Tradition, talent and plenty of tenacity will be on display in New Orleans as college basketball crowns its champion.
The Final Four is set, and powerhouses will converge on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in an attempt to add another championship chapter to their programs’ rich histories. Unlike recent years, though, this date has no room for Cinderella. The participants combine for 15 national titles, each with at least one. South Region champion Kentucky paces the field with seven and is favored to return to Lexington with reason to unfurl another banner at storied Rupp Arena.
But don’t scribble in the Wildcats for another shining moment just yet. The final steps of Kentucky’s journey will not be easy: This Final Four includes future NBA stars, some of the game’s biggest coaching names and multiple reasons to see how this blueblood battle will unfold.
Laissez les bons temps rouler.
Kentucky Wildcats (36-2)
With great skill comes high demand.
John Calipari’s team will carry championship expectations when it arrives in the Big Easy. Kentucky was the top overall seed going into the NCAA tournament and for good reason: The Wildcats routed No. 16 seed Western Kentucky (15 points), No. 8 seed Iowa State (16), No. 4 seed Indiana (12) and No. 3 seed Baylor (12) to win the South Region and reach their second consecutive Final Four. Although young, Kentucky is deep and skilled with only one inexplicable loss — a seven-point defeat to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament championship game — on its résumé.
Don’t count on Kentucky losing its edge on the large stage, either. Forward Anthony Davis (14.3 points per game) scored in double figures in all but one of the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament victories. Guard Doron Lamb (13.6) also netted at least 14 in helping his team sweep through foes in Louisville, Ky., and Atlanta.
Beyond his stout lineup, Calipari is due for a championship as well. He has led three previous teams to Final Fours — UMass in 1996, Memphis in 2008 and Kentucky last season — but has yet to cut down the nets.
Those near misses are history, though. This is his best chance to win it all. Kentucky has been one of the nation’s best since starting the season ranked second behind North Carolina. If the Wildcats play to their potential, they will give Calipari his first national championship memory.
Louisville Cardinals (30-9)
Louisville looked finished in the West Region final — then the Cardinals outscored seventh-seeded Florida by 15 points in the last 10 minutes to clinch their first Final Four berth since 2005. The comeback was an example of how dangerous Louisville can be in pressure situations under coach Rick Pitino, who will make his sixth Final Four appearance and second with the school.
In addition to strong coaching leadership, the fourth-seeded Cardinals have the star power to continue their late-season surge. They arrive in New Orleans as winners of their last eight games — the longest of any team. Guard Peyton Siva (a team-high 5.6 assists per game), center Gorgui Dieng (a team-high nine rebounds per game) and forward Chane Behanan (9.5 points per game) were all large reasons why Louisville survived an NCAA tournament run that included three games decided by seven points or fewer.
The Cardinals’ regular-season gauntlet should serve them well too. They finished a middling 10-8 in Big East Conference play before winning four straight to claim the league’s tournament title at Madison Square Garden. Earlier, on Dec. 31, they fell by seven points to Kentucky at Rupp Arena during a game in which guard Russ Smith scored a season-high 30.
That history should help Pitino make adjustments for a Final Four matchup between the heated in-state rivals Saturday. The Cardinals are hot – enough so that they should be confident that their streak can continue through championship night on April 2.
Ohio State Buckeyes (31-7)
Ohio State will go far as Jared Sullinger takes them. The good news for the Buckeyes? The hulking forward has more to prove.
Sullinger combined for 42 points and 18 rebounds in victories over sixth-seeded Cincinnati and top-seeded Syracuse in Boston to win the East Region. His matchup against Kansas forward Thomas Robinson on Saturday will give fans the showdown between two of the country’s best frontcourt talents, one that was absent when Sullinger sat out the Buckeyes’ 11-point loss Dec. 10 at Allen Fieldhouse because of back spasms. As a result, expect Sullinger to be hungry to assert himself against the National Player of the Year candidate.
Sullinger has been Ohio State’s top inside force all season, but the Buckeyes would not be making their second Final Four appearance under coach Thad Matta without forward Deshaun Thomas. Thomas scored a season-high 31 points in a victory over Loyola (Md.) in the second round. He also netted a game-high 26 in the victory over Cincinnati in the East Region semifinals.
Motivation can be a championship catalyst. Ohio State narrowly missed out on a No. 1 seed after losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament championship game. But the Buckeyes recovered to make the most of their path from the No. 2 slot. They look primed to advance even deeper.
Kansas Jayhawks (31-6)
Few outside Lawrence expected this Kansas team to reach its 14th Final Four in program history after suffering early losses to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson. But Bill Self added a signature moment to what could be his best coaching job in nine seasons at the school by ousting top-seeded North Carolina and former Jayhawks coach Roy Williams in the Midwest Region finals.
As the victory over North Carolina showed, second-seeded Kansas can win its sixth national championship because of scrappy defense. The Jayhawks tightened their half-court pressure in the second half Sunday on their way to forcing 10 turnovers against the Tar Heels. It continued a trend that pushed Kansas to its second regional championship in five years despite average offensive numbers.
Don’t mistake this collection of talent for previous editions under Self that suffered early NCAA tournament flameouts, though. These Jayhawks have surpassed expectations for most of the past three months. When guard Tyshawn Taylor is playing to his potential — as he did by scoring a tournament-high 22 points against North Carolina — Kansas is difficult to beat despite its lack of depth compared to recent years. Center Jeff Withey emerged in St. Louis as well, combining for 23 points and 13 blocks to help top UNC and No. 11 seed North Carolina State.
So why not believe Self will continue to produce magic? Kansas has already beat Ohio State this season and can learn from the early loss to Kentucky should they clash in the championship. After a gritty Midwest Region title, anything seems possible.