Hawks, Mizzou both show Final Four potential

BY foxsports • January 21, 2012

The Kansas City area is no stranger to NCAA men's basketball dreams.

The Final Four has been played in the city a record 10 times. UCLA's legendary John Wooden won the first of UCLA's 11 titles in Municipal Auditorium. Danny Manning led KU to a stunning championship at Kemper Arena in 1988.

How fitting, then, in a year of finger-pointing and disharmony between Kansas and SEC-bound Missouri, that each local school has an honest-to-goodness shot at making the Final Four…and maybe even cutting down the nets.

Unless you believe Murray State, 20-0 and running roughshod in the Ohio Valley Conference, might seriously run the table, well…

Then all of college hoops' 2012 giants are beatable.

Syracuse was the last to fall Saturday night, losing at Notre Dame – primarily because the Orange's routine struggle to get rebounds finally caused fatal damage.

There are a handful of teams you might pick as Final Four favorites, and most of them are the usual suspects.

Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State, Duke – and Syracuse, of course.


We see surprise schools at the big dance from time to time, but hardly ever holding the big trophy.

No, by this time of year, the really elite teams have emerged, and one of them is likely to win the NCAA title.

What we learned on Saturday was that Kansas and Missouri each have just about as good a shot as anyone.

Better than most, in fact.

Mizzou finished off a disastrous week for previously undefeated Baylor, which got hammered a few days earlier at KU and then lost at home to the Tigers – an 89-88 game that really wasn't that close.

MU is 18-1 and it's no fluke.

Skeptics can quit scoffing at that four-guard lineup and imagining the Tigers can be overpowered by bigger, stronger teams.

That was a suspicion when MU got steamrolled by a physical K-State bunch, but Baylor has a huge and talented front line -- yet Mizzou took the Bears apart with excellence from its lone post player (Ricardo Ratliffe, career-high 27 points) and quick, slashing board work by guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon.

Missouri is built for post-season tournaments, too – almost impossible to handle in the match-up game, defensively quick and solid, experienced enough to be poised under pressure, and maybe best of all…with super free-throw shooters at every position.

There will be more tests down the road, but maybe that bad night in Manhattan was an aberration rather any sign of serious weakness.

Meanwhile, Kansas has morphed from what most preseason pundits considered Bill Self's weakest KU team into a team that could win it all and shock absolutely no one.

Coaches dream of having an inside-outside combination like Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.

All the pieces could be there – 7-foot Jeff Withey to complement Robinson down low, athletic all-court players like Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford cutting through the lane or spotting up for 3-balls – not to mention the pure confidence that comes simply from being KU, where winning is a habit.

Kansas doesn't have much depth, but one of the unique things about the NCAA tournament is that bench help – so critical during the regular season – rarely plays much of a role.

Self's guys also proved a serious point on Saturday, blowing a big lead at Texas, then recovering over the final couple of minutes to erase a four-point deficit and win 69-66.

They were down a point with 37 ticks remaining when Withey gathered up a Robinson shot that had been blocked and knocked it home – drawing a foul in the process and completing a three-point play.

Robinson later made one of two free throws with 8.8 seconds left to provide that final three-point lead, then the Hawks swarmed all over Texas marksman J'Coven Brown -- forcing a miss on his desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Sure, you could see some of KU's flaws in Austin – unlike midweek and that 92-74 beatdown of Baylor back in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks missed a boatload of easy shots around the rim, they struggled at the free-throw line (14 of 23, with Robinson 0-for-3 until hitting the big one in the final seconds) and there were stretches when they were outrun and out-hustled.

But just like Mizzou, the Hawks have grit to go with all their talent.

"To win on the road shows a lot of toughness," Taylor said. "Games with Texas are always dogfights."

Taylor's right about that.

The young Horns, with six freshman among their nine scholarship players, are only 12-7 – but they've lost six games by five points or less, and they're getting better every week.

Besides, running past overmatched opponents at The Phog isn't exactly grueling preparation for the post-season grind.

"We needed that," Self said of having to overcome adversity in Austin. "This is the best win we've had all year. I thought we were fortunate."

KU is a legitimate national contender because of its two superstars – but particularly Taylor, who has learned to control his vast talent and not let things speed up to the point where he's committing silly turnovers.

For a shot at winning it all, the Jayhawks need Johnson and Releford to shoot well on the nights teams swarm all over Taylor – and they must become as smart as they are dogged.

KU was cruising when it jumped out to an easy 15-point lead on Saturday, and it showed in the players' body language. It seemed like just another day at office, when suddenly Brown and big, strong Clint Chapman got hot and Texas rode momentum and noise all the way back into a very late lead.

But these Hawks aren't likely to feel laid back anywhere in the NCAA tournament.

With Syracuse, Baylor, Duke and North Carolina all losing this week, the polls will be reshuffled again – and both Missouri and Kansas should wind up among the nation's top five.

Neither looks a bit out of place.

Wouldn't it be something if these two schools, soon to be in different conferences with their rivalry potentially halted, BOTH wound up at the Final Four in Houston?

Don't laugh.

It could happen.

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