- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
It makes sense.
The Big Man in the Big Easy.
This year's Final Four will feature the nation's top frontcourt standouts. All season long, they've racked up accolades as the undeniable leaders for their respective programs.
The Big Man will reign in New Orleans.
Forwards and centers will be the stars of the show. Kentucky, Ohio State, Louisville and Kansas can't win a national title without impressive performances from them.
With a few exceptions (Tyler Hansbrough comes to mind), they'd been somewhat lost among their smaller peers in recent years.
Kemba Walker led Connecticut to the national title last season. Shelvin Mack helped carry Butler, UConn's opponent, to the national championship game in back-to-back seasons.
Kalin Lucas fueled Michigan State's runs to the Final Four in 2009 and 2010. And Nolan Smith was critical in Duke's journey to the 2009-10 national championship.
Not this year. The bulk of the buildup to this weekend's national semifinals will center on the biggest players on the floor.
It's about time.
Why They'll Win The National Title
Louisville: After losing four of six at the end of the regular season, the Cardinals offered little evidence to suggest they'd reach New Orleans. Rick Pitino, however, borrowed from UConn's 2010-11 playbook and managed to turn the season around in the Big East tournament.
Like the Huskies, the Cardinals used the conference tournament to develop season-saving momentum and start an eight-game winning streak. This team has as much momentum as any squad that's still alive.
The Cards have certainly fought through adversity to reach this stage. They were down by double-digits against a Florida team that had its way in the first half Saturday. But UL switched to man-to-man defense and turned the game. The shot-blocking prowess of Dieng (3.2 bpg), a 6-foot-11 sophomore, has been crucial for Louisville throughout the tournament.
It's that defensive firepower that makes this team a national title contender. The Cardinals, No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, have had the right defensive concoction against every team they've played since the start of the Big East tournament. Pitino's ability to make quick adjustments on that end of the floor is unmatched by any coach in New Orleans.
The Gators crushed Louisville's zone in the first half but couldn't buy a bucket in the second, when the Cardinals finished on a 23-8 run. Florida went 0-for-8 from beyond the arc after Pitino switched to a man-to-man attack. The Cards held Michigan State to 44 points Thursday, the lowest tally for a 1-seed in the shot clock era. They'll need that defensive versatility to upset their in-state rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats.
They have speed on the perimeter with Peyton Siva, Chris Smith and Russ Smith. Kentucky didn't do well against big-bodied Baylor forward Quincy Acy (22 points, eight rebounds) on Sunday. Well, Chane Behanan is bigger and could also muscle his way toward success in New Orleans. Kyle Kuric, a 6-4 guard, is averaging 13.1 ppg. He's a threat, too.
If the Cardinals are going to shock the world and get through a field that features three powerhouse programs and some of the best players in the country, then they'll do it with their unmatched defense. It's worked thus far.
Kentucky: The Wildcats should win the national title next Monday. They have a unique level of talent and chemistry.
They're second and 12th, respectively, in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. Their roster of NBA prospects is anchored by Anthony Davis (six blocks against Baylor), the national player of the year in many circles.
Nothing new. But throughout the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have showcased their dominance and continued to separate themselves from the rest of the field. The Wildcats have weathered every obstacle during the NCAA tournament, even Davis' early foul trouble against IU.
Iowa State's Royce White had a career game and it wasn't enough to help the Cyclones avoid a 16-point loss in the third round. Indiana scored 90 points and still suffered a 12-point loss against the Wildcats. Baylor took an early five-point lead and suddenly the Twittersphere buzzed with talk of a potential upset. And then, the Wildcats stopped abiding by the speed limit and outclassed the Bears the rest of the way.
You don't need a Las Vegas bookie to convince you that the Wildcats are the favorites in New Orleans. They've lost just two games this season. And although John Calipari's 2010 squad, led by John Wall, might have had more overall talent, it didn't create this gap between it and the other elite teams around the country. That team didn't even make the Final Four.
Everything a coach would ever want on a team, Calipari has. To win title No. 1, the former UMass, Memphis and NBA head coach just needs his players to continue on this path. When the Wildcats execute, they're better than every team in the country.
And that's why they should win the national title. Sometimes, it's not as simple as talent. Weird things can happen, especially this time of year. But the Big Blue have the advantage over every other squad in New Orleans.
Whatever its opponents do, Kentucky finds a way to top it. Few reasons to believe that trend won't continue in the last stage of the 2011-12 college basketball season.
Ohio State: Few doubted OSU's national title potential when Jared Sullinger announced his decision to return for a second season. That collection of talent -- anchored by Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford -- ranked among the nation's best.
But throughout the regular season, the Buckeyes battled through bouts of immaturity. Thad Matta openly questioned their practice habits during a rough stretch (they went 2-3 over five games) in February. They had the makings of a national champion but seemed to lack the leadership and mental toughness to achieve that dream.
The loss of veteran David Lighty left a leadership void in the program that the Buckeyes couldn't fill. And then, this young group began to mature and realize its full potential. The Buckeyes have rallied from their challenges in February and reeled off eight victories in their past nine games.
The Bucks knocked off 1-seed Syracuse on Saturday as Sullinger took advantage of Fab Melo's absence to finish with 19 points and seven rebounds. Thomas has blossomed in the postseason, too. His 14-point, nine-rebound effort (6-for-14) against the Orange was his worst game in the NCAA tournament. Craft has harassed some of the top guards in America all year. He's also showcased that defensive success in the Big Dance.
A few lesser-known names have made an impact, too. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (18 points) was a star against Syracuse.
The Buckeyes are strong inside. They have one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. And they have a veteran (Buford) who's capable of a big night every time he steps onto the floor. They have all of the tools for a title.
But it starts with Sullinger. The immovable forward came back to win a national title. And if he continues to produce at this level, he might accomplish that feat in New Orleans.
Kansas: The Jayhawks are bigger than Thomas Robinson. The national player of the year candidate is the heart of the program, but he doesn't handle the workload alone.
Jeff Withey, a player whose tenacity had been questioned prior to this season, has become one of the top interior defenders in America (3.5 blocks per game). The explosive Tyshawn Taylor (16.6 ppg) recorded 22 points, six rebounds and five assists against North Carolina on Sunday. Elijah Johnson has scored in double digits in all four tourney games and dished out five assists against the Heels.
Kansas possesses the necessary pieces to win the national championship.
Every team the Jayhawks encounter will have trouble with Robinson (17.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg). But Withey has blocked 20 shots during March Madness. He's a vital part of that talented frontcourt, too.
This team competes on both ends of the floor. They're ranked 19th in Pomeroy's tempo-free offensive efficiency ratings and fourth in defensive efficiency. The Tar Heels were 2-for-17 from the 3-point line against KU. Harrison Barnes went 5-for-14 from the field. And North Carolina failed to score in the final four minutes of the game.
Some doubted Bill Self's ability to lead the Jayhawks to this juncture prior to the start of the season. He'd lost some talented players from last season's roster, including the Morris twins. Robinson had reportedly excelled on the summer camp scene, but had still just been a reserve and few knew what to anticipate. Withey was unproven. Taylor was solid during the 2010-11 season, but would he become a star?
But they're here. And the last time the Jayhawks reached the Final Four, they won the national title.
This group has the potential to duplicate that feat. It can do it with Robinson leading the charge and a strong supporting cast continuing to fill in the gaps necessary to make this a complete squad.
(4) Louisville vs. (1) Kentucky: You might not want to drive through Kentucky on Saturday. Everything in the state might be shut down for the weekend. This Bluegrass battle will take place on the greatest stage in college basketball. The storylines, however, shouldn't mask the details of the matchup.
This is not about Calipari versus Pitino. It's Dieng versus Davis, two of the best shot-blockers in the country. Both players will be challenged by the threat of early foul trouble. But it's also about the Louisville backcourt's ability to force turnovers. The Cardinals' opponents average 15.6 turnovers per game. But Louisville's now playing one of the country's best backcourts.
The Cardinals might need their best defensive effort of the year to have a chance against the Wildcats. On paper, Davis and Co. are superior. But Louisville has exceeded expectations since the start of the Big East tournament.
(2) Ohio State vs. (2) Kansas: When these two teams met Dec. 10, Kansas earned a 78-67 victory. But Sullinger was unavailable that afternoon due to a back injury. Evan Ravenel, Sullinger's replacement, recorded nine points and five rebounds.
This is a completely different matchup, however, with Sullinger in the mix. Robinson versus Sullinger might be the best individual battle in the Final Four. Craft and Smith against Johnson and Taylor is a great backcourt pairing.
The Jayhawks and Buckeyes are both in the top 10 in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings. And they're both versatile offensively. This should be a great game.
Plus, this is a rare matchup. This is just the second Final Four meeting between two No. 2 seeds since the seeding process commenced in 1979. North Carolina and Arkansas met in the Final Four in 1995.
Louisville: The Cardinals didn't have an easy road to New Orleans. But they earned the opportunity with wins over Davidson, New Mexico, Michigan State and Florida. During their current eight-game winning streak, five of their opponents have failed to record more than 56 points.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes defeated Loyola (Md.), Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse. The Buckeyes scored at least 73 points in each of those four victories.
Kentucky: The Wildcats defeated Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana and Baylor to earn their second trip to the Final Four under Calipari. They've defeated each NCAA tournament opponent by double-digits, the first team to do that since the 2009 champs from UNC.
Kansas: The Jayhawks secured wins over Detroit, Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina to reach the Final Four. The Jayhawks defeated the Boilermakers and Wolfpack by three points each.
Louisville: This is the ninth Final Four appearance for the Cardinals. It's the team's second appearance under Pitino (2005), who is one of three coaches (Roy Williams, Jack Gardner) who have led multiple programs to multiple Final Fours. UL hasn't advanced to the title game since winning it all in 1986.
Ohio State: This is Ohio State's 11th Final Four appearance and second under Matta. The Buckeyes lost to Florida in the 2007 national title game. Their only championship came in 1960.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are making their 15th Final Four appearance. Calipari led the Wildcats to last season's Final Four, too. But Kentucky hasn't won a national championship since Tubby Smith earned a title in 1998.
Kansas: The Jayhawks are making their 14th Final Four appearance. Self led the squad to a national title in 2008 with a thrilling overtime victory over Calipari's Memphis team.
Louisville: The Cardinals were ranked eighth in this season's ESPN/USA Today Coaches' preseason poll. But projections were lowered when top recruit Wayne Blackshear suffered what appeared to be a season-ending shoulder injury in October, one of many injuries that the Cards have endured this season.
Kentucky: The buzz surrounding incoming freshman Davis was vast enough that Davis earned preseason All-America honors. With Terrence Jones returning, the Wildcats were expected to challenge for the national title. They were ranked second in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' preseason poll.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes were ranked third in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' preseason poll. Made sense then and it makes sense now. As soon as Sullinger decided to come back for his sophomore year, the Buckeyes automatically became a top-5 squad entering the season.
Kansas: It was tough to peg the Jayhawks prior to the start of the season. The Morris twins had left for the NBA. And although Robinson clearly had promise, he had not yet been elevated to a starring role. There were also concerns about Withey's ability to excel as a starter. And for the first time in years, Self did not have a class full of McDonald's All-America preps joining the fold. That's why the Jayhawks were ranked 13th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' preseason poll.
Five Storylines For Kentucky Versus Louisville
1. The state of Kentucky will explode this weekend when its top two collegiate programs collide for a chance to play in Monday's national title game.
2. The Wildcats' offense has toyed with its opponents during the NCAA tournament. Louisville has been one of the toughest defensive teams in the Big Dance. Something has to give.
3. Davis has been a defensive force. Ditto for Dieng. Blocks records could fall.
4. Kentucky and Louisville started their rivalry in 1913. Kentucky currently has a 28-14 record against Louisville. (The Wildcats shot just 30 percent during a 69-62 win over the Cardinals on Dec. 31). But this is the biggest game in the rivalry's history.
5. Calipari versus Pitino is its own matchup. Pitino has nothing to prove. He won a national title with the Wildcats in 1996. And he's taken three different teams to the Final Four. Calipari has accomplished the latter, as well. But he doesn't have a ring. And he'll have to go through a Kentucky legend to get one.
Five Storylines For Ohio State Versus Kansas
1. Vengeance? The Jayhawks beat the Buckeyes in Round 1 in December. But Sullinger wasn't available due to a back injury. His presence changes everything.
2. Thad Matta is searching for his first national championship. He reached the title game with Greg Oden's team in 2007. Will he win No. 1 in the Big Easy?
3. Robinson versus Sullinger is an explosive matchup between two of the top frontcourt players in the country.
4. Self doesn't need another ring to make Kansas fans forget about Roy Williams. But a second national championship would solidify his status as a legend. We're talking statues, people.
5. Defensive stoppers could turn this game. Withey can dominate the paint with his shot-blocking ability. Craft (2.5 steals per game) is the best on-the-ball defender in America.
Kansas: Taylor could score 20 or he could commit a half-dozen turnovers. Or both.
Ohio State: Paging Buford. The senior has had moments of greatness and other times he's appeared on the side of a milk carton in key games.
Louisville: Dieng is a crucial part of Louisville's top-rated defense. He'll be vital against Kentucky, too. That's assuming he avoids early foul trouble.
Kentucky: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 24 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in his team's first game against Louisville. Encore?
Kentucky over Louisville
Ohio State over Kansas
Kentucky over Ohio State
8dESPN The Magazine