College Basketball Nation: 2012 Final Four Things To Know

Four for Four: The Big Easy

March, 26, 2012
3/26/12
2:15
PM ET
We're five days away from the Final Four. There is much to learn, or relearn, in that time. Now that you've finished with Myron's early primer (and if you aren't, what are you waiting for?), let's look at four big themes you should know about the teams involved, the road they took to get here, and the weekend's event itself. We're calling this little mini-series Four for Four, which is not particularly clever but the best we can do on the Monday morning after an insane weekend. Check back throughout the day for each brief installment.

Last but not least: On this year's Final Four site, New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Malcolm Emmons/Getty ImagesMichael Jordan's Tar Heels facing Patrick Ewing's Hoyas in 1982 is among the Superdome's many great Final Four moments.
The Final Four is always better in New Orleans. When New Orleans hosts the Final Four, lasting moments happen. Michael Jordan's game-winning shot in 1982. Keith Smart's in 1987. Jim Boeheim's first national title (and Hakim Warrick's massive block) in 2003. Chris Webber's timeout in 1993. And so many more.

So what do you need to know about this year's tournament venue? For one, it will be played in the Superdome, the first arena the NCAA chose when it slowly but surely began to expand the Final Four into the event we see now. Since then, the NCAA has determined -- and understandably so -- that audience demands require a massive indoor facility for every Final Four; the event is no longer held in anything less than a 70,000-seat stadium. In some cases, as in the 2011 edition, held at Houston's Reliant Stadium, this leads to basketball's marquee event feeling stale and sterilized, with commentators harping on about the lack of atmosphere and the strange lines of sight turning the games into ugly, defensive affairs. (Whether this is true is up for debate. But if you get close enough to court level at the Final Four, it's hard not to notice just how unfathomably cavernous the shooting backgrounds can be. If anything, it's an adjustment. But still.)

In any case, this is less likely to be the case at the Superdome, an arena long-since accustomed to hosting these big-time basketball events. It's going to be awesome.

As for tickets, well, you're going to be shelling out a pretty penny. That's what happens when you get both Kentucky and Kansas at a Final Four; those fans will gobble up tickets no matter the price.

As for travel, this humble author suggests you merely book a plane ticket or bus ride to Louisville or Lexington, Ky., where you could then steal away on one of the thousands of RVs and minivans that will be making the pilgrimage south from the Commonwealth all week. Picture the gold-rush-era Oregon Trail, but you won't have to ford the river, and no one will die of dysentery.

However you choose to get there, just get there. The atmosphere is going to be amazing. The location couldn't be better. And the Final Four itself -- as epic a foursome as we've seen since 2008 -- should more than live up to the billing.
We're five days away from the Final Four. There is much to learn, or relearn, in that time. Now that you've finished with Myron's early primer (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), let's look at four big themes you should know about the teams involved, the road they took to get here, and the weekend's event itself. We're calling this little mini-series Four for Four, which is not particularly clever but the best we can do on the Monday morning after an insane weekend. Check back throughout the day for each brief installment.

Next: Briefly, on the unlikely nature of two Final Four rematches.

Despite a theme of expected and epic fulfillment, there is an unlikely quality to this Final Four. It's not often that even one national semifinal is a repeat of a high-profile nonconference contest from earlier in the season; it's even less frequent that both games fit that bill. On Dec. 10, Ohio State traveled to Kansas, where the Buckeyes lost 78-67 in part because the team's best player, forward Jared Sullinger, was sidelined with painful back spasms.

On New Year's Eve, Kentucky faced in-state rival (or nonrival, if you ask Kentucky coach John Calipari) Louisville in Rupp Arena as the No. 3- and No. 4-ranked teams in the country, respectively. That game seemed to feel like the start of both teams' trajectories: The Wildcats were an all-powerful, hypertalented group with legitimate national title aspirations, and would soon go on to dominate the SEC with the type of force rarely seen in power-conference play. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were seemingly undeserving of their high ranking, supposedly incapable of surviving an onslaught led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. Three months later, coach Rick Pitino's Cardinals have made us examine that performance -- in which Louisville stuck with UK for nearly 40 minutes in a rabid road environment before falling 69-62 -- as foreshadowing, a sign of the team's eventual potential.

How much do those original editions have to tell us about the rematches to come? We'll break that down in detail in the coming days. But for those of you joining us late in the season -- for those who care about college hoops for one month only (shame on you, but hey, that's your journey) -- well, be advised. These games have precursors, and they may only heighten Saturday's stakes.
We're five days away from the Final Four. There is much to learn, or relearn, in that time. Now that you've finished with Myron's early primer (and if you aren't, what are you waiting for?), let's look at four big themes you should know about the teams involved, the road they took to get here and the weekend's event itself. We're calling this little mini-series Four for Four, which is not particularly clever but the best we can do on the Monday morning after an insane weekend. Check back throughout the day for each brief installment.

Now: Statistical perception vs. reality, or: Kentucky has the worst defense -- and the best offense -- in the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Mark Zerof/US PresswireAnthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats can score at will, but they'll have to lean on their defense to win a national title.
All season long, thanks in large part to the sheer visual spectacle that is Anthony Davis' shot-blocking ability, the Wildcats have been lauded as a transformational defensive force. And make no mistake: They do defend. The Wildcats rank No. 11 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and their defensive performance was among the best, or tied for the best, in their conference. Anytime you have Davis manning the middle, an all-court ball-stopper like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing, and a rebounding force like Terrence Jones in the mix, you're going to shut some teams down. No question.

But for all the plaudits, where Kentucky really excels is on offense. By now, frequent readers will be well aware of this fact; three weeks ago, ESPN Insider colleague and Basketball Prospectus scribe John Gasaway officially declared March "Kentucky's offense is better than its defense" month, thanks primarily to UK's remarkable per-possession efficiency margin in SEC play. The Wildcats scored 1.20 points per trip in their undefeated SEC run, a number that vastly eclipsed what even the best second-tier offenses (Florida, Vanderbilt et al) did in the league.

The tournament has only reinforced this fact. UK averaged a downright ridiculous 1.27 points per possession on its road to the Final Four, blitzing and overwhelming Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana and Baylor by a combined margin of 55 points. But the Wildcats gave up their fair share of buckets, as well -- 1.07 points per trip, to be exact, and 1.11 if you exclude the No. 1/No. 16 WKU matchup.

Better yet, you didn't have to be a per-possession devotee (though you should be on general principle, but that's an argument for another time) to read the final Sweet 16 score line -- Kentucky 102, Indiana 90 -- and realize how the Wildcats won that game. Hint: It wasn't defense. It was an offense that Indiana couldn't dream of stopping, an offense that never slowed down, an offense that took every punch the Hoosiers had and relentlessly countered with points on the other end. (A 35-of-37 free throw mark helped, of course, even if 14 of those free throws came during the final stretch, when Indiana was forced to foul and hope for the best.)

In other words, by now, there's no excuse to be ill-informed. Yes, Kentucky is a pretty good defensive team. A very good one, actually. But for all the love sent Davis' deserving way, and no matter how accustomed we've become to seeing Calipari teams place stifling defensive priorities above all, these Wildcats are at their best on the offensive end of the floor, where their coach has unleashed a coterie of weapons not seen in college hoops in years -- even decades.

As such, appreciate this team accordingly. Deal? Deal.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Final Four, the three teams that stand between Kentucky and a national title are all better than the Wildcats on the defensive end. It's true. Louisville ranks No. 1 in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings. Ohio State ranks No. 2. Kansas ranks No. 4. The Cardinals and Jayhawks are similar in statistical makeup; they derive much of their defensive excellence from their ability to prevent quality shots in the first place. (Kentucky likewise belongs to this group.) The Buckeyes are slightly different: They're good at everything on the defensive end, but especially gifted, as the country's No. 2-ranked defensive rebounding team, at limiting opponents to singular scoring chances with little hope of extended possessions or quick putbacks.

This brilliance has extended, or (especially in Louisville's case) even heightened, in the tournament. The Buckeyes allowed just 0.97 points per trip on their way to New Orleans. Kansas allowed just 0.90. (Don't let Sunday's high-octane win over Carolina fool you. That game was played at a high-octane, 71-possession rate, but KU's defense stood up.) And, but for one 20-minute period against Florida, the Cardinals were lights-out, holding No. 1-seeded Michigan State to 0.73 points per trip and arriving at the Final Four with a 0.93 mark that would have been even better had Pitino switched out of his suddenly ineffective zone against mentee Billy Donovan even earlier.

As an average, these three teams allowed a combined 0.93 points per trip in the NCAA tournament. Whatever happens on Saturday, expect this: Everybody is going to guard.

Kentucky's path to a national title -- gilded as it rightfully seems, given how great this team has been -- will have to wind through two of the nation's top three (or four) defenses before it reaches its conclusion.
We're five days away from the Final Four. There is much to learn, or relearn, in that time. Now that you've finished with Myron's early primer (and if you aren't, what are you waiting for?), let's look at four big themes you should know about the teams involved, the road they took to get here and the weekend's event itself. We're calling this little mini-series Four for Four, which is not particularly clever but the best we can do on the Monday morning after an insane weekend. Check back throughout the day for each brief installment.

First up: The Final Four as epic spectacle is back.

With all due respect to the gate-crashers of the world, with fond memories for Butler's near miracle in 2010 and its return in 2011, with positive vibes in the direction of the VCU Rams, with respect for the who-knew qualities of a statistically mind-blowing tournament and with a gentle nod of the cap toward the plucky mid-majors of the world:

Sorry, but this is what a Final Four is supposed to feel like.

Four storied programs. Four elite coaches. Four teams rich in future NBA talent. Per ESPN draftnik Chad Ford, five players you'll see this weekend (Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones; Kansas's Thomas Robinson; Ohio State's Jared Sullinger) are likely to be selected in the 2012 NBA draft lottery. And there are plenty more players -- Louisville forwards Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng, Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor and center Jeff Withey, and Ohio State guard William Buford, forward Deshaun Thomas and even point guard Aaron Craft -- who are either (a) among the best players at their position in the sport, (b) deserving of NBA draft consideration in future seasons, or (c) both.

There are no real incursions here. And given the talent and season-long excellence characteristic of teams that fell along the way (see: North Carolina, Michigan State, Syracuse, Missouri, Baylor, and even Duke and Georgetown and Indiana) it's safe to say this season went essentially as expected. And when Louisville -- the Big East tournament champion, a team coached by a future Hall of Famer, seeded as high as 2011's second-highest Final Four seed (back when Kentucky was the plucky No. 4 that took down the favorite Ohio State in the Sweet 16) -- is your Final Four's most surprising inclusion, it's safe to say you've got talent in your sport's marquee event.

Don't get us wrong: We'll always love the tournament darlings of the world. They make the college hoops world fun. They remind us why we love the sport in the first place. But charming as the past two Final Fours were, it's time, as the saying goes, to put aside childish things. After two years of spunky upstarts, we more than were ready for some big-boy basketball. That's exactly what we'll get.

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