Final Four Promises to be Epic
By: Dustin Dietz
I can remember a time when the Final Four was one of the biggest events of the year for the sports fan. As a child, I enjoyed the three weeks of March Madness basketball more than anything the professional ranks offered because the Mavericks were a NBA laughingstock, and I had little interest in seeing my hometown team be used as a league doormat. The only reason to tune into the NBA at the time was to see what Michael Jordan was going to add to his lengthy highlight reel.
When I would play basketball as a child in the early to mid-1990’s, I would imagine I was the sharp shooting Randy Rutherford draining three pointers for Oklahoma State, or Toby Bailey throwing down a monstrous reverse jam for UCLA. I had no interest in pretending to be spares like Doug Smith or Cherokee Parks of the Dallas Mavericks. Quite frankly, the Dallas Mavericks were an uncool team to root for at the time. College basketball and the NCAA tournament was king and had all the nostalgia to preadolescent Dustin at the time. While the NBA now dominates college basketball in terms of popularity, I still have a place in my heart for the NCAA Tournament.
I realize there are currently many other options other than college basketball for the DFW sports fan. However, if one is tired of the uselessness and pathetic play of the enigmatic Lamar Odom, I ask you to watch the final three games of what is turning out to be an entertaining NCAA Tournament this year.
The 2012 Final Four features four preeminent basketball programs in search of adding another championship to their already illustrious histories. Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, and Kansas together have combined for 49 Final Four appearances and 13 NCAA championships. This Final Four does not feature any upstart Cinderella like George Mason, Butler, or Virginia Commonwealth. Rather, this year’s Final Four features four college basketball heavyweights ready to duke it out to achieve college basketball immortality.
New Orleans will be the site of this year’s Final Four for the first time since 2003, when a couple of players named Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara helped lead Syracuse to an upset win over Kansas. The dome formerly known as the Superdome has a propensity for producing extraordinary Final Four title games such as Michael Jordan hitting a clutch game winner in 1982 for North Carolina, Keith Smart’s swish from the baseline to defeat Syracuse in 1987, and Chris Webber’s timeout for the Fab Five Michigan team when his team did not have any left in 1993. One can only imagine what fans are in store for this year.
Enough of my spiel, here is a preview of this weekend’s match-ups and my prediction for who will be crowned champion next Monday night in the Big Easy.
(4) Louisville (30-9) vs (1) Kentucky (36-2)
Many feel the national semifinal between Louisville and Kentucky is the real title game, particularly those who live in the state of Kentucky. This weekend’s game between the two schools located 80 miles apart is the first Final Four match-up between instate rivals since the 1962 championship game played between Cincinnati and Ohio State. The schools have met in the NCAA tournament four times, splitting the meetings. The schools met on New Year’s Eve in Lexington, a game won by Kentucky 69-62.
Kentucky is the real deal, and is by far the most talented team in the country. The #1 overall seeded Wildcats feature a team which has seven players who averaged over 25 points a game in high school. Coach John Calipari signed three of the top five recruits in the nation last season (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague) with the intention of winning a championship this season. If the trio decides to leave early, all three will be lottery picks in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Despite the lofty expectations and core youth, the Wildcats play the game like savvy veterans. They are fast, tenacious, athletic, and the play the game unselfishly. The Wildcats average margin of victory in their 36 wins this season is 19 points a game. Their defensive field goal percentage is number one in the country at 37.5 percent. Both are mind-boggling numbers from a team with many players who have only been able to buy tickets to an R-rated movie for a year. The resolute laser focus exhibited by Kentucky is absolutely frightening.
If you play careless against Kentucky, they will run you out of the gym. Baylor held a 10-5 lead against Kentucky in the national semifinal before the Cats went on a 37-12 run to end the half. Baylor turned the ball over 9 times in the first half, which led to Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis, Teague, and Sophomore Terrence Jones into running the fast break. If Kentucky runs transition on you, the game will be over in a hurry. Kentucky led Baylor at the half 42-22, and never looked back.
Louisville is led by former Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino. Pitino won his only national championship with the Cats back in 1996 with a team led by now impoverished Antoine Walker. Coach Pitino would love nothing more than to stick it to his old team when it matters most, in the Final Four.
The Cardinals are led by Junior Point Guard Peyton Siva, Freshman Forward Chane Behanan, and Sophomore Center Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals love to play low scoring games and stifle you with their suffocating defense. In the Sweet 16 against #1seed Michigan State, the Cardinals held the Spartans to a measly 44 points and forced 15 turnovers. Dieng had 7 blocks against the Spartans, and set the all-time school record for blocks this season.
Sophomore Russ Smith saved the Cards in the regional final against Florida scoring 19 pivotal points, and was instrumental in the Cards 18-3 run to end the game in the 72-68 victory over the Gators. Smith is known as Russ-diculous to his teammates due to his occasional erratic play. Smith scored 30 points in the game against Kentucky earlier in the season.
For the Cards to have a chance in this game, Siva, Behanan, and Dieng must stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. The only way to stop Kentucky is if you can be aggressive and get them to play a half-court style game. If Louisville is in foul trouble, the Cards will be unable to be aggressive. Dieng has to be on the floor to help contain the Naismith Player of the Year candidate Davis.
Prediction : Kentucky – 75 Louisville – 62
(2) Ohio State (31-7) vs. (2) Kansas (31-6)
The Buckeyes and Jayhawks might be receiving less press, but the two teams are both dangerous and deserving of being in the Final Four. Kansas and Ohio State played back in December in a game won 78-67 by Kansas in Lawrence. Do not put too much stock into the Jayhawks victory as Buckeye star Jared Sullinger was unable to play due to back spasms.
Many consider Kansas a bit of an overachiever and expected the Jayhawks to have a down season after losing some key players to the NBA last season. Rock Chalk features a seemingly ancient starting five featuring four juniors and a senior, led by Naismith Player of the Year candidate Junior Forward Thomas Robinson.
Robinson is quick and loves to attack the rim. If one decides to leave Robinson open around the perimeter, he will drain the shot quicker than one can blink. Robinson is averaging a double-double and shooting over 50% for the season. If Kentucky was eliminated early, Robinson would be the best player left in the tournament.
Kansas has a suffocating defense led by 7’0” Junior Center Jeff Withey. Withey is the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and had two key blocks in the crucial moments of the regional final against North Carolina. Kansas benefitted from North Carolina Sophomore Kendall Marshall being forced to miss the game due to a hand injury, but the Jayhawks still limited the Tar Heels to a diminutive 20 points in the second half. North Carolina was shutout the final 3:55 by the stubborn Jayhawks defense as Kansas pulled away late for the 80-67 victory.
The Buckeyes are led by Sophomore Forwards Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas. Sullinger bypassed the NBA Draft last year with the specific intention of leading his hometown Buckeyes to the national championship. Sullinger is seeking to become the first player to lead his hometown team to a title since Greg Anthony led UNLV to the championship in 1990.
Sullinger loves to back opponents down in the post and then go glass. His game reminds many of current Chicago Bull Carlos Boozer.
The Buckeyes have two emotional leaders in Sophomore Guards Lenzelle Smith and Aaron Craft. Craft, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, played brilliantly with a heavy heart in the regional final against Syracuse as his brother was just shipped to Afghanistan the morning of the game. Craft is a quick, pesky guard with quick hands who forces turnovers. Smith is a gritty guard who received three stitches early in the regional final above his eye, and returned minutes after the injury.
The key for both teams will be to stay out of foul trouble. Kansas has the size advantage with the 7’0” Withey manning the middle, but Ohio State is tougher. The key match-up will be Craft against Kansas Senior Guard Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor was phenomenal in the regional final against North Carolina scoring 22 points on 10/19 shooting. However, Taylor is 0/17 from beyond the arc in the tournament. If Craft can prevent Taylor from penetrating and attacking the rim, he will force Taylor to either shoot from the outside or force Taylor to turn the ball over. Taylor averaged 3.5 turnovers per game, and will play careless at times.
The Buckeyes also must get production from Senior William Buford. Buford, the third leading scorer for the Buckeyes, has had a quiet tournament so far. If the Buckeyes are to win the game, they need production from their only senior starter.
Ultimately, Kansas’ size advantage should be the difference in this battle of defensive juggernauts.
Prediction: Kansas – 60 Ohio State – 55
In the national championship game, I envision Kentucky defeating whoever comes out on top in the other national semi-final. Kentucky has far superior talent than the three other teams remaining. Dick Vitale believes Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are the best freshmen duo in the last 20 years. No team has come within single digits of the Cats in the tournament, and that trend should continue if the Cats do not become complacent and lax at any point during the game. Kentucky should win the school’s first national championship since 1998,and the long awaited first title for Coach John Calipari. However, with the Final Four being in New Orleans, any team could win this thing.
National Champion: Kentucky
Follow Dustin Dietz on Twitter @DustinDietz18, and listen to my podcast titled Just Two Guys which should be available on the internet very soon.