Entering Final Four, all the pressure is on young favorite Kentucky
Theme of the tournament: Can Ohio State, Louisville or Kansas beat Kentucky?
Rick Pitino-led Louisville has a distinct psychological advantage over the Wildcats
Beating Ohio State, Kentucky in a three-night span is a tall order for the Jayhawks
Rick Pitino and John Calipari hate each other. Now that I have that out of the way, let's talk about the Final Four.
This NCAA tournament is about Kentucky and whether anybody can stop Kentucky. That seemed pretty clear two weeks ago, clearer a week ago, and is plainly obvious now. Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State all have a lot of fans, of course, and those fans will watch primarily to see if their team can win the national title. The rest of us want to know if somebody can beat Kentucky.
The Wildcats have the best team, far and away the best talent, and a very good coach, no matter what you think of him. Still, do you think we can turn the hype switch off for a minute? People are openly wondering whether the Wildcats could beat a lousy NBA team and whether they're the best college team of the last 20 years. By tipoff Saturday, we'll be asking whether LeBron James would be their sixth man or their seventh.
Forget the hype. Of course the Wildcats can lose. I'm not saying they will. But they can.
It's true that Kentucky has won every game in this tournament by double digits. But in the two games before that, the Wildcats beat Florida by three and lost to Vanderbilt. Also, Indiana gave Kentucky a very tough game last week (to my surprise) and only lost by 12 because Kentucky made a ridiculous 35-of-37 free throws (Indiana made 13-of-17).
Is Kentucky better than the 1991 UNLV team, which was undefeated before losing to Duke in the Final Four? Is Kentucky better than the 1999 Duke team, which dominated almost everybody before losing to Connecticut in the title game? Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are amazing, but are they better than Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who made two Final Fours with Houston but never won a title?
Ohio State, Louisville and Kansas are all capable of beating Kentucky, for various reasons. I will get to those reasons in a moment, but first, we must ask the question they are asking in Kentucky:
"Do you think Kentucky-Louisville is the biggest rivalry in sports, or do I have to punch you in the face?
As you have probably heard, a fight broke out between a Kentucky fan and a Louisville fan at a dialysis clinic this week. And this got me thinking about whether any reasonable person even wants their rivalry to be the "nastiest" rivalry in sports.
I mean, I love rivalries. I love Duke-Carolina and Michigan-Ohio State and Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants and Packers-Bears and Original Six rivalries and Clemson-South Carolina and ... well, pretty much all of them, down to the adorable little ones like Harvard-Yale and Williams-Amherst. And I always enjoyed the arguments about which rivalry is the best. But if you have to assault other people to prove your rivalry is awesome, I'm just not sure that is worth it.
Anyway, Louisville gets the first shot at Kentucky on Saturday. I can't say I love the Cardinals' chances, but they do have an alltime great coach (Rick Pitino) and one of the great psychological advantages in NCAA tournament history. I can't remember the last time a team and a coach had as much at stake in one Final Four game as Kentucky and Calipari do Saturday. If the Wildcats lose to Pitino and an undermanned Louisville team, then what Pitino said last weekend is absolutely true: The UK diehards will lose their minds.
Many will turn on Calipari. They will question the whole one-and-done method. Pitino rebuilt the program from the ashes in the '90s and was beloved for it, and even he felt serious pressure until he won a national title. It would be worse for Calipari. And maybe Kentucky will win by 20 anyway, but if Louisville is up two with eight minutes left, the Kentucky freshmen could be really tense in the huddle.
Against Michigan State last week, Louisville played the kind of defense that could beat Kentucky -- fierce on-the-ball pressure, disciplined zone, forcing tough shots, limiting the opponent's running game. The Cardinals aren't very good at actually putting the ball in the basket, which is sort of important. That is why I don't love their chances. But hey, maybe nutty Cardinals guard Russ Smith will forget that the game matters and just drain 30-footers for his own amusement.
The other game Saturday is of greater interest outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Kansas and Ohio State played in December, but you can throw that game out, or recycle it, or compost it -- whatever your socially conscious heart desires. Ohio State star Jared Sullinger didn't play in that game. The Jayhawks' win has no bearing on this one.
This may be Bill Self's most likable Kansas team -- it doesn't feel like they are just winning on talent. Even the requisite NBA lottery pick, Thomas Robinson, didn't blossom until he was a junior, and plays like he has to work for every basket he gets.
The problem is that Kansas has the toughest task in this Final Four -- beating Ohio State and Kentucky in a three-night span. And I fear that if Kansas plays Kentucky, the Jayhawks will try to run with the Wildcats, and then they will look up and realize they are down 94-50 and it's only halftime.
The Buckeyes have the second-most talent in the Final Four and one distinct advantage: They don't have to run to win. When superior talent plays a great half-court game, championships often follow. The Buckeyes match up better with Kentucky than any team left. Point guard Aaron Craft, the nation's best perimeter defender, could harass Kentucky's inexperienced guards. Sullinger could get Davis in foul trouble. Deshaun Thomas should have no problem matching Kentucky's athleticism.
I keep thinking back to that 1991 UNLV team. The Rebels seemed to have way more talent than everybody else. UNLV had Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, who would all be high NBA picks. But the Duke team that beat the Rebels turned out to have as much talent -- Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were all high NBA picks, too.
We may look back in 10 years and wonder why we thought a team with Sullinger, Thomas, Craft and William Buford was destined to lose. Ohio State has the best chance of beating Kentucky, because of its overall talent level, its matchup advantages, its style of play, and the fact that Kentucky's freshmen would only have one day to prepare. I'm not saying the Buckeyes would beat Kentucky. But I'd love to see them try.
SI Now: Should NCAA Student Athletes be treated as pros?
SI Now: What role will Tim Tebow fill for the Patriots?