What a difference a year makes. Almost 365 days ago, I was gearing up for the following day’s Final Four with extreme nervousness, anticipation, and anxiety as my UConn Huskies were preparing to take the next step in an unforeseen run to the NCAA basketball championship. Tomorrow, Kentucky returns to the Round of 4…and that’s about all that’s the same. Following a 2011 NCAA Tournament filled with upsets, surprises, and ultimately the greatest 11-game postseason tournament run the country has ever seen, this year’s bracket has for the most part gone according to plan, save for upset of Duke and Missouri in the first round which – aside from busting a few brackets – didn’t really shake things up as much as was expected at the time.
So here we are, the Final Four in one of my favorite cities in the United States – New Orleans, LA – with three deserving teams and one that is playing an opponent which is the only one I’d be interested to see play. This will be a fun 5-hour stretch of basketball to simply be a fan. Nonetheless, there are games to be played, winners to come out victorious, and two spots in Monday night’s national title game up for grabs. Onto the games…
Kansas vs. Ohio State
What a battle! No joke, I’m absolutely giddy about this game. I can’t find any way in which this contest will not be a classic. On one side, Kansas. One of the premier programs within the college basketball landscape for years. On the other side, THE Ohio State University. To me, OSU was a relative unknown within college basketball until Greg Oden decided to enroll at the university. Since then, head coach Thad Matta has turned the large school in Columbus, OH into a destination for the top talent in the country, and has given Buckeye Nation perhaps the best men’s basketball/football punch of programs ever.
What the “experts” will say: Bear in mind, I’ve tried to steer clear of ESPN for the last week or so in order to avoid hearing the same things over and over again. With that, I imagine that most experts are penning this battle as between two teams that each has two superstars. Kansas comes in with the man most-likely to finish second in Player of the Year voting, Thomas Robinson. Alongside him is guard Tyshawn Taylor, who looked straight-up unstoppable in Kansas’ Elite Eight victory over North Carolina. On the opposite bench, the best big-man in the country last season – Jared Sullinger – looks to lead the Buckeyes. Alongside him will be William Budford, who has stepped up this season and is as much a reason for OSU finding itself in New Orleans as anybody else. Almost certainly, the X-Factor will be seen as Aaron Craft, the best defensive player I’ve ever seen in college (or maybe just the best I’ve seen in my immediate memory?), who can also handle the ball and get to the hoop. That’s why I’d think the majority of the experts will take Ohio State to advance to the title game.
What the “experts” won’t say: Maybe you won’t hear about just how terrible Kansas’ offensive production had been prior to last weekend’s game against North Carolina in which the team scored 80. Maybe you won’t hear about how legitimately every starter on Ohio State can step up and be the primary scorer when needed. And, perhaps, you won’t hear about how Sullinger made the wrong decision (as far as NBA prospects are concerned) in returning to school this season, rather than jumping into the 2011 NBA Draft. But the biggest thing that you likely won’t hear is that college basketball is a coach’s sport. In fact, I think that basketball is a coach’s game altogether, except for the ultimate end-game that is the NBA. With that, I fully expect the X-Factor in this contest not to be Aaron Craft, or Kansas’ Jeff Withey who at 7-feet tall blocked 10 (TEN!!!) NC State shots in the Sweet 16, but instead Kansas head coach Bill Self. I can’t argue that Matta of OSU is not a fine coach – he certainly is, and you can’t build a program in the way he’s apparently building that of the Buckeyes’ without talent and knowledge. Self, however, is on another level. His success at Oral Roberts and Tulsa in rebuilding both basketball programs has been well-documented, and it was at Illinois that he cut his teeth and took the step to “elite”. His time at Kansas has only added to his legacy in leaps and bounds. A title in 2008 by topping Memphis (a game I’m still bitter about for pick’em purposes) cemented his greatness, and taking this year’s team to the Final Four is another feather in his cap. While I believe that the top tier of true “coaches” in today’s NCAA world is reserved for Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, Self certainly occupies that next tier alongside Roy Williams (former Kansas head coach), Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, and Jim Boeheim. Self will be the difference, and when the game is close late, I trust him to make the right moves from a personnel and strategic standpoint more than I do Matta.
Who wins: With Self comfortable in this Final Four environment and serving as that experienced, calming influence to his veteran group, Robinson will prove why he’s considered the second-best player in the country and Taylor will make Craft look like a good defender, rather than a great one. Sullinger will have a tough time scoring at-will as he did in the North Carolina game with the big 7-footer Withey guarding him, and the Jayhawks will take a spot in Monday’s National Championship game with a 68-61 win.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Basketball Armageddon. Okay, blah, it’s not “basketball Armageddon.” No, I don’t live in Kentucky. I’m a Celtics fan who doesn’t like the Lakers. A Sox fan who despises the Yankees, and a Patriots fan who may dislike the Jets more than the Yankees. And, of course, a Notre Dame enthusiast who can’t stand USC and Boston College. I know what a rivalry is, and while Kentucky and Louisville want to portray this game as some sort of Holy Grail – something bigger than any other big college rivalry – it is an elitist philosophy amongst Midwest basketball fanatics. With that rant over, I’m thrilled that Louisville is in a rivalry game of a Final Four matchup because there is no other way in which I would care about the Cardinals otherwise. Louisville has made a living of winning the ugliest of tournament basketball games, and has ridden that style all the way to New Orleans. Kentucky, alternatively, has proven itself that rare breed of college basketball team that’s highly touted in the preseason, highly revered through the regular season, and both seeded and performing as the top overall team in the nation. The Wildcats are scary-good, sporting a legitimate scorer and future professional at five positions. Further instilling fear in the hearts of its opponents is that Kentucky truly seems to enjoy playing with each other, with no egos or other outside influences clouding its mojo. When former Maryland basketball head coach Gary Williams said earlier this week that the Wildcats could beat the NBA basement-dweller Washington Wizards, the only thing louder than some experts and coaches claiming it to be a ridiculous statement was the reflection of so many fans who actually had to take time to think about it – not unlike how some felt about the USC Trojans football team playing the Cincinnati Bengals once upon a time. Certainly, Louisville has quite the tall task on its hands – yet, in a rivalry game, can’t anything happen?
What the “experts” will say: This one’s over before the teams take the court. Kentucky has been the most talented team from the time the clock struck midnight on the first official day of practice. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Terrence Jones are the show-stoppers who are ready to hand coach John Calipari his first trophy. Truly emphasizing the point of just how good this Kentucky squad is, this team is considered his most talented ever. That beats a UMass squad from 1996 which lost to (you guessed it…) Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the Final Four with Marcus Camby and strong shooters Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla; and it tops the 2008 Memphis team which Coach Cal was a ridiculous Mario Chalmers buzzer-beater away from hoisting the trophy with a roster including NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey. It’s a safe bet that everybody on the floor for Kentucky at the tip will play in the NBA – and make an impact too. Kentucky can play any style, isn’t rushed, doesn’t get nervous or forced into things it doesn’t want to do…oh, and it hits free throws. When it played in the SEC tournament earlier this month (also in New Orleans), Calipari told reporters that he felt his team was in trouble because the swagger it was playing with – something he wanted from his team – was bordering on arrogance and overconfidence. Sure enough, it fell to Vanderbilt the next day. Since then, the team has been nothing short of great, passing all obstacles in its way with relative ease. Louisville is a team that has learned to win ugly, and like so many other Rick Pitino teams, has found itself an emotional leader in a young point guard who was often times thought to be too erratic, too unreliable, and too poor a decision-maker to be successful with. Now you look at Peyton Siva and wouldn’t mind him running your own team – not too different from how I felt in Rajon Rondo’s early years with the Boston Celtics. If Siva can control tempo and make good decisions, if shooter Kyle Kuric can get open on the perimeter and knock down shots, if big-man Gorgui Dieng can hang with Davis and play big as well, if Chane Behanan can make a living on the offensive glass, and if guard Russ Smith can be aggressive enough to draw early fouls, Louisville can take this one home. But of course…
What the “experts” won’t say: …it’s impossible. There are just too many “if” factors – and even if all of those “if”s go Louisville’s way, do they win? No, I don’t think they do. But rather than focus on the players which everyone has heard about, one thing not being talked about is the effect of the crowd. While the Kentucky and Louisville campuses are a mere 70 miles from each other, I fully expect the crowd to be as if Kentucky is playing a home game – and even if not, certainly not a neutral-site game. When I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago during the SEC Tournament, I had never seen fans travel as Kentucky’s did. I’ve heard a long time about the ability of certain fan bases to travel, whether it is Notre Dame, Ohio State, or Tennessee football; or Duke/North Carolina basketball. But never had I seen an entire city not their own be taken over by fans of a particular school as Wildcat fans stormed New Orleans. Nearly every game was sold out in that tournament and was a de facto Kentucky home game – even its opening round game against host LSU. While I don’t think this game will be close enough in the end for the crowd to make a difference, if it becomes one, it’ll be pro-Kentucky.
One more interesting note is what it will mean if Louisville actually wins. As mentioned above, I reserve the top-tier of active collegiate coaches for Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino. In my opinion, they are the top motivators, game-managers, adjusters, and confidence builders in college basketball today. You give me one game that my future depends on and I’m taking either Izzo or Pitino, without question. If I need one coach to recruit a player and I must have him, I’ll take Calipari for his ability to get the best of the best, and to have them play together (not an easy feat), but not on the court. So if Pitino can top Calipari, it will mean a few things. First, regardless of whether or not Louisville would go on to win the whole tournament, Pitino would be the best coach in college basketball today, barred none. Second, he will forever own John Calipari, or in the words of Pedro Martinez, he will be Calipari’s “daddy”. For two men who don’t like each other and have such a strong rivalry, it wouldn’t be much a rivalry. A victory tomorrow would mean that Pitino has beaten Calipari when he had the stronger team (the ’96 Kentucky squad included Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, and Nazr Mohammed), and when he had a weaker team (this Louisville team). Finally, a Louisville win would also have grave effects for Calipari, who would once again come close to winning the NCAA Tournament but fall short. While it might not be a true reflection on him as a coach, there is something to be said for a coach who can’t get it done, especially when he has the most talented teams. Those great coaches, the Izzos and Calhouns and Boeheims and Coach Ks and Roy Williams and Pitinos…they’ve won even when the team isn’t the most talented. Calipari not only has the best player in the country today, but also another who’s arguably in the top-5 (Kidd-Gilchrist) and another three who are top-5 at their position (Teague, Lamb, and Jones). If Pitino beats the younger Calipari tomorrow, it will not only be Pitino getting the best of Cal again, but a failure of epic proportions for the Kentucky coach.
Aside from that, there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. Yes, it’s a rivalry game. Yes, the coaches don’t like each other. And yes, Kentucky would be an interesting opponent for the weakest of NBA teams.
Who wins: It’s impossible for me to see Kentucky losing this game…seriously, impossible. Even if the Wildcats come out at 70%, sleepwalk through the first half and never wake-up, I still believe that their raw talent and athletic ability get them past the Cardinals. At the same time, college basketball is an emotional game and one of runs, so while I think that Kentucky is 20 points better than Louisville, I don’t expect them to win by 20 only because I think the referees won’t allow that and the flow of the game won’t either. Nonetheless, the Wildcats should (and I believe will) trounce Louisville 78-64 and glide into Monday’s title game against Kansas, where Calipari will look for redemption after what happened against the Jayhawks in 2008.