After a couple years of underdog-laden Final Fours (Butler in 2010, Butler and VCU in 2011), we are looking at a pair of heavyweight battles on Saturday. That doesn't necessarily mean we are in for better games -- if the heavyweight boxing division has proven anything in recent years, it is that bigger fighters don't make for better fights -- but it certainly feels like something great right now, especially with the rematch aspect in both games and the rivalry aspect in one.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
For very good reason, Kentucky is the overwhelming Final Four favorite heading into the weekend, but let's not pretend that it is Kentucky versus three bantamweights. The Wildcats still have a lot of work to do to secure John Calipari's first national title, and it starts with trying to take out a team that it took down in Lexington in December.
As we saw on Tuesday, Kentucky holds some large advantages over Louisville -- its defense should be able to all but prevent Louisville from getting good looks just about anywhere on the court, and it should be able to take serious advantage of the Cardinals' occasional defensive rebounding issues. But Louisville has a lovely defense in its own right (best in the country according to Ken Pomeroy), and it held Kentucky to just 29.8 percent shooting in Lexington while forcing 21 turnovers. Kentucky's offense was out-of-sorts, but it was saved by two things: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went off (24 points on 7-for-16 shooting, six offensive rebounds), and the Wildcats grabbed a ridiculous 20 offensive rebounds.
For Louisville, Russ Smith scored 30 points on 10-for-20 shooting to keep pace with Kidd-Gilchrist, and Gorgui Dieng (six blocks) was able to trade blows with Anthony Davis to a degree. But they just couldn't keep Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones (three offensive rebounds), Davis (two) and Darius Miller (three) off of the glass, and with only 10 offensive rebounds of their own, they were simply unable to keep pace. The game was dead even for 25 minutes before Kentucky built some space. Louisville is playing its best ball of the season right now, despite that hit-or-miss offense, and I think this one will stay really close. But I just cannot pick against the Wildcats. There is a distinct chance that Kidd-Gilchrist or [fill in name here] gets hot, and Kentucky runs away and hides early, but I have faith in Pitino's Cardinals to, at the very least, keep things very close.
Prediction: Kentucky 69, Louisville 66
Ohio State vs. Kansas
My overall bracket was just horrendous this year, but my finals pick -- Kentucky vs. Kansas -- is still alive. That said, however, I just love the way Ohio State is playing right now, and I view Kansas' play over the last couple of months the same way I view a junk ball pitcher: It is silly to pick against them when they just keep winning, but they are doing so in such ugly fashion that I cannot imagine it continuing. The Jayhawks had to engineer a late charge to get past Purdue, had to withstand a late charge to advance past N.C. State and let a limited North Carolina squad even things up before going on a late run. They keep winning, and that alone is incredibly admirable, but Ohio State has looked better in its wins. So I'm going with Ohio State (which means that, whoever wins, I can say I was right, either in this column or in my original bracket!).
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger was out with back spasms when Kansas beat the Buckeyes in Lawrence in mid-December. Evan Ravenel did his best (nine points, four turnovers, five fouls in 25 minutes), but he isn't Sullinger. As I mentioned yesterday, The Buckeyes had to be encouraged that, without their star, in one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball, they were within five points of Kansas with four minutes left. Thomas Robinson took over down the stretch (he scored 11 consecutive points for Kansas in the last four minutes), something he may struggle to do if he is facing off with Sullinger.
Even without Sullinger, Ohio State almost completely wiped Kansas off of the offensive glass; Its rebounding kept it in the game despite poor shooting (39 percent for the game). Kansas has been winning games because of timely baskets from Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, and because of a reliable size advantage with Robinson (on offense) and Jeff Withey (on defense). But Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas can match them on the interior, meaning the game will likely be decided by who, if anybody, gets hot from the perimeter. This could be really fun.
Prediction: Ohio State 73, Kansas 72
Cinderella stories are fantastic; I very much enjoyed Butler's back-to-back runs to the national title game, and VCU was a great story. I hope to see more of them in the future, and I hope a Cinderella finally breaks through and wins the whole damn thing one of these years. But Final Fours like this one, heavy on name-brand matchups, rivalries, and star-versus-star battles, are insanely fun, too. That's what we've got this year, and we are probably going to enjoy it significantly.