Hoops titans take Final Four spotlight

Originally Published: March 30, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- When he stepped onto the court before Thursday's practice at the Superdome, Ohio State's Aaron Craft was tempted to hop onto a teammate's shoulders with a tape measure.

Just to make sure the rim was indeed 10 feet from floor.

[+] EnlargeSuperdome
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThis weekend's Final Four matchups are as imposing as the Superdome itself.

"Like in Hoosiers," Craft said.

For the Buckeyes and the other three college basketball teams still standing, the first visit to the mammoth venue that will host the 2012 Final Four was a bit overwhelming. And that was with the stands completely empty.

"What's it hold -- 75,000?" Kansas coach Bill Self said. "You could have 100,000 seats in here this year and these teams would sell it out. This is a heavyweight group."

Finally.

No more Butlers or VCUs. No more George Masons. No more teams that finished ninth in their conference catching fire at just the right time. Potential Cinderella stories and upsets keep us glued to our television sets during the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament.

But the Final Four should be about college basketball's best teams, the ones who have performed well all season, the bluebloods who can make a legitimate claim to being among the best in the nation.

We have that here in New Orleans.

With Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State, the sport's biggest weekend feels, well … big again.

"Being in the Final Four is pressure enough," Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said. "When you see the three other great teams that are here, that makes it even tougher. Whoever wins this one is going to earn it."

In some ways, this isn't all that big of a surprise.

Just days after Connecticut and Butler played the fourth-lowest-rated title game ever, college basketball coaches and analysts began predicting big things for the 2011-12 season.

Players everyone assumed were heading to the NBA announced they were returning to school, so it's only fitting that two of them (Kentucky's Jones and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger) will be on center stage this weekend along with national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson of Kansas.

And while parity was once again a theme in college basketball, three of the six-or-so teams that separated themselves for most of the season -- Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State -- advanced to New Orleans.

Louisville's appearance here is a mild surprise, but the Cardinals tout 30 victories. Most believe their chances of defeating Kentucky in Saturday's semifinal are slim, but it's wrong to say they don't belong after winning the Big East tournament and defeating a very good Florida squad in the Elite Eight.

"It still hasn't hit me that we're here," point guard Peyton Siva said. "We've never even been out of the first round before."

Intriguing as the players and teams may be, no one in college basketball demands attention quite like the coaches. The media-savvy Self, who has won more games than any coach in America since arriving at KU nine years ago, walked into the Superdome alongside mentor and Hall of Famer Larry Brown. And Rick Pitino of Louisville always draws a crowd.

Then there was the always-entertaining John Calipari of Kentucky, who spent a large chunk of his news conference Thursday responding to a comment by former Maryland coach Gary Williams that the Wildcats could beat an NBA team.

"This team could not beat an NBA team, not one," Calipari said. "The worst one in the league, we could not beat."

Maybe not, but the topic provided yet another good sideshow at the beginning of what's sure to be an eventful weekend in the Big Easy -- the perfect city to host such four such high-profile programs.

All of them are expected to bring thousands of fans to the French Quarter to feast on po'boys, guzzle Hurricanes and listen to music late into the night. Thinking about what lies ahead even evoked a little humor from normally stoic NCAA president Mark Emmert.

"I suspect that, Saturday night, this will be one of the larger towns in the state of Kentucky," he said.

Self gave his players Wednesday night off to walk the streets and soak in the atmosphere. As focused as he wants them to be, Self also wants the Jayhawks to remember the experience.

"It's a little overwhelming," Robinson said. "You get here and there is a band playing and people handing out beads. I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to do anything. I'm excited to be talking to y'all [media] right now. We've been taking pictures all day.

"I'm just going to cherish this moment. Not too many people are fortunate enough to get here."