There are no mystery guests at this Final Four. The march of the mid-majors has, at least for this round of March Madness, been halted. Convening under the Superdome roof will be four programs from power conferences, four teams that began the season ranked in the top 13 of The Associated Press poll.
It’s the first time since 2007 — when Florida, Ohio State, UCLA and Georgetown gathered at the Georgia Dome — that a Final Four is guaranteed to produce a national champ that has been a national champ. These four schools have claimed 13 NCAA titles.
For all the charm that mid-majors bring, there’s also a satisfaction that comes from seeing Big Names in Big Games. This Final Four is so stacked that the semifinal carrying a frothing subplot — Kentucky against Louisville as coached by Rick Pitino, who once coached Kentucky — isn’t even regarded as the prime-time game.
Much ink has been spilled over this Bluegrass Lollapalooza, and there was nearly Bluegrass blood spilled — a Louisville rooter and a Kentucky backer went to Fist City this week in, of all places, a dialysis clinic in Georgetown, Ky. (For the record, a 71-year-old Cardinal supporter socked a 68-year-old ‘Cat fan. No charges were filed.) But the harder you look at this pairing — the first Final Four matchup of teams from the same state since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in the 1962 title game — the less it promises.
This isn’t like the 1983 Mideast Regional final, when Louisville and Kentucky met for the first time in 24 years. These teams play each other every season now, and Kentucky tends to win. The Wildcats have taken six of the past eight games, and the exceptions came during the brief coaching tenure of the overmatched Billy Gillispie. Since John Calipari took over in Lexington, his teams haven’t lost to U of L. (Pitino is 4-7 against Kentucky, FYI.)
There’s a chance Louisville will throw up a zone — Pitino did this against Georgia Tech to great effect in the 2005 NCAA — and Kentucky will start missing from the perimeter and get frazzled and be undone by its youth. But Louisville doesn’t figure to score many points itself, and the Wildcats’ talent is clearly superior. (Not just to Louisville’s. To everybody’s.) At last check, Vegas has installed Kentucky as an 8 1/2-point favorite. That sounds about right.
Ohio State-Kansas should be closer. The Jayhawks’ Thomas Robinson was the player-of-the-year frontrunner until Kentucky’s Anthony Davis made his late push, and the Buckeyes’ Jared Sullinger was considered one of the preseason favorites for that honor. Kansas defeated Ohio State by 11 points in Lawrence in December, but that game bears an asterisk: Because of back spasms, Sullinger didn’t play.
It became fashionable in some circles (this one included) to write off Ohio State after home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes in the Big Dance have been different from those seen in February. There’s a sense of purpose, which only figures: In 2010 Ohio State was seeded No. 1 and had the national player of the year in Evan Turner, but was upset in the Sweet 16 by Tennessee; last year the Buckeyes, without Turner but again a No. 1 seed, lost in the same round to Kentucky.
Ohio State’s only NCAA title came in 1960 — the biggest Buckeyes were Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek; Bobby Knight was a sub — and that 51-year gap stands as an ongoing incongruity. With all its resources, Ohio State has made only three Final Four runs since 1968. (The Mike Redd-Scoonie Penn team lost to UConn in the 1999 semis; the Greg Oden-Mike Conley Jr. one-and-done crew fell to Florida in the 2007 final.)
There’s only team that has a real shot against Kentucky, and that’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes should outlast Kansas — Robinson aside, this isn’t a particularly gifted bunch of Jayhawks, and point guard Tyshawn Taylor has a penchant for keeping both teams in the game — and advance to Monday’s final.
Strange things happen when a championship game is played in New Orleans. Georgetown’s Fred Brown passed to North Carolina’s James Worthy in 1982. Chris Webber called a timeout Michigan didn’t have in 1993. Kansas missed 18 of 30 free throws in 2003. It wouldn’t be a massive upset — an N.C. State over Houston — if Ohio State beat Kentucky. It would, however, be a surprise. Even in a Final Four of regal cloth, the Big Blue seems a cut above.
By Mark Bradley