It's only fitting that the best possible Final Four venue gets paired with two of the best Final Four games in recent history. Word is the streets of New Orleans are at their peak this weekend as the four schools travel down en mass.
If you thought the venom was bad during the BCS title game, expect things to be kicked up a notch (Emeril-style in honor of the Big Easy) with in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville in town. I’d peg over/under on the number of fights on Bourbon Street this weekend at 27.5. While there isn’t the same hate in the day’s second game, CBS made Ohio State and Kansas the late tilt because it was sure to produce ratings across the country. While we all love the Cinderella story of VCU and Butler from last year, it’s Final Fours like this that will be remembered 20 years from now.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Louisville
On paper, this doesn't look like much of a game. Kentucky is the vastly superior team which has dominated other schools all season. Last Sunday was the latest display, when they flipped the switch after an early deficit to Baylor and proceeded to run them out of the gym. Louisville's road to the Final Four hasn't been so easy. You could argue this is a less talented team than last year's group, who some, myself included, pegged for the Final Four. They play a lot of close games and have done well to win those in recent weeks. They’re currently riding a eight-game winning streak. The Cardinals may not have Kentucky's talent, but coach Rick Pitino has his players leaving everything on the floor. Before I get more into the analysis of this game, let it be known I think Kentucky should and will win as they did when these teams faced off earlier in the year. Louisville had some injuries back then, but Kentucky's youth has matured since that time as well.
The best chance Louisville has to win is to play their usual 2-3 matchup zone. Although the Cardinals went away from it to beat Florida, they can’t match Kentucky's athleticism. The Wildcats showed an inability to solve a zone when they played Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament. Since that Vandy zone was an unexpected coaching move, look for Pitino to mix up his defensive looks to keep Kentucky off-balance. Also look for Louisville to extend their full-court defense more than their usual token pressure. While Kentucky's point guard Marcus Teague has improved, he's still prone to turnovers.
The other question surrounding this game is will Kentucky and coach John Calipari be tight? They're clearly the more talented team and the expectation all year has been for them to win it all. They've done a good job playing loose this season, but now the lights are the brightest. Calipari still hasn't won a national title. Will the pressure get to him against his team's biggest rival? Calipari has had the most talented team on the floor in his final game of the last three seasons and walked away a loser. The nerves can't be ignored. You can tell Louisville is loose by the way Pitino has handled the press this week. His team is playing with house money and no expectations right now. Where does tightness affect you the most in a basketball game? When you need to show patience against full-court pressure or zone defense.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Kansas
The second game of the night is also a rematch from earlier in the season, but with a major caveat. The first meeting between these two teams was missing a big piece, literally, in the absence of 270-pound Jared Sullinger. That game can be thrown out the window given the impact Sullinger has on his team's ability to win. Ohio State was predicted to be a national title contender before the season started, so their role as the favorite in this game means they’re finally living up to expectations. It’s reminiscent of UConn’s run in 2004 after entering the tournament under similar circumstances.
I'd like to start out by congratulating Kansas for getting here. Few will argue this is Kansas' least-talented team in Bill Self's tenure. Perhaps the lack of pressure is the reason Self has done his greatest work. I always grind on Self for not meeting the expectation of his seeding, so I won't shy away from giving him credit now that this team has exceeded expectations. It almost fell apart against North Carolina last weekend, largely in part to Tyshawn Taylor. While he scored more points than he had in his previous three games, he still picks the worst moments to appear as Mr. Hyde. He takes some terrible shots and makes some really dumb turnovers that I’m sure take a few years off Self’s life.
Enter Aaron Craft stage left. Craft is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. (I won’t say the clear best so as not to offend the well-researched folk on Twitter who proclaim love for VCU’s Briante Weber.) The guy is on you’re a** for every minute he’s on the floor. That is likely to frustrate the sh*t out of Taylor and lead to more than a few agonizing moments for Jayhawk fans. Kansas would be well-served to open the door for Elijah Johnson to handle the rock more and let Taylor play off the ball. Johnson has clearly shown that he’s got the biggest pair on the Jayhawk team. He can handle the pressure.
On the other side of the ball, Kansas has shown they have no problem throwing a gimmick zone defense out there to stop an opponent when their man-to-man defense is struggling. Self pulled a triangle-and-two zone out of his a** against Purdue and North Carolina and it worked both times. The similarity between both of those opponents was a point guard who can’t shoot well and that’s Craft’s weakness as well. Thomas Robinson won’t be able to guard Deshaun Thomas outside of the paint and bringing Kevin Young on to guard Thomas would remove Jeff Withey from the floor. The major difference is that Thad Matta knows Self is willing to go to that defense and has had a whole week to prepare for it. If Ohio State is unable to score against that zone, then Matta will be fully responsible for his team’s offensive failure.
Vegas Best Bets
Louisville-Kentucky Under 136.5 – I never expect good shooting performances in domes as we saw with last year’s combined 34% shooting effort.
Ohio State (-2.5) over Kansas – Kansas has been on the verge of losing the last three games and now finally face a team who will make them pay for their mistakes.