeared in the national title game and a pair who have won it all, this is one of the more stacked Final Fours the NCAA Tournament has ever seen. And yet it's also one with a clear favorite.

John Calipari's first three years in Lexington have firmly solidified his status as the highest-profile coach to have never won it all. If that's still the case eight days from now, fair or not, the big question surrounding Coach Cal will have already become: "If he can't win it with this team, who can he win it with?"

It won't be because people like seeing Cal fail or because the media has a secret agenda against Kentucky -- the same question was asked of both Roy Williams and Rick Pitino before they broke through for the first time -- it will be because this Wildcats team is clearly in a class of its own and should win its eighth national championship.


Related: The Final Four Schedule For Saturday's Matchups

Facing perhaps the team in the tournament with the second most next-level talent, Kentucky dominated third-seeded Baylor in an 82-70 regional final that wasn't nearly as close as the final score would indicate. The Bears lost in the same situation two years ago to eventual national champion Duke.

"Duke was a very good team," BU coach Scott Drew. "But this Kentucky team is better."


Bomani Jones on the Final Four matchups.

They should be.

Kentucky has seven McDonald's All-Americans, about as many future pros, and the likely national Player of the Year and No. 1 pick in this spring's NBA Draft in freshman star Anthony Davis. They've looked the part over the past two weeks, at times appearing to toy with opponents before flipping the switch and winning each contest by at least 12 points.

As might be expected, Kentucky's dominant run has resulted in the top overall seed's status as the heavy betting favorite heading into Final Four weekend. The nine points that Vegas is forcing UK to give Louisville on Saturday are the most for any national semifinal game since 1999.

People will make a big deal about the potential fallout if Calipari loses to Louisville and arch-nemesis Pitino, but this is the situation where the "what" is so extreme that the "who" is nearly inconsequential.

America loves winners. A championship is what put Kobe Bryant's legal troubles in the rear-view mirror of his public image vehicle, and is what could (and ultimately will) get LeBron James and Tiger Woods back firmly onto the "good guy" side of things.

If Calipari wins his first national title with this Kentucky team, then his status instantly morphs from college basketball's hottest coach to its premier one. If UK stumbles, then the vacated Final Fours, the one-and-done controversy, the final minute against Kansas in the 2008 title game ... all that stuff gets thrust so far into the spotlight that it defines Calipari until he does cut down the nets.

The latter situation shouldn't come into play. Kentucky is deeper, more talented and more complete than any of the other three teams remaining in the tournament. Basically, the weight of expectation seems to be the only thing capable of stopping the Wildcats.

Could that be enough?

"There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," said Pitino after his Cardinals defeated Florida to win the West region on Saturday. "You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."

It's a statement that's more believable than it should be.

Kentucky fans, who consider basketball to be a religion, talk about the 1996 Wildcats the way Catholics talk about the Pope, and this UK team is as dominant and revered in Lexington as any since then. To see them denied the title by the man who coached that '96 team -- the one who is viewed as the ultimate traitor in the eyes of the majority of the Commonwealth -- would be an almost unrivaled blow to Big Blue Nation.

While the rivalry aspect is more for the fans and the media than the actual players, when the storyline is this extreme they can't help but be somewhat aware of it. The fear for Calipari is that this will make Louisville's guys -- the ones with seemingly nothing to lose and everything to gain -- even more loose while having the opposite effect on his squad. He spoke on Sunday about the need for his players to stay off of Twitter, Facebook and the like until they've taken care of business in New Orleans. Good luck with that.

If the Wildcats do advance to Monday's national title game, the fact that they won't be facing an arch-rival won't alleviate any of the pressure.

With Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger, both Kansas and Ohio State have star power that Louisville doesn't, but neither Bill Self nor Thad Matta has the embarrassment of riches that Calipari has. Whichever team Kentucky faces will again be able to play the "nothing to lose" card and hope for more success. Realistically, it's their best chance at finding it.

One way or the other, John Calipari's image and eventual legacy will both be altered dramatically by what takes place in New Orleans this week. That knowledge and the accompanying weight appear to be the only things capable of slowing down him and Kentucky.

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