It’s finally here. If you’re like me, you remember counting down the days until Oct. 14, the day college basketball teams are allowed to begin practicing. On that day every college basketball fan dreamed of their team making a magical run through March that would end this weekend in New Orleans. For four teams that dream is still alive and they get their shot at ultimate glory, starting tomorrow. While there were plenty of surprises in this year’s tournament, the 2012 Final Four features some of the most elite teams in college basketball. These teams have a combined 49 Final Fours and 13 National Championships between them, so if you enjoyed watching schools like VCU, Butler and George Mason in previous years you’re out of luck. Let’s take a look at each school and Saturday’s matchups after the jump.
Louisville*: The Cardinals are the closest thing to a Cinderella left in this year’s tournament. They made it through the West regional as the 4 seed by defeating Davidson, New Mexico, Michigan State, and Florida. The win over Tom Izzo and the Spartans is what really got people talking about this team. They play furious, fast paced defense and execute their full court press to near perfection. Coach Rick Pitino has done maybe his best coaching job ever to get this team here. Injuries have been a big theme in the NCAA tournament this year, but the Cardinals still find themselves here despite having seven players miss time due to injuries, including three lost for the season. While Louisville lost 5 of 7 games early in the year and 4 of 6 to end the regular season, they have been red hot in the postseason. After winning four games in four days to claim the Big East tournament title, they used that momentum to win their region forcing a matchup with arch-rival Kentucky.
On offense, junior point guard Peyton Siva runs the show with a lightning quick first step and deadly crossover. During the regular season Siva was erratic and turnover prone, but he is playing much better in the tournament. Also showing improvement in March, is freshman forward Chance Behanan. Behanan has increased his point per game total from 9.5 in the regular season to 14 in the tournament. Down low, Gorgui Deng has emerged as a force. He’s long and athletic and challenges shots in the paint. Against Michigan State he recorded 7 blocks, negating the Spartan’s perceived advantage in the post. While he doesn’t score a lot on offense, he moves well enough to make the pick and roll with Siva something teams have to respect. Louisville’s most explosive offensive player comes off the bench. Sophomore guard Russ Smith, while inconsistent, is the only player on this team capable of taking a game over. In December against Kentucky he lit the Wildcats up for 30 points.
Overall, Louisville’s strength is clearly on the defensive side of the ball. Pitino is famous for his full court press and this team runs it maybe as well as any he’s had. The Cardinals defense is the most efficient in the country, allows 84 points per 100 possession and holds teams to 38% from the floor (3rd in the nation). The Louisville offense is not as impressive. They average 68.8 points per game and are the 101st most efficient offense, scoring 105 points per 100 possessions. Though they are not a great 3 point shooting team, the Cards managed to hit nine against Michigan State. If they hope to play for the title on Monday night, Louisville must play its normal outstanding defense and hope they get hot from deep.
Kansas: Despite their #2 seed, the Jayhawks must feel fortunate to still be playing basketball. They haven’t played their best thus far in the tournament, but once you get to the final weekend it really doesn’t matter, does it? Kansas defeated Detroit, Purdue, NC State and North Carolina to make it to New Orleans. Both the Boilermakers and Wolfpack gave them scares, losing by just 3 points each. In the regional final against North Carolina, they faced the Tar Heels without maybe their most important weapon in point guard (2012 Cousy Award winner) Kendall Marshall. Despite this huge disadvantage, it was just a one point game with three minutes left before they pulled away.
Still, Kansas has made it here and boasts one of, if not the best players in the country in Thomas Robinson. The 6’10” junior has had a monster year, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting over 50% from the floor. Along with Robinson, senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor gives the Jayhawks a lethal inside/outside combination. Taylor is scoring 16.5 points and nearly 5 assists per game, while shooting 48% from the floor and 39% from beyond the arc. In the first three games of the NCAA tournament Taylor struggled before scoring 22 points against UNC in the regional final. If you can slow down these two, you can beat Kansas. Shooting guard, Elijah Johnson is the only other player scoring in double figures at 10 per game. Center Jeff Withey rebounds and defends well, while trying to take some of the post attention away from Robinson. Against NC State he blocked 10 shots, coming just one shy of the NCAA tournament record. Kansas is not a deep team, with only 7 players seeing significant minutes so far in the tournament. Conner Teahan is a senior guard capable of knocking down shots from deep, while Kevin Young gives them 10-15 minutes a game down low.
As a team Kansas is well balanced with the 4th most efficient defense and 16th most efficient offense. They hold their opponents to 38% from the floor, which is 4th best in the nation right behind Louisville. On offense they are scoring 75 points per game and 115 per 100 possessions. Coach Bill Self has clearly crafted this team to be led by Robinson and Taylor and their success hinges entirely on these two. This is an experienced team that knows how to win games even on nights when they aren’t playing their best.
Ohio State: Coming into the season the Buckeyes were one of the favorites to win it all, right behind North Carolina and Kentucky. The #1 overall seed from last year returned many key players and played well all season finishing tied for the Big Ten regular season title and runners up in the conference tournament. They defeated Loyola MD, Gonzaga, and Cincinnati rather easily before knocking off top seeded Syracuse in the East Regional Final.
6’9″ forward Jared Sullinger surprised many last season when he announced he would be returning for his sophomore year. He was fantastic again this year, earning his second straight 1st team All American honors while leading his team to a share of the Big Ten title and a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sullinger is averaging 17.6 points on 53% shooting and 9 rebounds per game. Also down low is 6’7″ sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas who has had a breakout season. In his second season Thomas’ point production sky rocketed from 7.5 to 16.7 points per game. He, alongside Sullinger, gives Ohio State a very formidable frontcourt. Senior guard William Buford gives the Buckeyes a third scoring option, averaging 14 per game. While not much of a scorer, sophomore point guard Aaron Craft runs the offense very well and is one of the best on ball defenders in the country, averaging 2.5 steals per game. In terms of depth, Ohio State may have the least. In the regional final against Syracuse, no one on their bench played more than 9 minutes despite Sullinger having to sit most of the first half with two fouls. Buford and Thomas both played the full 40, while Craft clocked 39.
Ohio State is extremely efficient on both sides of the ball, ranking 2nd on defense and 7th on offense. With Thomas and Sullinger down low, they get a lot of good looks and shoot a great percentage. Buford’s ability to knock down three pointers gives opposing teams headaches in that they must pick their poison on defense. As with most Big Ten teams, Ohio State likes to slow the game down. When you have a defense this good and a great half court offense, it’s easy to see why. To beat this team, you must be disciplined on offense and good enough to guard both of their bigs down low without cheating too much and leaving Buford open.
Kentucky*: The #1 overall seed has looked very impressive so far in the tournament. They find themselves the heavy favorite in New Orleans after beating Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana and Baylor by more than ten points each. After an Elite 8 in his first year, and a Final Four in his second, Coach John Calipari is looking to win his first national championship and win it his way. Many have said you can’t win it all with a team that relies so heavily on freshmen, but Kentucky is in a great position to prove that theory wrong.
Kentucky features an extremely balanced offense with six players averaging in double figures. Freshman and Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis is an athletic freak of nature who has improved consistently through the course of the year. His ridiculous 175 blocks so far this season is well known, but he has also made tremendous strides on the offensive end. All year he’s been lethal rolling to the basket and catching lob passes, but has recently displayed a very good jumper with range almost to the three point line. If Davis is making that shot, he is virtually unguardable. Fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the emotional leader and another elite level defender. He is capable of guarding any player on the floor and gives 100% effort at all times. On offense he relentlessly attacks the basket and offensive boards. He thrives in transition and can finish at the rim. Point guard Marquis Teague has improved dramtically since the beginning of the season and is now playing his best basketball in the tournament. Teague is extremely quick with the ball and has greatly limited his turnovers, despite the fast pace of the UK offense. Sophomore Doron Lamb is a great three point shooter, hitting 47% of his attempts from deep. He along with freshman Kyle Wiltjer (43% from 3) make zoning this team extremely difficult. Sophomore Terrance Jones brings another post presense and is a tenacious rebounder and defender. Senior Darius Miller is another extremely versatile player who has a knack for big baskets. Like the other teams in the Final Four, the Wildcats aren’t very deep but the late season emergence of Wiltjer gives them an extremely solid seven man rotation.
As a team, Kentucky has the nation’s 2nd most efficient offense scoring 123 points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats also lead the nation in field goal defense, holding opponents to 37.5% from the floor. In terms of efficiency, they rank 11th giving up 88.7 points per 100. In 2010, Kentucky was also the #1 overall seed but lost in the Elite 8 after shooting 4-32 against West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone. A shooting performance like that seems unlikely with this team thanks to having two players hitting over 40% of their three point attempts, with another (Miller) hitting 37%. The best chance to upset this team is to try and get Davis in foul trouble. He had four fouls in the last game against Baylor, but was only the first time he’d that many fouls since December.
Kentucky vs. Louisville (6:09 CBS)*: The Battle for the Bluegrass is the biggest game in the history of this rivalry. The thought of having this magical season end at the hands of Louisville is enough to make every Kentucky fan sick. A win would give the Cardinals bragging rights for life, regardless of anything else. Toss in the Rick Pitino factor (former UK head coach, went to three final fours and won the ’96 title) and you have pure insanity.
These teams already played once this season and in that game Kentucky shot 29% from the floor, had 20 turnovers, and only made 3/16 three point attempts. Sounds like the perfect recipe to upset the #1 team right? Well, they actually won by 7. UK has improved tremendously since that game, so it’s hard to imagine another performance that bad. Louisville is going to have to play their absolute best game tomorrow to have a shot at playing on Monday. Pitino will throw every defense he can think of to try and confuse Teague and the UK offense, but the Cardinals will still have to try and score points of their own and that is not their strength. Kentucky is athletic enough at every position that they are able to switch on the pick and roll, Louisville’s best offensive weapon.
While not impossible, the odds are clearly against Louisville winning this game. They play fantastic defense, but does Kentucky. On offense the Wildcats have a huge advantage and will find holes in the Cardinal defense. I imagine the game will start out slow as the teams try to figure each other out, but the talent difference is huge and Kentucky will eventually pull away. Kentucky 69 Louisville 60.
Ohio State vs Kansas (8:49 CBS): These teams also met in December, with Kansas giving the Buckeyes their first loss of the year, 78-67. However, it’s hard to read too much into that game since Jared Sullinger didn’t play due to back spasms. His matchup against Robinson tomorrow night will be an epic battle between two of the best big men in the country.
Another critical matchup in this game will be Tyshawn Taylor vs Aaron Craft. Taylor played against North Carolina last weekend, but Craft is a much better defender than anyone he went up against in that game. If Kansas is going to win tomorrow, Taylor must take care of the ball and not let Craft disrupt his game too much. Down low, Robinson and Withey have to win their battle against Sullinger and Thomas. Both teams will likely take the ball inside early to try and get the other’s superstar forward in foul trouble.
William Buford is the X factor in this game, as Kansas doesn’t really have an answer for him. If Craft and Sullinger can play Taylor and Robinson to a draw, they have to like their chances. The Jayhawks either must win those matchups or have a third player show up and give them another option on offense. I don’t see that happening and like the Buckeye’s chances of playing for the title on Monday. Ohio State 61 Kansas 55.
*Disclaimer: I am a huge Kentucky fan and tried to be as objective as possible in my previews for both teams. If they didn’t come off that way, I’m sorry but don’t really care. Go Cats!