Crowning a champ in the Crescent City

(Courtesy Kentucky Sports Information)
(Courtesy Kentucky Sports Information)

Bill Koch, National Columnist

College basketball’s premier doubleheader of the season is upon us.

The national semifinals will tip off on Saturday night at the Superdome, as Kentucky and Louisville will engage in their own form of Bluegrass State Armageddon to open the 2012 Final Four. Ohio State and Kansas follow in the nightcap to determine the second half of Monday night’s national championship game matchup.

It’s hard to gauge just how pressure-packed the next 80 minutes (or more) of the season will be. The Wildcats slipped past the Cardinals, 69-62, on New Year’s Eve while the Jayhawks took down the Buckeyes, 78-67, in a Dec. 10 game where Ohio State star Jared Sullinger was sidelined by back spasms.

Time for full disclosure – I had three of these four teams heading to New Orleans in my brackets. A scan of my previous columns throughout the NCAA Tournament should give away their respective identities. The two teams that I’m picking below were the opponents in my national championship game, and I’m not about to change my opinion now.

No. 1 Kentucky (36-2) vs. No. 4 Louisville (30-9)

Much has been made this week of Rick Pitino’s sixth trip to the Final Four, a return that comes 25 years after his first appearance with underdog Providence in 1987. That group of Friars was very similar to Pitino’s Cardinals – scrappy, overlooked and difficult to play against thanks to sheer force of will alone.

A glance at how that Providence team came to the end of the line, however, provides some insight into what Louisville is facing against rival Kentucky. The Friars ran into Big East rival Syracuse in the Final Four, a team featuring a lineup filled with future pros (Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas). The Orange held Providence to 36.3 percent shooting from the field, crushed the Friars on the glass by a 53-32 margin and shot 44 free throws against a defense that simply wasn’t athletic enough to stop Syracuse without fouling. Providence’s 77-63 loss was Pitino’s last game in charge – he bolted for the New York Knicks after just two seasons with the Friars and eventually returned to the college game with Kentucky in 1989.

Don’t expect Pitino to leave for the NBA after Saturday, but look for Louisville to suffer a similar fate. The Wildcats count the potential top two picks in the upcoming NBA Draft on their roster in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, go to the foul line at an alarming rate – 32 attempts per game in four NCAA contests – and feature long, lockdown defenders at every position. They’re a better, more dominant version of that Syracuse team, bad news for the current group of Cardinals.

Resisting the urge to fire away from 3-point range and forcing the ball to the rim has been the key to Kentucky’s dominance. The Wildcats have taken 311 more free throws than their opponents this season and hold a dominant average winning margin of 17.7 points per game when they attempt more free throws than 3-pointers. Repeating their 32-for-43 performance at the stripe against Louisville in the first encounter will have John Calipari one victory away from an elusive national title.

The pick – Kentucky

No. 2 Ohio State (31-7) vs. No. 2 Kansas (31-6)

Which Tyshawn Taylor will show up for the Jayhawks in this game? Will it be the player who had a combined 26 points in his first three NCAA Tournament games this season? Or will it be the dynamic game-changer who rolled up 22 points, five assists and five steals in an 80-67 victory over North Carolina in the Midwest Regional final?

It better be the latter version if Kansas hopes to advance, because Buckeyes’ guard Aaron Craft will eat Taylor for lunch if he’s anywhere less than his best. The Taylor who committed five or more turnovers in nine games this season represents easy pickings for Craft, who has piled up 13 steals in four NCAA games and terrorized opposing guards throughout.

Loyola was held to nine assists against 12 turnovers in Ohio State’s opening game. Gonzaga point man Kevin Pangos ended a superb freshman season with a 3-for-13 stinker as the Buckeyes rolled into the Sweet 16. Cincinnati’s quest for an in-state upset and a berth in the Elite Eight never got off the ground thanks to eight assists and 18 turnovers. Even Syracuse, which was a model of offensive efficiency throughout the season, could only muster the same numbers as the 15th-seeded Greyhounds in those two critical categories.

Factor in that Sullinger is healthy this time around, and the Jayhawks could be in real trouble. They only enjoyed a 31-30 advantage on the glass in the first meeting, and Ohio State’s offense will be balanced to the point where William Buford won’t take all the pressure onto his shoulders and go 8-for-23 from the field again. Thomas Robinson will need to produce an otherworldly performance in order for Kansas to survive this one.

The pick – Ohio State

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Buford photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics

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