BOSTON, MA - MARCH 24: The Ohio State Buckeyes celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Syracuse Orange to win the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball East Regional Final at TD Garden on March 24, 2012, In Boston, Mass. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
This is as stacked a Final Four as any in recent memory, but look for favorites Kentucky and Ohio State to squeak out victories in Saturday's national semifinals.
Much of the allure of the NCAA Tournament is the potential for the little guy to crash the big party, something which has happened in each of the past two seasons. Sometimes, though, the party's a lot more fun when the usual suspects are the only ones in attendance. There's plenty of room to mingle, no shortage of snacks, the potential for an unwanted encounter with an ex is greatly diminished, etc.
VCU and Butler were the stories of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and deservedly so, but their presence at the Final Four resulted in two of the three games - including the national championship - being a less-than-stellar viewing experience. That shouldn't be an issue this year, as four legendary programs that have combined for 49 Final Four appearances have provided college basketball's biggest weekend with four quality teams.
This is going to be quite a bash.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
The nine points Las Vegas is currently forcing Kentucky to give Louisville is the largest spread for a Final Four game since Duke was an 11-point favorite over Michigan State in 1999. It's a line that's well-deserved as the Wildcats entered the NCAA Tournament as an overwhelming favorite and then proceeded to beat each of their first four opponents by double digits.
These two teams met on New Year's Eve in Lexington when Kentucky led from nearly start to finish en route to a 69-62 win. Still, it's a bit difficult to take anything significant away from that game since neither team was able to get into much of an offensive flow thanks to a total of 52 fouls called and 70 free throws attempted.
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. Louisville, conversely, went through some significant up-and-downs before winning four games in four days to claim the Big East Tournament and then parlaying that momentum into a Final Four run.
Louisville, which lays claim to the status of being Ken Pomeroy's top-ranked defense, is more capable of keeping Kentucky's final point total in the 60s than any team the Cats have faced in the postseason thus far. The Cardinals have done a tremendous job of defending the perimeter, allowing only Florida - which didn't make a shot from beyond the arc in the second half - to shoot better than 26 percent from three.
If U of L is effectively limiting UK's offensive output, the Wildcats can look to make up for that on the glass. Kentucky outrebounded Louisville 57-31 in the first meeting, and possesses the same advantages in the frontcourt that made that deficiency possible.
Early momentum is going to be a key. Kentucky has dominated the first half during the NCAA Tournament and then sort of cruised to victory in the second. This is arguably the college basketball's top rivalry being played on the sport's biggest stage. Neither team can afford to let the emotion of the moment get the best of them early and get into quick foul trouble or fall into a substantial hole.
Louisville doesn't have nearly the talent that Kentucky does, but the Cardinals have gotten to this point by outworking and outsmarting opponents. They're too disciplined and determined to let this one get out-of-hand, but they're also not skilled enough to spring the upset of one of the better teams the tournament has seen in recent years.
Prediction: Kentucky 72, Louisville 65
Ohio State vs. Kansas
The similarities between the Buckeyes and Jayhawks are abundant. Both are No. 2 seeds with star players inside and talented point guards, both have coaches who have been to the Final Four and coached in a national championship game, each has been considered one of the more "well-rounded" teams for the bulk of the season, both wear a shade of red ... I could go on.
Like, Kentucky and Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas also played one another in December. That prior meeting was also similar to the first Cats and Cards showdown in that it'd be foolish to read too much into what took place, first because it was so long ago, and second because Ohio State star Jared Sullinger sat out the game with back spasms. The predictable result was that Thomas Robinson dominated the paint and Kansas won by 11.
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 in that game that they did the rest of the year. It wasn't just Tyshawn 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 various Jayhawks 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. William Buford had no trouble getting shots up (he took 23) and Deshaun Thomas scored with the same ease that has him poised to be this tournament's Most Outstanding Player if the Buckeyes win it.
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.
Prediction: Ohio State 80, Kansas 76