Ten burning questions heading into Saturday's Final Four showdowns
The one achievement that's missing from John Calipari's resume is a national title
Can Louisville beat Kentucky on Saturday? With an elite defense, it certainly can
OSU-Kansas will be the closer, more aesthetically appealing matchup on Saturday
Are you the type who turns on Super Bowl coverage for the first time 10 minutes before the actual game? Then we have something for you. Forget having to look back through four days of analysis and measured hype. Just review these 10 Burning Questions sometime before Saturday's tip and you'll be fully prepared for any semifinal scenario that could arise.
1. Is this John Calipari's biggest game as a coach?
We'll assume that we live in the real world, not the NCAA's world, so this is Cal's fourth Final Four appearance. He's coached in a national title game. He's coached (unsuccessfully) in the NBA. A championship is the one missing piece from his resume, so maybe Monday night would be bigger if he gets there (especially if it's against Bill Self in a 2008 rematch), but there can't have been a game with a wider range of legacy possibilities at stake. Everything from "win a first title by going through Indiana, Louisville/Pitino and Self" to "the UK coach who lost to Louisville in the Final Four" is in play in what one of my Twitter followers spectacularly called the Kentucky Derby (pronounced "darby" in this rivalry context gleaned from world soccer).
2. What's at stake for Pitino and Louisville?
Other than toppling "big brother" and denying Cal his first title, with the school where Pitino won his crown and should be a demigod had he not turned Judas? I said on Twitter earlier this week that Pitino was rolling with house money now. To an extent, it's true. Cardinals fans must be thrilled with a Big East tournament title and a Final Four from this team. Kentucky's presence, though, moves the goal posts. The Wildcats already are one of the few programs that outstrips Louisville for achievement. They control the buzz in the Commonwealth. Can you really let them hang this over you, too? An upset here provides Cards fans with an easy retort in any debate: "Yeah, but we beat you when it mattered." See: United States 2, Mexico 0 (World Cup 2002).
3. Can Louisville actually win the game?
The simple answer is yes. Even 9-point underdogs on a neutral floor will win 15-20 percent of the time. The more nuanced answer is also yes. The regular-season score was closer than the game seemed thanks to a couple of late Cardinals threes, but they did manage to hold UK to its lowest points-per-possession mark of the season (only the SEC quarterfinal with LSU was even close). We all know how suspect Louisville's offense can be, but the Cardinals have won eight straight with only two above-average offensive games in that span. The bigger secret is Kentucky's defense has started to leak. Four of the Cats' last six opponents have been well above average in PPP against them. So far, UK's offense has masked that. Will it again against Louisville's elite D?
4. Should you root for Louisville to win the game?
Depends on your appetite for schadenfreude and scandal. Much like in 1991, you'd have a situation where the best team doesn't even make the title game, making that a relative yawner and condemning it to the history books alongside USA-Finland (1980 Olympic hockey) and 2004 Boston-St. Louis (World Series) as "finals" that you don't remember because of what happened before it. If you're picking between coaches, Cal has a shady rep, but the things he's actually been dinged for have clearly been surpassed by other programs. Shoot, other Kentucky coaches have more egregious violations. He also doesn't have a sordid restaurant sex/alleged abortion/equipment manager marries the victim/extortion suit in his personal dossier. Both are alleged to have done some disagreeable things early in their careers to get ahead, too. Let's not exactly paint this as good vs. evil.
5. Wait, there's another game on Saturday?
Yeah, you wouldn't know it from the week's worth of hype, but Kansas and Ohio State have their own rematch (this time with Sullinger) for some pretty big stakes. And there are reasons CBS tabbed this as the prime time matchup: This one has two big-base national programs and by all rights will be the closer and more aesthetically appealing game. There are so many juicy angles to this one.
6. Like what?
We get to see the Sullinger-Robinson showdown, even if Jeff Withey and Deshaun Thomas get involved more than you'd like to see as a neutral. We also get to see how many turnovers Tyshawn Taylor can commit being guarded by Aaron Craft (while still somehow having a 20-point game). Each of the coaches has a big mark in play. Thad Matta can trump Cal and win his first crown, capping off an impressive last six seasons at the helm in Columbus, while Bill Self can take another step toward the Pantheon with a second title. That's a big differentiator. When you join a list that includes Dean Smith, Roy Williams (who you just vanquished in a KU pride match) and Mister Iba, you're in elite company. We may also get to see the fewest subs ever in a Final Four game and all 10 starters play about 37 minutes.
7. Can either team beat Kentucky?
Ohio State definitely can, but we may never find out as Kansas certainly can beat Ohio State. The Jayhawks could have "one of those nights" and beat the Wildcats, but their guards would have to be outstanding, and outstanding doesn't mean 0-17 from the three like Taylor is in the NCAAs so far (and just 6-11 from the line).
8. What's most likely to happen?
Vegas' odds imply it. Jeff Sagarin's four million simulations picks it. KenPom agrees with it. The most likely combination (occurring 40-45 percent of the time) Monday night is Kentucky-Ohio State, which would be a fascinating matchup involving two teams with a lot of weapons.
9. Is that your prediction?
Since it worked out so well last week, let's toss a couple more darts at the board and say yes. Kentucky 72, Louisville 61 and Ohio State 79, Kansas 73.
10. What could stop that from happening?
Cal feels the pressure of the moment, is tight, screams at every UK player twice ... before the opening tip. A Louisville fan wires Anthony Davis $200 and "just happens" to find the receipt "in the garbage, on the floor" at a New Orleans convenience store. The refs from Ohio State-Syracuse DQ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague in four minutes. Sully sees T-Rob and his back flares up again. Aaron Craft gets bored shadowing Taylor and tries to check Withey in the post. William Buford makes his first two shots, is feeling it, finishes 2 for 14. Lenzelle Smith turns into Russ Smith.
Or Louisville and Kansas are worthy Final Four teams, play well and nab an upset. That explanation certainly is possible, but finding a local Western Union couldn't hurt their chances, right?
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