NCAA BK

UK will cut down nets in New Orleans

Who's the team to beat? Who'll fall flat? Crispin's Final Four preview.
Who's the team to beat? Who'll fall flat? Crispin's Final Four preview.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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Is it too late for the NCAA selection committee to fiddle with the brackets? Say, flip Ohio State and Louisville from one side of the bracket to the other? Could the Lords of College Basketball make it so we could feasibly have a Kentucky-Louisville title game a week from now in New Orleans?

Like in "The Hunger Games," the Hollywood teen movie of the moment, when the game master changes the rules at the last minute to make things more exciting for the masses.

Because as things stand, the rivalry-fueled game that will have all the excitement and anticipation of the national championship game will be happening Saturday, when Kentucky and Louisville battle it out to get a shot to play next Monday night. How sweet it would be if instead that could be the national championship game Monday: two schools located an 80-mile trek from each other on Interstate 64, with a great in-state rivalry and their slick, oft-hated coaches, going for all the marbles in a Bluegrass Battle for the ages.

Yes, it would be sweet, wouldn’t it? But rules are rules, and so what college basketball fans will have to settle for (if you want to call it that) will instead be a Battle of the Bluebloods at the Superdome next week, Kentucky versus Kansas, a program in its 15th Final Four versus a program in its 14th. And the bluer blood (Kentucky, of course, with its five future first-round NBA picks) will run away with John Calipari’s first title.

A pretty sweet second choice.

No, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to crown Calipari’s Kentucky squad as national-champions-to-be. This is one of the most talented college basketball teams in a long time, ranked No. 1 for all but a few weeks this season, and it doesn’t seem like anything is going to get between Anthony Davis and his title before he runs off to NBA riches.

But Kansas? A legitimate shot at winning it all?

That is something that, several months ago, we did not expect.

This Kansas team making the Final Four might be the most masterful coaching job of Bill Self’s career, and ought to convince the few who wouldn’t name him as one of the finest college coaches in the country that Self belongs. The Jayhawks were ranked 13th before the season, and all the talk was about how they lacked any depth. This team has one all-world talent, the hulking rebound machine Thomas Robinson, who ought to put on a show when facing his doppleganger, the hulking Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, on Saturday.

But aside from Robinson, Kansas is filled with a bunch of talented but unreliable projects that Self has coaxed into playing their best down the stretch, especially during this tournament. Seven-foot center Jeff Withey, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, has developed into one of the best shot blockers around, with 10 stuffs against North Carolina State in the Sweet 16. Guard Tyshawn Taylor has changed the storyline of his college career the past couple months, maturing from a mercurial talent whose mistake-prone nature kept Jayhawks fans on edge into the reliable heart that makes this team tick. Taylor dropped 22 points and five assists against North Carolina in the Elite Eight, adding five steals to an impressive stat line.

So, they’ll beat Ohio State and advance to the title game?

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We've got all the best photos as Kentucky and Kansas move on to New Orleans with victories in the NCAA tourney's Elite Eight.

Yep. Because their weaknesses match. Like Kansas’ depth is suspect, so is Ohio State’s. And just like Kansas’ players have been dubbed as sometimes unreliable, so have Ohio State’s. Sullinger, a likely lottery pick, can disappear for large stretches — check his eight-point, six-rebound performance in a February loss to Wisconsin. The Round Mound Jr. takes heaps of criticism, yet he still averages nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds. Sure, he’ll be motivated to beat Kansas, especially since he returned for this year with the specific goal of winning it all.

“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn't good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature — we heard it all,” Sullinger said. “When we was going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill … We know hopefully it's not our last game, so we're just trying to play hard and play smart, and not going down to New Orleans for a vacation, it's a business trip.”

At least until Monday night, when they’ll be sipping Hurricanes in the French Quarter as the Wildcats maul the Jayhawks.

This is assuming the Wildcats make it past Louisville. Seems like an easy bet.

Louisville lost four of six to end the regular season, but has since won eight in a row, sweeping through the Big East tournament and squeaking past Florida to make the Final Four. Gorgui Dieng is a massive presence inside, and Peyton Siva’s confidence keeps growing, with only one turnover to eight assists in beating Florida. And nothing would be sweeter than for head coach Rick Pitino to upset his former employer.

Ain’t gonna happen.

Because at some point, talent wins out. And this year, talent looks like this: Davis, the best player in college basketball as a freshman. And freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who averages only 11.8 points for Kentucky yet still is projected as a top-five NBA pick. And sophomore guard Doron Lamb, averaging 13 points and projecting as a first-round pick, and sophomore forward Terrence Jones, averaging 13 points and seven rebounds and projecting as a first-round pick, and sophomore point guard Marquis Teague, projecting as a first-round pick, and....

“We know it's going to be a good game (against Louisville),” said Darius Miller, a senior — senior! — guard for the Wildcats, who projects to be a second-round pick. “We played them once before. It was a really close game. They did a great job with us. Everyone expects it to be a great game.”

“We're playing a basketball game. Believe me, we will not change,” Calipari said. “The drama of the game will be on the staff, but I don't have many Kentucky players on my team. They don't know all that stuff.”

Which is too bad.

We all ought to get to know all that stuff about this wonderful in-state rivalry. We’ll get to witness it on Saturday, but it’s a shame it can’t wait until Monday.

Oh well. Rules are rules. Kentucky will win the Battle of the Bluegrass, and then it’ll win the Battle of the Bluebloods, and Calipari will get to cut down his first national championship net.

You better believe it’ll be sweet.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Ohio State, Kentucky, Ohio, Kansas, Jared Sullinger

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