After two weeks of all-you-can-watch col-lege basketball, four teams remain in the hunt for the NCAA Championship. Kentucky, Lou-isville, Kansas and Ohio State emerged from the chaos that is March Madness and are now within two victories of basketball history. Be-fore we dive headfirst into Final Four analysis, let’s first take some time to reflect on the most exciting two weeks in college sports.
For the first time in tournament history, two second-seeded teams lost their opening games. In Omaha, Missouri allowed 86 points to Nor-folk State, confirming the rumor that the selec-tion committee was inebriated when declaring them a two-seed. Merely hours later, Coach K’s Blue Devils lost 75-70 to Patriot League Player of the Year C.J. McCollum and the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. McCollum is a talented player and Lehigh really did deserve the vic-tory. That being said, Duke has some serious problems going forward. The play of Austin Rivers this season has me seriously questioning high school scouts, and wondering how much family lineage inflated his reputation. Rivers was an effective scorer, but he was nowhere near his classmates Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Bradley Beal.
Finally, I have to comment on the perfor-mance of the zebras thus far. Charges, which used to be one of the most exciting calls in college basketball, have become far too com-mon. Defenders are entitled to their space on the floor, but those on offense are also en-titled to make plays at the rim. Basketball is a contact sport and defenders are going to get bumped, but if the officials call a charge every time a player theatrically falls to the ground, college basketball is going to become significantly less entertaining. And now, on to the Final Four.
Kentucky: The Unequivocal Favorite
John Calipari’s talented group of freshmen and sophomores has steamrolled opponents en route to New Orleans. Kentucky not only has the most dynamic player in the country in Anthony Davis, but also a second-rated NBA prospect in versatile forward Michael Kidd- Gilchrist. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist could have probably played alongside the Lollipop Guild and still made it to the Final Four. Instead, they executed seamless fast breaks with the likes of Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague, all future NBA players. The team John Calipari has assembled in Lexington is talented enough to give the Charlotte Bobcats a run for their money. But with great talent comes great pressure. Analysts have all but handed the Championship trophy to the Wildcats, and if they aren’t the last team standing, the season will ultimately be viewed as a failure. LeB-ron James, Dwayne Wade and the Heat have proven that talent alone is not enough to secure a title. Kentucky must continue to play as an unselfish team in order to hoist the trophy in New Orleans.
Louisville: The Underdog
Once ranked in the top-five nationally, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals struggled late in the season, but recovered in time to claim the Big East Championship over talented teams like Marquette, Cincinnati and Syracuse. As a four seed, they defeated Davidson, New Mexico, Michigan State and Florida to make it to New Orleans. Oddly enough, their most convincing win came against Tom Izzo’s top-seeded Spar-tans. So how does a team without an ounce of NBA talent come within two games of a title? I think the answer is a combination of toughness, conditioning, unselfishness and a defensive press that frustrates opponents. Speedy point guard Peyton Siva is the heart and soul of the team, and his energy sets the tone for everyone else. The full court press that Pitino seemed to shy away from late in the season is back, frus-trating opposing teams and forcing turnovers. On top of that, Senegalese center Gorgui Deng is one of the best in the country at altering shots at the rim. Louisville’s 57-44 win over Michigan State was a perfect example of how the Cardi-nals put pressure on opponents and force them out of their game plan. However, it will be in-teresting to see whether they can force the most talented team in the country into bad shots and turnovers. In order to beat Kentucky, Lou-isville needs the game to be ugly, and I’m not sure if Kentucky is even capable of playing an ugly game.
Kansas: The Two-Headed Beast
The Jayhawks’ season has been defined by the impressive play of forward Thomas Rob-inson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor. Both average over 17 points per game, while Rob-inson pulls in 12 rebounds and Taylor dishes out five assists in a typical contest. Robinson, a consensus All-American, is second in the na-tion in rebounding despite his 6’8″ frame. He should pose a serious challenge for Ohio State star Jared Sullinger, as both players like to oper-ate in the paint. The main issue for Kansas in the tournament is that they just haven’t been playing impressive ball. The Jayhawks barely squeaked by the second and third rounds with three point victories over 10-seed Purdue and 11-seed N.C. State. Their win in the Elite Eight against North Carolina doesn’t really tell us much because UNC was such a different team without their point guard, Kendall Mar-shall. Ohio State will pose the greatest threat to Kansas thus far in the tournament, and it will be interesting to see whether Robinson and Taylor will be able to carry the Jayhawks to a National Championship.
Ohio State: The Sleeper
The Buckeyes had perhaps the easiest path to the Final Four other than Kentucky, mainly attributable to the absence of Syracuse center Fab Melo. Their Elite Eight win over the Or-ange was their smallest margin of victory in the tournament at seven points. What makes Ohio State so formidable is their balanced of-fensive attack and suffocating man-to-man defense. Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford all average over 14 points per game while feisty floor general Aaron Craft pitches in nine per contest. This balance al-lows the Buckeyes to win games despite bad shooting nights from either Thomas or Bu-ford. Craft is a disruptive force on defense, and seems to actually annoy his opponents with his peskiness. Even if he doesn’t make a steal, he still manages to alter the offense’s flow and tempo. All this seems to add up to a team that has all the right pieces to challenge Kentucky for the National Championship.
Predictions: Kentucky over Louisville, 82-67/ Ohio State over Kansas, 67-65
Final: Kentucky over Ohio State, 76-69
Contact Travis Basciotta at [email protected]