The field of 68 is now down to the Final Four. Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Michigan State are out. Kentucky, Ohio State, Louisville and Kansas are in. As college basketball fanatics head down to New Orleans for next Saturday’s national semifinal, here are our predictions of what will go down and which two teams will continue to let the good times roll to the championship.
The Kansas Jayhawks weren’t supposed to make it this far. Head Coach Bill Self lost some talented players from last season’s roster, including the Morris twins. There was some uncertainty surrounding the ability of point guard Tyshawn Taylor and center Jeff Withey to lead the Jayhawks, but here they are. Led by national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson (17.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg), Kansas is back in the Final Four–the last time the Jayhawks were here in ’08, they won the national championship. Looking to duplicate those accomplishments, they got off to a good start on Sunday by knocking out top-seeded North Carolina. Taylor recorded 22 points, six rebounds and five assists as the Jayhawks held the Tar Heels to a dismal 2-of-17 from behind the arc and Harrison Barnes to just 5-of-14 shots. If Whithey, who has 20 blocked shots during March Madness, continues to be a force in the paint and the rest of Self’s supporting cast can fill the gaps, Kansas may find their way back to the championship game. But they will need a strong performance from Robinson to get past the Buckeyes.
Ohio State is the lone team that can contend with Kentucky. The Buckeyes’ furious four of Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, William Buford and Jared Sullinger are just as strong as the Wildcats. Their season started off slow but having fought through adversity, the Buckeyes have reeled off eight wins in their past nine games to get to this stage. They knocked off top-seeded Syracuse on Saturday as Sullinger took advantage of Fab Melo’s absence to finish with 19 points and seven rebounds. The immovable forward came back to school this season to win a national title and if he continues to perform at such a high level, he might just propel Ohio State to the ‘chip in New Orleans. But Ohio State’s road to the Final Four can also be attributed to floor general Craft, who has managed to control the outcome of games with his poised play and harassing defense. Craft has locked down some of the top guards in the nation all year, including ‘Cuse point guard Scoop Jardine, and it will take his crafty play (pun intended) to stop Kentucky’s backcourt should the teams meet in the national championship. The Buckeyes have all the tools to win a title, now it’s up to head coach Thad Matta’s squad to go out and get it.
Louisville is the UConn of this year’s tournament. After losing four of six at the end of the regular season, Louisville offered little evidence to suggest they’d reach New Orleans. Head Coach Rick Pitino, however, borrowed a page out of the Huskies’ championship playbook from last season and managed to turn his team’s season around in the Big East tournament. Like Coach Calhoun’s squad, the Cardinals used their Big East title run as a springboard to save their season and embark on a magical NCAA tournament stretch. Louisville’s late-season rally has carried them to eight consecutive wins, including an impressive come-from-behind win against Florida on Saturday. The Cardinals have as much momentum as any team that’s still alive. Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith fuel Pitino’s offense, but it’s the Cardinals lock-down interior defensive that has kept their tournament hopes alive. The shot-blocking prowess of 6’11” sophomore Gorgui Dieng (3.2 bpg) has been a crucial component in the Cardinals defensive scheme. Pitino’s ability to make quick adjustments on that end of the floor has turned his once lifeless team into national title contenders. They’ll need that defensive versatility to upset their in-state rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats.
Kentucky cut down the nets in “CAtlanta” after defeating Baylor 82-70 in Sunday’s South Regional final, but the eyes of Coach Calipari’s Wildcats continue to remain on the prize. The Wildcats are two wins away from the title and Sunday’s thrashing of Baylor was an affirmation that the road to the championship will go through Kentucky. The Wildcats began the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and as favorites to win it all. Since then, Coach Cal’s squad has lived up to every expectation placed upon them. Kentucky has won every game by large margins (15, 15, 12 and 12 points) to become the first team since the 2009 national champion UNC Tar Heels to win their first four tourney games by double digits. The Wildcats have showcased their dominance throughout the tournament and continue to separate themselves from the rest of the field. To win his first title, Calipari –the former UMass, Memphis and NBA head coach– needs his roster of NBA prospects to continue on their path. When Big Blue executes, especially Anthony Davis, they’re better than every team in the country. No team can stop them.
Interior play will be the deciding factor in who comes out on top in New Orleans. Kentucky, Ohio State, Louisville and Kansas can’t win the crown without impressive performances from their respective frontcourt players. Sullinger, Robinson and Davis, who were named to the John R. Wooden Award All-American team on Monday, are the undeniable leaders for their respective programs. Their performances in New Orleans will determine the difference between disappointment and a national title for their schools.