Bill Koch, National Columnist
Two thrilling regional finals are in the books with two more to play, as Louisville and Ohio State claimed their respective places in New Orleans next weekend thanks to a pair of gritty displays on Saturday.
The Cardinals snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a 72-68 battle with Florida and the Buckeyes overcame a few nervous moments down the stretch to hold off Syracuse, 77-70. Louisville awaits a familiar opponent in Kentucky or one gunning for its first national title in Baylor. Ohio State is opposite a college basketball blueblood either way, with North Carolina and Kansas squaring off. Let’s see who will be the last two teams to fill out the schedule as college basketball enters its final full week of the season.
No. 1 Kentucky (35-2) vs. No. 3 Baylor (30-7)
The Wildcats played almost a perfect offensive game against Indiana, avenging one of their two losses this season in a 102-90 masterpiece. Kentucky was solid from the field (48.4 percent), judicious in its use of the 3-point shot (just 10 attempts), dominant on the backboards (a 39-31 rebounding advantage), careful with the ball (a mere six turnovers) and brilliant from the free throw line, making a phenomenal 35 of 37 attempts. And all of that dominance came with Anthony Davis limited to nine points in just 25 minutes due to foul trouble. No team in college basketball this season can match the Wildcats when they are executing John Calipari’s dribble-drive offense like they did on Friday night.
The Bears broke to an 18-point lead and held Xavier at an arm’s length for the rest of the way to earn their own place in the Elite Eight, scoring a 75-70 victory over the Musketeers. Baylor has the pieces to make Kentucky sweat as long as Quincy Acy (team-high 20 points, game-high 15 rebounds), Pierre Jackson (16 points, game-high 10 assists) and Perry Jones III (14 points, 7-for-8 from the field) play at a high level for the second straight game. The fact that the Bears couldn’t ever really put Xavier away suggests that they might not have enough firepower to ever fully stop the Wildcats, but they’re certainly capable of being the first team in the NCAA Tournament to come within single digits of Kentucky’s stable of superstars.
This could be the toughest game that the Wildcats play in this tournament, and it’s not only because the Bears match up well athletically with Kentucky. Louisville’s victory over Florida on Saturday set the stage for a potential Bluegrass State showdown in the national semifinals, a blood feud that dates back generations and would be rich with subplots. Couple a matchup against the Cardinals with the aftermath of a revenge game against Indiana and you have what could be a very difficult psychological hurdle for the Wildcats to overcome. We’re about to see if Kentucky’s freshmen have the mental toughness to match their superb talent.
The pick – Kentucky
No. 1 North Carolina (32-5) vs. No. 2 Kansas (30-6)
The irony of the Tar Heels’ 73-65 overtime victory against Ohio is that Stilman White was the lone North Carolina player to finish without a turnover. Seven other Tar Heels combined for 24 of them in a game that was much closer than it ever would have been with Kendall Marshall in the lineup, but North Carolina’s third-string point guard wasn't the hindrance that many predicted he would be and wouldn’t have been the architect of the Tar Heels’ demise.
The goat horns would have gone to sophomore forward Harrison Barnes, the All-American who made a single field goal in regulation on his way to a 3-for-16, five-turnover, 12-point nightmare. Barnes has shot 50 percent in a game just once in his last nine, a span in which he’s connected on just 35.4 percent (45-for-127) of his attempts. It might be time for North Carolina to start running its offense more through Tyler Zeller, who bailed out the Tar Heels with a 20-point, 22-rebound double-double, or even 6-foot-7 wing Reggie Bullock, whose clutch 3-pointer late in regulation was the highlight of his 17-point, 10-rebound, five-assist effort. Failure to do so could result in the third No. 1 seed of this tournament to pack its bags before reaching New Orleans.
We’ve heard all about how this Jayhawks team isn’t nearly as talented as the last two. The response to the critics has been the same throughout the 2011-12 season – both of those clubs were dumped out of the NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seeds prior to reaching the Final Four courtesy of defeats to Northern Iowa and VCU, respectively. There’s a lot to be said for resiliency in this format and Kansas proved its mettle yet again with a 60-57 victory over pesky North Carolina State.
These Jayhawks are the type of team that can overcome some glaring difficulties against the Wolfpack – going 1-for-14 from 3-point range, shooting 37.5 percent from the field and yielding 20 offensive rebounds is just about always a recipe for disaster. Instead, Kansas dug deeper at the defensive end, holding a usually efficient North Carolina State team to just 28.4 percent shooting and forcing 14 turnovers against just 10 assists. It’s that sort of effort that will have the Tar Heels missing Marshall all the way into the offseason and will leave Roy Williams in agony at the hands of his old school.
The pick – Kansas
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Calipari photo courtesy of Kentucky Sports Information