The NOLA Festivities Have Started
NEW ORLEANS -- At around 11 a.m. on Thursday, a man and woman were strolling down Canal Street, clad in the uniform of the weekend -- Final Four T-shirt, shorts to enjoy the warm weather and a beer in hand.
The revelry officially has started here, with the last piece of this party puzzle pulling into the French Quarter as Friday dawned. The fans have arrived, taking an already oversized Final Four to proportions large enough to actually fill the cavernous Superdome.
They are everywhere, figuratively and literally, dividing this city into red and blue territories every bit as viscerally opposed to one another as they will be come election time.
On one corner, a woman stood among friends, a feather boa around her neck, impervious to the Louisiana humidity, silently but forcefully sending the message "loyalty to Louisville" above comfort.
A block further, a random New Orleans native stopped without prompting to share his pick. Pointing to his Ohio State T-shirt, he proclaimed his assertion that the "underdog" Buckeyes would win.
Kansas fans exchanged Rock Chalk Jayhawks from opposite sides of the street, and around the Dome the entire population of Lexington congregated.
But it is more than just the presence of the masses that has upped the ante on this Final Four.
It is their meaning.
The fans are more the story of this Final Four than any other in recent history, the underlying current for all of the major storylines. This is not just about great teams and great players. It is about the people who put the fanatic in fans.
Reporters have spent two days poking Kentucky and Louisville players and prodding Rick Pitino and John Calipari, hoping and failing to elicit some sort of snarl to capture the essence of the rival.
The trouble is, the players (maybe less so the coaches) are not the real source of the enmity between these two schools. Anthony Davis and Gorgui Dieng aren't likely to throw down in their golden years while attached to dialysis machines.
The fans are where the Vesuvius for the vitriol that divides Versailles -- a town stuck between the two epicenters -- gurgles.
"I would say the fans take it as, you know, whoever loses, it's their funeral really," Louisville's Chris Smith said.
To read the rest of Dana O'Neil's story, click here.
Circumstances Have Changed
NEW ORLEANS -- Back in December, after Ohio State held Jared Sullinger out of a 78-67 loss at Kansas because of back spasms, coach Thad Matta joked that he'd given the Jayhawks an early Christmas present.
Kansas coach Bill Self was ready with a comeback when the coaches crossed paths again Friday.
"Got anything for us for Easter?" Self said.
Unfortunately for Kansas, Sullinger and the Buckeyes will be at full strength when they take the Superdome court for Saturday's rematch in the Final Four.
The Jayhawks, though, contend they're a better team now, too. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor played the Dec. 10 game with a torn meniscus that required surgery the following morning. He dished out 13 assists against the Buckeyes but also had seven turnovers.
"It was so long ago," KU center Jeff Withey said. "We've both grown so much. It feels like a year ago. It's going to be a different game tomorrow."
One of the biggest improvements for Kansas has been the play Withey, who had two points and two blocks against Ohio State in December. Since then, the 7-foot junior has emerged as one of the top post players in the country. He has 20 blocks in four NCAA tournament games, including 10 in a Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina State.
Withey will be one of the main players charged with stopping Sullinger, who will likely be a lottery pick if he chooses to enter this summer's NBA draft.
"I'm pretty long," Withey said, "so hopefully that will bother him a little bit. If he doesn't catch the ball, he can't score. I'll try to make him catch the ball as far away from the basket as possible."
Withey smiled when asked to compare Sullinger to another player he's faced.
"Thomas Robinson," Withey said. "I've been playing against him for three years now [in practice]. I'm going to have to use that to my advantage."
As impressive as the Jayhawks (31-6) have been this season, they are still underdogs against an Ohio State squad that is deeper and slightly more talented. Ohio State shot 39 percent against KU in December while the Jayhawks shot 58 percent.
Somehow, though, it was still a five-point game with four minutes remaining. Kansas' players are expecting another tough battle Saturday. Nearly 24 hours before the game, the Jayhawks couldn't have appeared any looser.
"We've got to enjoy ourselves and soak it in," guard Conner Teahan said. "No matter what the outcome is tomorrow, we know this season has been a success no matter what."
Playing It Fast And Loose
NEW ORLEANS -- The circus is just a short walk away.
Here's how you get there: Step out of the Superdome onto Poydras Street, swing a left on Carandolet and follow it through downtown New Orleans until you reach Bourbon Street. This is the French Quarter, where everything you assumed about this Final Four has come true.
Yes, the Kentucky fans are everywhere. They congregate in hotel lobbies and saunter down Bourbon, and the atmosphere is equal parts Big Easy and anticipation: This is Big Blue's national title to win. Only those pesky Louisville Cardinals and either -- well, actually, it doesn't matter who else -- stand inconveniently in the way.
When you walk back to the Superdome and take another series of turns, you may (with proper accreditation, of course) find yourself in Kentucky's locker room. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist squats with a towel on his shoulder. Marquis Teague leans back in his padded chair. Anthony Davis (somehow) hunches into his locker ledge. Darius Miller and Terrence Jones casually stroll back from the press room podium, sit down and begin answering the same questions being asked of their teammates.
What does this mean to your fans? Are you guys feeling any pressure as the favorites? Do you feel the hype? How are you staying focused?
It is a credit to this Kentucky team, and the coach who leads them -- and perhaps to the circus-like atmosphere that always pervades this program, making this week nothing more than a slight enhancement -- that no matter how many times these questions are rephrased and re-asked, no matter how often the circus tries to invade the pristine calm of this locker room, the Wildcats couldn't be seem more relaxed.
"I can't wait to play, I'm ready to get started," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's a lot of talking and stuff like that, but I just want to play the game of basketball."
What about the massive Superdome gym, the imposingly raised floor?
"It's a lot of seats," Kidd-Gilchrist deadpanned. "It's just a regular floor to me."
As Miller admitted, this team is if anything tired of hearing about What This Game Means. Coach John Calipari has kept them "above the fray," as he put it, and the strategy appears to have worked. Bourbon Street and its sweaty, beverage-swilling, trash-talking circus were offered no quarters in the sanctuary of the Kentucky locker room Friday. There is only calm, businesslike focus to be found here.
"I know the fans on both sides are going crazy, and that's great," Calipari said. "That's part of why you do this thing. But we're not buying into it. I don't believe their team is buying into it.
"If you want to buy into the drama, then you buy into it," Calipari said. "If you want to play basketball, we're playing a terrific basketball team tomorrow at five o'clock. That's all we're dealing with."
Ohio State's Smith Playing All Roles
NEW ORLEANS -- During a defensive drill in Ohio State's Friday afternoon practice at the Superdome, Lenzelle Smith Jr. screamed to let his teammates know his position.
"I got it! I'm here!" he shouted as his squad prepared for Saturday's Final Four matchup against Kansas.
He didn't have to yell for the college basketball world to acknowledge him last weekend, when he scored 17 points against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16 and 18 points against Syracuse in the Elite Eight. He connected on 11 of his 18 shots (6-for-10 from beyond the arc) and recorded nine rebounds during that stretch, too.
They were breakout performances for the sophomore.
For a while, however, Smith didn't know exactly where he stood with the Buckeyes. That's the challenge that comes with playing next to four other starters who combine to average 56.9 points per game.
"It's very difficult. It even gets to the point where it's frustrating at times," Smith said. "Sacrificing whatever your personal intentions [are] for the betterment of the team is great. That's the type of teammates you need. That's what I wanted to do, type of guy I am. I've always been the type of player who's willing to do whatever it takes to win."
Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and veteran William Buford have warranted the bulk of the Buckeyes' media attention leading up to Final Four. But Smith's output in the NCAA tournament proved that he's also a key piece to Ohio State's national title hopes.
"When you got a guy who people don't respect his jumper and he's been knocking them down, it's very important for him to knock down shots and get offensive rebounds and defensive stops," Thomas said.
Smith, who's started in all 38 games this season, said he's comfortable with his slot as a starter who's capable of expanding his role as needed. He knows from experience that the Buckeyes might need a big night from him against the Jayhawks.
With Buford struggling (4-for-20 in his past two games), Smith recorded two of the finest performances of his career last weekend. He said he's ready to repeat that feat against the Jayhawks if necessary.
"You just pay your dues. I'm slowly climbing the ladder," Smith said. "I know my time can come and I'm not really worried about it right now. I'm just enjoying the ride."
Friday's open-practice scene
Kansas' Travis Releford
Kansas news & notes
• Kansas fully expects Jeff Withey more than Thomas Robinson to defend Jared Sullinger. Withey said the length he provides has the potential to fluster Sullinger. He added that going against Robinson in practice every day is as good a prep as anything.
• Travis Releford kind of scoffed at the notion that the Jayhawks aren't expected to win this event. KU coach Bill Self didn't bite, either, saying that it's hard to be the underdog when the Jayhawks won the Big 12 and won 31 games.
• Interviewing Kansas about the first matchup with Ohio State is almost pointless. Sullinger had back spasms and didn't play, and the game was at Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas, where the Jayhawks almost never lose.
Jayhawks player interviews
Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer
Kentucky news & notes
• The Kentucky and Louisville players simply won't bite on this being a bigger deal than any national semifinal. So far, they are not feeling the intensity of the rivalry the way the fan bases likely are.
• Anthony Davis won two national player of the year awards Friday, the USBWA Oscar Robertson and the Associated Press honor. During the former, UK coach John Calipari essentially echoed what we've said for weeks: that he has the best player in the country.
Wildcats player interviews
Cardinals player interviews
Louisville news & notes
• Chane Behanan said the Cardinals are going to shock the world with a win over Kentucky. Behanan relished the idea that the Cardinals are essentially the least likely to win the national title, let alone beat Kentucky.
• Louisville's Kyle Kuric said that beating Kentucky will essentially come down to defense and rebounding. But the Cards aren't afraid to play this game higher than the 50s or 60s.
• It's hard not to be impressed with the way Gorgui Deng has matured this season. He handles the media attention without a hitch. Deng will be the focus in this game because of the need to defend Anthony Davis.
Kuric is team first
NEW ORLEANS -- Kyle Kuric is no Rudy Ruettiger.
The word "walk-on" typically conjures romantic images -- the undersized, unathletic, unrecruited player who outworks his more talented peers, the guy who refuses to give up on his college dream, the unglamorous bench-dweller in it for sheer love.
Kuric has some of those qualities, sure, but his story isn't quite that idyllic.
To read the rest of Brennan's story, click here.
Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Ohio State news & notes
• The Buckeyes said their season turned when they lost at home to Wisconsin and needed to hit the reset button and pay more attention to detail. The wins at Northwestern and Michigan State to end the season certainly changed the conversation for this team, too.
• Deshaun Thomas said the Buckeyes had quite an emotional pep talk from coach Thad Matta prior to the Syracuse game last Saturday in Boston. It was in that locker room that Matta laid it out that this team could knock off East top seed Syracuse and get to the Final Four (and ultimately win the national title).
• There were a number of questions to William Buford and Thomas about their ability to shoot in the dome. Neither seemed to have a problem. These are elite players. I don't think you'll see that there will be a decided issue with Ohio State's shooting, because of the spacious nature of the dome.
Buckeyes player interviews
Podcast: Final Four preview
ESPNU College Basketball
Eamonn Brennan and Dana O'Neil provide a preview for the Final Four and discuss the pressure Kentucky faces being the favorite.
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.
Check out our writer roundtable for all their answers. Story »