Can we all be honest here for a second?
While it’s been cute having Butler and VCU in the Final Four the last few years, can’t we all agree that there’s something surprisingly refreshing about having four, big-time name programs playing this weekend? With all due respect to Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, give me the names, faces and programs I’m familiar with over the ones that I had never heard of any day. It makes this week better. It makes for better sports talk radio, more compelling online content and better bar room debates. If that makes me a college basketball elitist, so be it. But I’d rather see a Kentucky or Kansas playing for a title over a Butler any day of the week. And I know I’m not alone. (Sorry Bulldogs fans, it’s true).
Anyway enough blabbing, and let’s get to the picks. The college basketball season only has three games left. And it’s time to talk some hoops.
Louisville vs. Kentucky: Saturday, 6:09 p.m. EST
You know what the most ironic thing about Saturday’s showdown between Louisville-Kentucky is? It’s that we’ve spent so much time talking about this rivalry itself this week- how intense it is, how much these fans despise each other, and all the other goofy sub-stories (yes, I’m talking to you, crazy dialysis patients)- that somehow, we’ve kind of sorta forgotten there’s a basketball game to be played. Crazy I know. But of all the articles you’ve read, and talk radio you’ve heard the last few days, how much has actually been focused on Saturday’s game itself. Not much that I can find.
Which is why I’m here.
To start things off, let’s go back to the game these two played in December. Remember that one? The game at Rupp Arena? On New Year’s Eve? A seven-point Kentucky win? Good. Now take your trusted Men in Black mind-eraser, and eliminate every memory you have of that game. That game meant nothing. These teams couldn’t be any more different than they were then. Heck, Rick Pitino and John Calipari will exchange secret Santa gifts before we’re able to take any big picture points out of December’s matchup between the two programs.
Let’s start with Louisville, and let me start by making a confession: I’ve watched every game of the Cardinals March run, and am still not totally sure when things began to change for them. I know some people (like Mark Ennis on my podcast Tuesday) said that things really got rolling against Marquette in the Big East Tournament. Others think that the Michigan State game a week ago was the turning point. Again, I’m not sure, but what I can tell you is this: Louisville is a different team both in a basketball sense, and a toughness sense than they were a month ago, or five months ago, and because of it they’re going to come to play on Saturday. For anyone who thinks this is going to be a Big Blue cakewalk, it isn’t going to happen.
Anyway, it’s no secret that the change in Louisville starts on the defensive end. Many have said that this is college basketball’s best defensive team over the last few weeks, and well, they aren’t lying.
I hate to use stats to prove my point, but in this case it seems appropriate… if only because Louisville has simply been outstanding defensively of late. Since the start of the Big East Tournament they have allowed just 56 points per game, a staggering number in its own right, but even more impressive when you consider the following:
1. That number skews a bit high when you remember that Florida rode a crazy-hot first half shooting streak to score 68 points against the Cardinals in the Elite Eight. Only 27 of those points came after halftime.
2. Two of Louisville’s best defensive performances have come against Michigan State and Cincinnati, arguably the two best teams they’ve played in this stretch. Both teams were held to 44 points apiece, which isn’t bad when you remember that each ended their season in the Sweet 16.
3. During the last 10 games, the only time Louisville has allowed more than 70 points came against Marquette in the Big East Tournament, and that was only because the Golden Eagles made it a priority to try and speed up Louisville. Louisville still won by double digits.
So again, to anyone who thinks that UK is going to breeze through this one, well, I polite fully disagree. Not only has Kentucky not played a defensive team this good in the tournament, I don’t know if they’ve played a team this good defensively all year.
At the same time, I also don’t know if matters. I just don’t see any way Kentucky loses this game.
Given that I just used a bunch of stats to build my point on Louisville, I should probably do the same with Kentucky, but I’m not going to waste anyone’s time. No stat can capture exactly what Kentucky does; the force of nature they’ve become, or the way they simply overwhelm opponents from start to finish.
And what’s most impressive to me is that the trait I just mentioned above- the ability to step on the opponent’s throat- isn’t limited to one player, but instead has infected the whole team. Every single guy on Kentucky’s roster has the killer instinct. Everybody is mentally tough. Everybody is ready to step up when their number is called.
To put it in a different way, think of it like this: Can we all agree that for Louisville to win Saturday, they’ll need a big performance from Peyton Siva? Same with Kansas and Thomas Robinson or Ohio State and Jared Sullinger? No matter how we feel about the games, we can all agree on that, right?
Well who exactly has to have a good game for Kentucky? The initial, gut reaction would be Davis, but remember, it was just two games ago against Indiana where he was limited by fouls. Well, Kentucky was just fine without him. The Wildcats scored 102 points, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had his best game in weeks, and Kentucky rolled. Against Iowa State, it was the same story, but different guys. Instead of Kidd-Gilchrist, it was Marquis Teague and Darius Miller, and against Baylor, Terrence Jones did all the little things needed to win. Kentucky isn’t a collection of talented individuals, but a team in every sense of the word.
I’ve only got one more thing on the game itself, and that’s this: I know a lot has been discussed this week about the “pressure” on Kentucky. I don’t need to get into details here (if only to spare the health and well-being of every Kentucky fan reading), but we all know what that pressure is. There isn’t a team in the country that wants to get this close to a title and not win it, of course. Even worse, nobody wants to be this close to a title and lose… to your biggest rival as an overwhelming favorite.
Well, I’ve got good news Kentucky fans: You shouldn’t be worried. You know why? Because while the “pressure” is a fun talking point for us in the media, or a fun topic for Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to yell at each other about on TV, guess who isn’t affected by all the hype surrounding this game at all? The players themselves.
Seriously, I’ve spent a lot of time around athletes in my day (especially college-aged), and they’re the definition of the old phrase that “ignorance is bliss.” These guys have a lot more on their plates than you and I do; they play basketball, study for tests, hang out with girls, text, go to class, meet with tutors, hang out with girls and play video games. You know what they don’t do? Stalk message boards, listen to sports talk radio and read all this stuff online. Sure, the game obviously matters to them. I’m just not sure all the ancillary hype does.
Kentucky will play for a title Monday night.
Kentucky 74, Louisville 68
Kansas vs. Ohio State: Saturday, 8:49 p.m.
And oh, in case you hadn’t heard, yes, there actually is another game being played this weekend. A couple clubs named Kansas and Ohio State? Ever heard of them?
The more I look at this one, the more I think that the zebras will have a bigger impact here than they will in Game 1. The truth is that Kentucky and Louisville have proven adept at playing in both the half-court and open-court, and have both survived long stretches with their best players in foul trouble (Anthony Davis against Indiana, Peyton Siva against Florida), but Ohio State and Kansas are two completely different stories. If the game is free-flowing and loosely called, I like the Jayhawks. But if every bump in the paint is called one way or the other, well, Jared Sullinger might have 40 points by halftime.
Anyway, when breaking this all down, let’s start with the Jayhawks, because I do feel like there’s a bit of a misnomer floating around about them. All I’ve heard all tournament is how “lucky” they are, and in a way that’s true. Yes, they were “lucky” to survive Purdue, and to a smaller degree NC State and North Carolina as well.
At the same time, let’s not get this twisted: These aren’t your daddy’s Kansas Jayhawks either. They’re not the uber-talented, minor league NBA team that they’ve been in the past, but instead a group whose sum is significantly greater than their parts. Looking at their roster, who besides Thomas Robinson is a sure-fire NBA players? I can’t find one. So to call them “lucky” is factually incorrect. It takes more than luck to beat two teams in the last two games (North Carolina and NC State) that have more actual talent than you.
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, this is the game where Kansas’ lack of talent will catch up with them.
The truth is that Ohio State is in fact a vulnerable team. In the same way that I can’t function when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the Buckeyes can’t do a darn thing when they’re hit with length and athleticism defensively. It’s no secret that it was Kentucky’s length that killed them in the Sweet 16 last year, and why I think they would’ve struggled had they faced Florida State in the tournament this year. It’s also why Ohio State’s best perimeter player William Buford has gone just 4 of 20 in his last two games. There are just certain defenders that he simply can’t get his shot off against.
Well, when it comes to Saturday’s game, who on Kansas is going to slow Buford down? Tyshawn Taylor? Well, I suspect he’ll guard Aaron Craft, meaning that leaves Elijah Johnson who to Buford. I can’t imagine a better matchup for him, or a better game for him to break out of his recent slump.
Meanwhile in the paint, even if Thomas Robinson can limit Jared Sullinger, the x-factor to me is still going to be DeShaun Thomas. He had 19 points the first time these two teams played, and has only gotten better since. To which I ask, who is going to guard him? Thomas is too quick and perimeter-oriented for Jeff Withey, and too strong for any of the Jayhawks guards. Kansas lacks that true 6’6, 6’7 wing that can disrupt what he’s trying to do. Just about the only option would be to slide Thomas Robinson over to him, which would leave Jared Sullinger alone in the paint Jared Sullinger-ish things. Poor Bill Self is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
When the brackets were revealed, I picked a Kentucky-Kansas final, but now that the Final Four matchups are set, I can’t in good faith pick the Jayhawks Saturday night. Kansas is a great team. They had a great season. But this is a terrible matchup for them.
Ohio State 71, Kansas 66
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