Roundtable: The Final Four questions
NEW ORLEANS -- After nearly a week of talk, the games are back. Before Saturday night's tipoff, five of our writers covering the event take one last shot at a few questions and predictions.
What are you most looking forward to Saturday?
Eamonn Brennan: Besides the atmosphere in the Superdome, I assume? Right. Then I'd say I'm most eager to see whether Louisville can change the terms of the engagement enough to hang with a vastly more talented Kentucky team. This is the one way UL can hope to win -- by scrapping and clawing and pressuring and making the game as awkward and difficult as possible. This is mostly a physical battle. Can Louisville turn over Marquis Teague? Can it find fast-break buckets? Man for man, the Cardinals can't possibly match up. What Rick Pitino devises for them -- and the mental war between Pitino and John Calipari and how it translates on the court -- will determine whether we get the tightly wound classic this rivalry deserves or a businesslike Wildcats romp. I can't wait.
Andy Katz: The Ohio State-Kansas game. The Louisville-Kentucky matchup has many of the pregame storylines, but the more competitive game should be OSU-KU. The two teams have studs in the post in Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson. Aaron Craft and Tyshawn Taylor have done a wonderful job leading their teams this season. The game didn't get all of the buildup, but it should be the most talked about game by Sunday.
Jason King: I'm actually looking forward to soaking in the atmosphere on Bourbon Street both before and after the games. I've never experienced the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry firsthand, so I'm interested to see how the fan bases treat one another both before tip-off and after the final horn. Be classy, everyone -- and stay safe.
Myron Medcalf: I can't wait to see the impact a pair of interior defenders could -- should -- have for their respective squads. Kansas' Jeff Withey and Kentucky's Anthony Davis are two of the best shot-blockers in the country. I'm amazed by the way they alter shots and intimidate opponents when they cut off the rim. It's such an underrated component of college basketball. Defense alone doesn't win championships, but when you have two of the best defenders in the game it certainly helps. It will this weekend.
Dana O'Neil: I'm anxious to see who owns the Superdome. Kentucky fans travel like no other in the country, and the eye test around New Orleans says the Wildcats have shut down the Commonwealth for a weekend in the Big Easy. But I'm wondering how that measures against a Superdome that is sure to be a 75/25 split in the crowd. Ohio State and Kansas fans surely will jump right on the underdog Louisville bandwagon from the opening tip. Can the Cat fans outnumber them all and give UK yet another home-court advantage away from home?
At the end of the semifinals, whose performance will we be talking about?
Brennan: Either Aaron Craft or Jeff Withey. Both players are their team's most important defensive force. Craft is Ohio State's havoc-wreaking turnover machine; Withey is KU's underappreciated shot-blocking giant. What Craft is able to do against Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor may well determine the outcome of this game. Withey's 7-foot size and interior length make him OSU's one true matchup nightmare, and the Jayhawks' best chance of limiting Jared Sullinger enough to make him a nonfactor in the low block. Whichever outcome we get, one of these two will have everything to do with it, and we'll be talking about them in the days that follow.
Katz: Anthony Davis. This is going to be his stage. The last time a national player of the year award winner played for the national title was Duke's Shane Battier in 2001. Davis will have his shot on Monday night if the Wildcats take care of Louisville. Expect him to have a dominant game in which he scores, rebounds and block shots in a way that creates serious buzz about his overall impact yet again.
King: Even in a season in which he earned first-team All-American honors, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger hasn't been in the spotlight quite as much as he was last season. Part of that is because of the emergence of Thomas Robinson and Anthony Davis, and part of it is because nagging injuries limited his performance at times. Anyone who had forgotten just how special and versatile Sullinger truly is will be reminded of it in Saturday's game against KU.
Medcalf: Aaron Craft. Most college basketball fans know the Ohio State sophomore is a talented defender, arguably the best on-the-ball defender in America. But his 2.5 steals per game don't tell the full story about the way he disrupts offenses. He will be everywhere Saturday. He'll harass Tyshawn Taylor. He'll cut off passing lanes. He'll shut down Kansas in transition. He'll come off his man to strip a post player. He really does it all defensively for the Buckeyes. He'll be impossible to ignore.
O'Neil: Peyton Siva. The point guard has not been in the scoring column quite like Kemba Walker last year, but the Louisville junior has channeled the UConn star in this unexpected run from Big East tournament title to Final Four. If the Cardinals can pull off an upset that might be the biggest since Duke took down mighty UNLV in 1991, Siva is going to have to get his Kemba mojo going in full. And since I'm going to pick the upset (see below), I think Siva will have tongues wagging.
Kentucky-Louisville: Who wins and why?
Brennan: I have a weird feeling about this game. Maybe I'm projecting, but everything about it just feels too perfect: The coaching matchup, Kentucky's world-beating offense and Louisville's tricky, No. 1-ranked (in efficiency) defense, the insane rivalry, the mental pressure, all of it. It all leads me to this: If there is any team in the country that can beat UK, it's Louisville. Alas, I don't think any team in the country can beat UK. The Wildcats are just too good on offense and too difficult to break down on defense -- and too talented and relaxed and focused and ready -- to imagine them falling either Saturday or Monday. Is there a chance? Sure. But for all the hype, it's still a very small chance.
Andy Katz: Kentucky. After watching these guys flip a switch against Baylor, I find it hard to see how the Wildcats won't do the same to Louisville. The Cardinals will defend Kentucky much better than Baylor did, but as Rick Pitino said, the Cats have had a way of running away from teams in the final few minutes. I expect to see the same in this one. Kentucky has too many scoring options to keep dormant. Louisville has had issues with the diversity of scoring at times, and the pressure on Gorgui Dieng to defend Anthony Davis may be too much to ask.
King: I think Kentucky wins easily. Everyone always talks about the Wildcats' offense and their gaudy scoring totals. But I think Kentucky's biggest strength is its defense. John Calipari's squad leads the nation in defensive field goal percentage. It's a phenomenal feat for any team, especially one that starts three freshmen. Impressive as Louisville has been, I'm just not sure the Cards have the offensive firepower to hang with UK.
Medcalf: Kentucky will win. Once Louisville's early defensive pressure fails to rattle the youngsters, the Wildcats will pull away with their unmatched talent. Yes, Louisville is a great defensive team. But we should all be reminded that Terrence Jones could have been a lottery pick after last season and he might not be a top-three player on the current roster. Kentucky is just too good at every position to lose to Louisville. And even though the Cardinals challenged the Wildcats in December, I think they're playing a different team in March. A better team.
O'Neil: This is the imperfect storm for Kentucky, a team that is head and shoulders above not just everyone else in this Final Four, but everyone else in the country. But as good and rock solid as these freshmen have been, there has been no stage quite like this elevated one -- against your fierce rival, in a game most everyone thinks you should win in a walkover, against a defense that not only ranks No. 1 in the country but is tougher than any you've faced all season. I think all of that, coupled with that gnatty and scrappy defensive swarm that has defined the Cardinals, makes for a tsunami of an upset.
Kansas-Ohio State: Who wins and why?
Brennan: I'll take Ohio State. As I wrote above, there are some tricky matchups on both sides -- from Jeff Withey to Deshaun Thomas to William Buford to Elijah Johnson. But I think the most important matchup comes at the point guard spot, and that's where OSU has a decided advantage. Aaron Craft is just so good. He takes almost every guard he plays out of the game, flusters them beyond reclamation, uses lightning-quick hands to force turnovers, takes charges, creates offensive fouls on moving screens, all of it. And he just so happens to be matched up across from Tyshawn Taylor, KU's second-most important offensive player and also one of its most turnover-prone and mercurial. This is bad news for the Jayhawks. In what should be a defensive game, Kansas will need Taylor to not only manage the game, but to create points, too. Against Craft, he is unlikely to do either.
Katz: Ohio State. Kansas is going to try Jeff Withey (instead of T-Rob) against Jared Sullinger, but Sullinger should be able to get around Withey by using his size. I'm sure KU will try to move Sullinger around the post, but it may not work. OSU gets the nod in perimeter shooting, too. The options with Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith and William Buford outnumber Kansas.
King: Kansas. I learned my lesson last week when I picked North Carolina to beat KU. Talent means a lot, but it isn't everything. The Jayhawks are one of the toughest teams -- both mentally and physically -- in America and they're led by who I think is the game's top coach. And back to that talent aspect: Kansas has one of the leading candidates for the Wooden Award, a fourth-year starting point guard who averaged 18 points a game in Big 12 play and a 7-footer who blocks shots as well as any player in the country not named Anthony Davis. So don't feel too sorry for the "underdog" Jayhawks.
Medcalf: Ohio State will win with its physicality. The Buckeyes are a matchup nightmare for the Jayhawks. Jared Sullinger is back to bullying defenders on the low block, and whether Jeff Withey, Kevin Young or Thomas Robinson ends up guarding him, I think he'll have a big night. Deshaun Thomas can roam the floor on offense and guard multiple positions on defense. William Buford is a big guard who will get good looks, with his teammates occupying Bill Self's squad in the paint. He just has to hit the shots. And Aaron Craft will pressure Tyshawn Taylor. This will be a battle at every position. But Big Ten play has prepared the Buckeyes to play that kind of scrappy game this weekend.
O'Neil: Deshaun Thomas called Aaron Craft a "rat that just won't leave." More like a gnat. You swat, you turn, he's there. And that won't be good for Tyshawn Taylor, who will be frustrated by Craft's chronic defense. Sans Taylor as both a distributor and scoring threat, Kansas and Thomas Robinson alone won't be able to beat Ohio State. Thad Matta makes his second national championship game appearance on Monday night.
2012 FINAL FOUR
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