Bill Koch, National Columnist
Bourbon Street beckons for this year’s first two Final Four qualifiers, as Louisville, Florida, Syracuse and Ohio State will all be battling for their place in the Superdome when they tip off today.
The Cardinals and Gators square off in the West Region final, a section of the bracket where the chalk was erased early and often. The Orange and the Buckeyes lived up to their respective No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and will meet in an East Region final that pits traditional heavyweights from two of the nation’s premier conferences. Let’s take a look at each matchup and see who is about to punch a ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season.
No. 4 Louisville (29-9) vs. No. 7 Florida (26-10)
Teacher and student face off in this one, as Louisville coach Rick Pitino goes head-to-head with the man who helped bring him to prominence on the sidelines in Florida coach Billy Donovan. Pitino and Donovan teamed up 25 years ago as coach and player to lead underdog Providence to the Final Four, and Pitino helped launch Donovan’s coaching career by taking him on as an assistant at Kentucky in the 1990s. Both men will be relishing the opportunity to capture another national championship, with Pitino in search of his second and Donovan bidding for his third.
Louisville’s brand of defensive menace reached new heights in a 57-44 victory over Michigan State on Thursday, as the Cardinals forced 15 turnovers and held the Spartans to a woeful 28.6 percent from the field. Freshman wing Chane Behanan continued his emergence with a game-high 15 points and nine rebounds and center Gorgui Dieng dominated the paint with nine rebounds and seven blocked shots while playing all 40 minutes. Louisville was able to mask its offensive struggles for the fourth straight game – the Cardinals are averaging just 58.8 points in that span – and will need Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric to knock down some shots from the perimeter against a swarming Florida defense that is allowing just 51 points per game through its three-game NCAA run.
The Gators have been the most ruthless team in the field thus far, chewing up and spitting out their opponents thanks to waves of talent that is peaking at the right time. Trendy Final Four pick Marquette was the latest victim in a 68-58 mugging on Thursday, as Florida held Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom to matching 5-for-15 nights from the field. The Gators’ ability to defend the paint and the perimeter while outrebounding each of their three opponents has made up for their own offensive troubles – specifically, an over-reliance on 3-point shooting. Florida was just 7-for-27 against the undersized Golden Eagles, with superb freshman guard Bradley Beal the lone player willing to attack the rim. Beal was rewarded with a game-high 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting and has the potential to be the best player on the floor again in the matchup with Louisville. We think Beal will deliver again and help the student give the teacher a painful lesson.
The pick – Florida
No. 1 Syracuse (34-2) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (30-7)
The Orange dodged Wisconsin’s bid to oust a second No. 1 seed on Thursday when Jordan Taylor’s 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short, giving Syracuse a 64-63 victory in what was the most crisply-played game of the Sweet 16. The two teams combined for just 12 turnovers and were a sizzling 19-for-36 from beyond the arc, with the Badgers pouring in 14 3-pointers while gashing the patented Orange 2-3 zone.
Syracuse’s excellent shot selection put coach Jim Boeheim one victory from his fourth Final Four, as Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters combined to go 22-for-35 from the field while all finishing in double figures. The Orange will need to be just as efficient against a Buckeyes’ team that entered the NCAA field atop the defensive rankings in points allowed per possession.
Ohio State wore down in-state rival Cincinnati in an 81-66 grudge match, a game where Deshaun Thomas dominated the first half and Jared Sullinger finally started playing like the All-American that he is. Thomas exploded for 20 of his game-high 26 points in the opening 20 minutes and Sullinger overcame a pair of mediocre outings in his first two NCAA games with a 23-point, 11-rebound tour de force. Sullinger’s renewed dominance in the paint spells bad news for a Syracuse team that will finally be punished for the absence of center Fab Melo, and the Buckeyes’ 13 steals against the Bearcats serve notice that Syracuse’s perimeter players won’t have it easy either. Look for the Orange to finally meet their match.
The pick – Ohio State
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Boeheim photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Media Relations