A quartet of programs that have combined for 49 Final Four appearances will take college basketball's biggest stage Saturday night in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas are four of the most storied names in college basketball, have some of the game's brightest stars and most well-known coaches. Basically, this should be a lot of fun.
The Cinderella stories of the past few seasons have been nice, but it will be a nice change of pace to see the usual suspects battle it out for a shot at a national championship.
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 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.
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 force turnovers, 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.
The Wildcats were already an established juggernaut when they first faced their rivals back in December, 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 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.
U of L, 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 behind the arc in the second half -- to shoot better than 26 percent from three.
If Louisville is effectively limiting UK's offensive output, the Wildcats can look to make up for that on the glass. Kentucky out-rebounded 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 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, and whichever prevails on Saturday night will either be a heavy favorite on Monday against Louisville or a heavy underdog against Kentucky.
Like the two teams that will take the Superdome court before them, Ohio State and Kansas also met in December in a game which probably doesn't hold too much significance for tonight's contest. The Jayhawks defeated the then-unbeaten and second-ranked Buckeyes by 11, but Jared Sullinger sat out the game because of back spasms.
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 playing without their star had something to do with it, 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 at will, 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 to Sullinger's absence, but obviously it can't happen again.
Perhaps the most positive takeaway from the game for Kansas fans was the play of the often erratic 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.
Taylor has been better than a lot of people thought he would be for Kansas in his senior season, 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 December 10, then he has no business chucking it up from the outside.
Scoring has never been an issue for Ohio State's 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 new-found 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.
Despite not playing well on the defensive end, OSU 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 Thomas scored with the same ease that he's displayed over the past few weeks.
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