And then, there were four. On Saturday, the Final Four will take place in New Orleans with two exciting match-ups featuring four outstanding teams. The NCAA Tournament thus far has been pretty exciting and we’re down to just three games remaining. Unlike many other years, the Final Four will feature two rematches from games played earlier this season. Here is a look at the pairings and “who each team is”:
Louisville (#4 Seed West Region, 30-9) vs. Kentucky (#1 Overall Seed South Region, 36-2)
This will be the first game on Saturday night beginning shortly after 6:00 P.M. EST. It will feature a rematch of a game played on New Year’s Eve in which the Wildcats won 69-62 at Rupp Arena. John Calipari has Kentucky in the Final Four for a second straight year, but will be looking for his first career national championship. Louisville’s head coach, Rick Pitino, is known in the Lexington area as “Benedict Rick”. Pitino led the Wildcats to a national title in 1996 before leaving for the NBA following the 1997 National Championship and then returning to the collegiate ranks to coach arch-rival Louisville. The fact that this a game featuring bitter rivals only adds fuel to the Final Four fire.
Who they are: “The Peaking at the Right Time-ers”
This year’s Louisville team draws many similarities to Connecticut’s, last season’s national champion, run to the Final Four a year ago. The Cardinals were a middle of the pack team in the Big East finishing 7th before winning four straight games in Madison Square Garden to take the conference tournament and make a run to the Final Four. It seems like ancient history, but Louisville began Big East play just 1-3, but managed to turn its season around. Louisville closed its Elite 8 match-up with Florida on an 18-3 run to get to the Final Four even with point guard Peyton Siva having fouled out with just under four minutes to play. Anthony Davis will steal the headlines, but Gorgui Dieng has been arguably the biggest defensive force throughout this tournament. Dieng is averaging 3.3 blocks-per-game in the NCAA Tournament including a key block late on Florida’s Bradley Beal with the Cardinals trailing by two. Dieng’s play on Saturday will be key if Louisville is to advance to the title game.
Who they are: “The Tradition-Laden Juggernaut”
Kentucky was won seven national titles, but this may be its most talented team ever. The Wildcats are not the only tradition rich program in the Final Four. Ohio State has seen basketball success while Louisville and most certainly Kansas has strong traditions of their own. But few doubted that this could be Kentucky’s year to take it all. Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to this young Kentucky team was the SEC Tournament. Kentucky was pushed to the wire by Florida in the semifinals of the conference tournament before being defeated by Vanderbilt in the final. The loss to Vandy proved to Kentucky that it was far from invincible which seems to have prompted the Wildcats to play their best basketball when it matters most. During the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has defeated each of its four opponents by double-digits. Anthony Davis will likely be the National Player of the Year averaging 14.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks-per-game, but Kentucky is far from a one-man team. The Wildcats can score in bunches and have six players averaging in double-figures scoring. To put things into perspective, here is how remarkable that truly is. Marquis Teague is Kentucky’s sixth leading scorer averaging an even 10 points-per-game. If Teague were on South Florida, a team that went 12-6 in Big East play and won two games in the NCAA Tournament, he would be the Bulls’ leading scorer. Kentucky is fairly young and very talented and is the favorite to take the title.
Ohio State (#2 Seed East Region, 31-7) vs. Kansas (#2 Seed Midwest Region, 31-6)
The second Final Four match-up will feature the only #2 seeds to get past the round of 64 as Ohio State and Kansas square off. Kansas defeated Ohio State 78-67 on December 10th in Lawrence, but the Buckeyes were without leading scorer Jared Sullinger. Each of the two schools are making a second trip to the Final Four in six years. The Buckeyes last reached the Final Four in 2007 when they defeated Georgetown before falling to Florida in the title game. Kansas’ last trip to the Final Four was in 2008 when the Jayhawks pulled off a thrilling come-from-behind victory to defeat Memphis and take the national championship.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Who they are: “The Finally Playing up to Their Potential-ers”
It’s hard to believe that a team who prior to the tournament was 27-7 and in the top 10 failed to play up to their potential most of the season, but that was the case for the Buckeyes. Ohio State began the season ranked third, but spent most of the year in the Big Ten playing second fiddle to Tom Izzo’s overachieving Michigan State team. Ohio State has a good a starting five as anyone including the likes of Kentucky. Ohio State can play inside, they can play outside, they can shoot and they can defend. Ohio State however, lacks depth which could hurt them. Jared Sullinger is a beast inside while Aaron Craft, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, can lock down opposing guards.
Who they are: “The Tournament’s do Just Enough-ers”
This is perhaps Bill Self’s best coaching job as the Jayhawks’ head man. The fact that Kansas flirted with a one-seed for much of the year speaks to the job that Self has done. The NCAA Tournament however, has been far from easy for Kansas. The Jayhawks closed Sunday’s Elite 8 contest with North Carolina on a 12-0 run before collecting an 80-67 victory. The Tar Heels are the only single-digit seeded team that the Jayhawks have beat through four games, but here they are in the Final Four nonetheless. Kansas opened the tournament with a 65-50 win over 15-seed Detroit, but watched a 25-point-lead get chipped to 15. Kansas had to rally to defeat 10th-seeded Purdue in the 3rd round before overcoming a 33-32 halftime deficit and holding off North Carolina State, the 11-seed in the Midwest region, in the Sweet 16. Kansas is led by the formidable inside-outside tandem of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Few would have been surprised last season if Kansas would have reached the Final Four, but after losing the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff to the first round of the NBA Draft, here they are. In what was thought to be a rebuilding year, Self and the Jayhawks are just two wins away from a second title in five years.