LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 31: Chris Smith #5 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during 69-62 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on December 31, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Both of Saturday's Final Four games will be rematches from last December, but do those first meetings have any real bearing on what's about to take place in New Orleans?
Final Four rematches aren't exactly uncharted. In fact, just last season UConn defeated Kentucky for a second time on its way to winning the national championship. This year, however, both national semifinals feature opponents that met during the non-conference portion of the season (aka, when the sports world wasn't paying full attention).
So is there really significant insight to be taken away from these initial meeting? Let's take a look back at what happened the first time these guys played, what's changed since then and what, if anything, it all means for Saturday's showdowns.
Kentucky 69, Louisville 62 (Dec. 31)
It's hard to take a considerable amount away from a game in which there were 52 total fouls called and the teams combined to shoot 70 (70!) free-throws, but let's try anyway.
Kentucky gave its poorest shooting performance of the season at 17-of-57 from the field (29.8 percent) and 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) from beyond the arc, but still managed to defeat their in-state rivals thanks in large part to a gigantic rebounding advantage (57-31) and a 32-of-43 performance from the free-throw line.
Louisville was hurt badly inside due largely to the absence of freshman forward Chane Behanan, who played just 15 minutes because of foul trouble. Behanan was called for a charge early in the game, and then subsequently received a technical for rolling the ball at Terrence Jones, who was on the ground. The pair of calls forced him to the bench, where he remained for the rest of the half.
Louisville center Gorgui Dieng was also saddled with foul trouble. He was whistled for just one in the first half, but picked up three in a span of 2:20 to head to the bench with 16:08 left. With Dieng out, Kentucky star Anthony Davis, who was held scoreless in the first half, went to work. Davis scored all 18 of his points -- 12 of which came from the free-throw line -- in the second half as the Wildcats re-opened their lead with Dieng on the bench.
Though Davis did some serious damage after halftime, it was fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist whom Louisville never had an answer for. The versatile forward killed the Cards from the opening tip to the final horn, scoring in a variety of ways to finish with 24 points and 19 rebounds. Outside of Davis and MKG, no Wildcats player made more than two shots.
Despite the horrendous shooting statistics, Kentucky was able to maintain a healthy lead for the bulk of the game and win comfortably thanks to the fact that Louisville had only one player total who made more than two shots. Sophomore reserve Russ Smith wasn't a guy John Calipari thought he had to spend much time game-planning for, but he scored a season-high 30 points for U of L and was really the only thing that kept the Cardinals within any sort of striking distance.
Kyle Kuric, Louisville's leading scorer, was shadowed the entire game and attempted just four shots, making only one. Junior point guard Peyton Siva was harassed by multiple defenders and finished 2-of-13 from the field with four assists and three turnovers.
Louisville actually tied this game at 40 in the second half, but Kentucky responded with a quick 7-0 run, and the lead hovered around that area for the bulk of the final 15 minutes ... which took about three hours to play because of all the whistles.
Kentucky was already an established juggernaut at this point in the season, and their only loss since then was in the SEC championship game to Vanderbilt. Basically, we knew they were really good then and we know that they're really good now. Still, that doesn't mean they haven't improved.
Davis came into the game shooting right around 60 percent from the free-throw line. Naturally, he stroked 12-of-13 from the stripe. He's now hitting at a 71.2 perent clip from the line and has improved his overall shot so much that he's being permitted to take open three-pointers. He's also blocked 16,000 shots, but you knew that.
Not much has changed with Kidd-Gilchrist since the first meeting, but that's only because he didn't have all that many areas where notable improvement was possible. He is fully capable of giving a performance akin to the one he gave on New Years's Eve.
The lone areas of inconsistency among Kentucky's core group of contributors have been preseason All-American Terrence Jones and freshman point guard Marquis Teague, neither of whom played particularly well against Louisville. Calipari needs each to step up on Saturday, as Jones presents a matchup nightmare for U of L and Teague will be the player most responsible for dealing with the relentless Cardinal pressure.
Louisville had only lost once before the first rivalry tussle but would go on to have an extremely up-and-down two months. They're currently riding the high of an eight-game win streak that includes a Big East Tournament championship, but they're still a team that thrives on defense. The Cardinals have held seven of their eight postseason opponents to 26 percent or below shooting from beyond the arc, a statistic which has helped them win eight straight despite hitting the 70-point mark just twice over that span.
The biggest catalyst behind Louisville's sudden upswing has been Siva. Rick Pitino's floor general had been having an extremely disappointing junior season before a performance inside Madison Square Garden that had him flying home with a Big East Tournament MVP trophy. He's shooting the ball slightly better -- although he's still not going to set the world on fire from beyond 15-feet -- but the biggest key for Siva has been that he's playing far more under control. Turnovers are down, assists are up, and the wild offensive fouls that had consistently led him into foul trouble have been curtailed.
Behanan is also playing at a much higher level than he was in December. The freshman has become a double-double threat every time he steps on the floor and left Phoenix last weekend with West Region MVP honors. He and Dieng are the ones most responsible for not letting the rebound situation get out-of-hand again, which means neither can afford to get into foul trouble.
Russ Smith has remained one of the most unpredictable players in college basketball, but he hasn't had another "Russdiculous" 30-point performance since the Kentucky game. Calipari likely won't change the way they defended Kuric in the first meeting, which means Smith again will have space to create his own shot. The result will likely be extreme feast or famine, but that's nothing new for the sophomore guard.
Again, you don't want to read too much into a game where 51 personal fouls and two technical fouls (Calipari got one in addition to the early whistle on Behanan) prevented either team from really getting into any sort of offensive flow.
While the game was officiated a bit too tightly, a more physical brand of play from both teams did result in a healthy chunk of fully warranted whistles. Kentucky and Louisville players hear so much about their annual rivalry game from fans, and the environment is always so hostile that both sides usually come out way too aggressive in the game's opening minutes. The result in recent years has been a bevy of unnecessary fouls and a few early technicals.
The pressure is different for Saturday's game, because while the rivalry is still at the forefront of the fans' mind, the players are undoubtedly more concerned about the fact that they're in the Final Four and playing for a shot at a national championship. The intensity will be there, but the extreme body bumping and hand-checking that got so many players sent to the bench in December probably won't.
Though so much has changed over the past three months, Louisville's game-plan for stopping Kentucky is likely similar to what it was before the first meeting: defend the perimeter, speed Teague up and try to turn him over, allow Siva to create, and make some open shots. Kentucky will again attempt to exploit its advantages in the areas of size and athleticism. They're also not going to let Kuric or Chris Smith beat them with outside shots.
Even though the matchups and game-plans seem to be similar to what they were in the first meeting, because of the way the first game was officiated, it's almost like these two will be meeting for the first time on Saturday.
Kansas 78, Ohio State 67 (Dec. 10)
In what was widely-regarded as the least-impressive 11-point win over an unbeaten and second-ranked team in college basketball history, Kansas defeated Ohio State 78-67 in Phog Allen back on Dec. 10.
Buckeye star Jared Sullinger, then the early favorite for national Player of the Year, sat out the game because of back spasms, and the prevailing thought was that the Jayhawks were still a team that would struggle to win its eighth straight Big 12 regular season title.
Eventual consensus All-American Thomas Robinson took full advantage of Sullinger's absence, dominating the paint on his way to a team-high 21 points. Sharp-shooter William Buford scored 17 of his 21 points for Ohio State in the second half, while Deshaun Thomas chipped in 19.
Perhaps the most positive takeaway from the game for Kansas fans was the play of sometimes erratic senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, who finished with nine points and a career-high 13 assists. OSU's Aaron Craft is regarded by some as the best on-ball defender in college basketball, but Taylor had zero problem getting into the lane or out on the break to create shots for himself and his teammates.
The surprise star of the game for Kansas was Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young, who came off the bench to score 14 points and also really frustrated Ohio State's wing players on defense with his length.
The absence of Sullinger was unquestionably a big factor in this game, but it may not have been as monumental as it seemed at the time. Sully has had a great sophomore season, but he hasn't been anywhere near the unstoppable force that many thought would be snatching up just about every major individual award at this point.
Robinson's performance, meanwhile, proved to be far from an anomaly. In hindsight, the most surprising aspect of the game may have actually been that he only finished with seven rebounds. Sullinger will certainly add to the challenge inside, but Robinson hasn't much trouble getting to somewhere around 20 and 10 against anybody this season.
Taylor has been better than a lot of people thought he would be, but he's still prone to the occasional six-point, five-turnover performance that he had against NC State in the Sweet 16. He'll also enter Saturday night's game having missed his last 17 three-point attempts. Still, he did his damage against the Buckeyes with the pass, a performance that he has since been unable to match, hitting double-digits in assists just once more (10 against Iowa State in January). Before Saturday, someone needs to show Taylor his stat line from this game and then the final score. If he can beat Craft and company off the dribble with the same ease that he displayed on Dec. 10, then he has no business chucking it up from the outside.
Scoring has never been an issue for Deshaun Thomas, and he showed that against Kansas. What he didn't show, and wouldn't until about three weeks ago, was any desire to defend. If you had to pick a Most Outstanding Player for the tournament right now, it would likely be Thomas. He's had no problem putting the ball in the basket and has also been playing with far more energy on the defensive end. That newfound dedication to keeping big guys from scoring around the rack could be huge when it comes to helping Sullinger and Evan Ravenel stop -- or at least frustrate -- Robinson.
As for Kevin Young, his performance did ultimately prove to be an an outlier. He's hit double digits just once since that night and scored only 16 total points in four tournament games. His effectiveness against the Buckeyes in December might warrant an earlier exit from the bench than usual, but it's hard to see him being heavily utilized as a "secret weapon" or anything like that.
I don't know if it was because they knew they were playing without their star, but Ohio State simply did not bring the intensity on the defensive end that they did the rest of the year. It wasn't just Taylor getting into the lane and creating, it was Travis Releford slashing through the defense and finishing easily at the rim, Elijah Johnson getting clear look after clear look from the outside, and Young and Robinson getting easy put-back points. I'm not sure how much of that you can credit Sullinger's absence for, but obviously it can't happen again.
Despite bringing it on the defensive end, Ohio State didn't have significant trouble scoring on Kansas for most of this game, and was right in it with six minutes to go. Buford had no trouble getting shots up (he took 23) and Thomas scored with about as much ease as he's displayed throughout this tournament. Craft was solid, if not sensational, scoring 11 points and dishing out six assists.
Even though Sullinger brings a solid defensive presence to this matchup that wasn't there the first time, I'll be surprised if there aren't actually more points scored in Saturday's game. Both teams are playing about as well on offense as they have all year, and neither had a particularly difficult time scoring on the other in the offensively-challenged days of the season's first month. While Louisville/Kentucky is garnering all the hype, this game will probably provide the more exciting viewing experience for the casual fan.