The remaining four teams in the 2012 NCAA tournament – Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State – have emerged as one of the strongest Final Four fields in recent years. In speed and athleticism, attention to fundamentals and stinginess on defense, these teams have not only thrived, but have seemingly improved throughout this month-long annual battle of attrition. After Saturday night’s games in New Orleans, the field will be narrowed to two teams, who will play Monday night for the national championship.
Ohio State vs. Kansas
In Saturday’s East region final in Boston, the absence of Fab Melo finally caught up with Syracuse, as Ohio State defeated the Orange 77-70. Forward Deshaun Thomas scored 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds for Ohio State (31-7). Thomas has been a tower of offensive power for the Buckeyes all tournament, averaging 22 points in their four games. In the process, Thomas has exhibited extraordinary versatility, as he’s been able to score both in the post with jump hooks as well as from beyond the three-point arc. This has come as a great relief to the Buckeyes’ other strong forward, Jared Sullinger, who has been the team’s most prolific and powerful scorer all season, averaging nearly 18 points per game.
Kansas, demonstrating great improvement from its opening-round scare against 15th-seeded Detroit, defeated North Carolina 80-67 last Sunday in the Midwest regional final in St. Louis. The Tar Heels, who finished 32-6 on the season, were missing standout guard Kendall Marshall. Winner of the 2012 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award, Marshall injured his wrist in the Tar Heels’ overtime win over Ohio in their Sweet 16 game last Friday. Marshall, who had over 300 assists on the year, was in many ways UNC’s catalyst and playmaker. North Carolina was also without the services of outstanding forward John Henson, due to wrist and ankle injuries. Kansas has now won 24 of its last 27 games and, with this victory, are 5-1 when seeded lower than another team in the Elite Eight.
Kansas vs. Ohio State (Saturday, 8:49 p.m.) is an explosive pairing and will feature the Jayhawks’ strong forward, junior Thomas Robinson. Robinson averaged a double-double during the season, notching 17 points and 12 rebounds per game. They also have a superbly talented point guard in senior Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor averages nearly 17 points per game, five assists and has a pair of lightning hands that steal the ball with almost monotonous regularity. Pairing Sullinger with Robinson should be intriguing, as well as Taylor against the Buckeyes’ elite guard, William Buford, the latter averaging nearly 15 points per game. Thomas and Sullinger will also be kept busy with Kansas center Jeff Withey, who adds considerably to the Jayhawks' inside game and at seven-feet tall, will make the Buckeyes’ life miserable on both the offensive and defensive boards.
Predicting the outcome in a game like this can be deceiving – particularly when both Ohio State and Kansas benefited from facing depleted squads in the last round, and both match up so well offensively and defensively. But on the basis of starting lineups, Kansas would have to hold a slight advantage.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, had an easy time on Saturday with third-seeded Baylor, defeating them 82-70 in the South region final in Atlanta. The final score in no way reflected the pace and precision of Kentucky’s ceaseless barrage, with the Wildcats (35-2) leading the Bears by in excess of 20 points through most of the game. Baylor (30-8) started off with a quick 10 points at the onset of the first half and proceeded to go on a scoring drought that would make a month in the Sahara seem positively temperate by comparison. During that time, the Wildcats were merciless with their three-point shots, hitting just about everything they threw at the net. They also drove down the lane with all the resistance of a warm knife through butter. It was really no contest from the first five minutes on.
For its part, Louisville continued its winning ways, with the Cardinals shunning their highly effective zone defense to directly take on Florida in man-to-man coverage, and in the process kept the Gators off-balance from the perimeter, resulting in a 72-68 win in the West regional final last Saturday in Phoenix. Louisville rolled to its eighth victory in a row and Cardinals’ head coach Rick Pitino, who's mentored Florida coach Billy Donovan since the 1980s – first at Providence College and later Kentucky, where Donovan was Pitino’s assistant – got his 7th win over his protégé, against no losses. Florida’s high-powered offense, which scored nearly 80 points per game through the season, was stymied by Louisville’s fly paper defense, which held the Gators uncharacteristically at bay while the Cardinals outscored them by 15 points over the game’s final 10 minutes. The defensive about-face by Louisville surprised Florida, and in the end, Pitino, the wily teacher, once again schooled his adept and highly-accomplished student.
Kentucky vs fourth seed Louisville ( Saturday, 6:09 p.m) will be the equivalent of David versus Goliath – though David, led by Cardinal guard Peyton Siva, may have a slightly bigger slingshot this weekend – and the story lines are luscious. Pitino has coached and had success with both schools, and he is as charismatic and clever as his counterpart, Kentucky’s John Calipari. This will truly be the battle of a great offense against an innovative and versatile defense. Kentucky has great outside shooters, but the real battle will be in the trenches. If Louisville can hold off Kentucky’s offense around the arc, Pitino will likely go to a 2-3 zone defense (led by center Gorgui Dieng) to keep Wildcats center Anthony Davis and strong forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from dominating the scoring inside. Louisville also is very good at a full-court 1-2-1-1 “diamond” or 2-2-1 zone press. If this manages to slow down Kentucky’s offensive pace while staying out of foul trouble, the Cardinals may have something of a chance to advance. However, this is a tall order. Kentucky is so deep at all positions, and Louisville cannot offer a similar boast. Kentucky should move on to the national championship game.