After two weeks of exhilarating games, we’re down to four teams — and what a four it is. All four are among college basketball’s most elite programs, with 49 Final Four appearances and 13 NCAA titles between them. While the Kentucky Wildcats will enter the final weekend as the favorite, all four schools have a legitimate chance to bring home the 2012 national title. Let’s look ahead and examine why each of these four squads might — or might not — win it all.
Why they’ll win: Last season’s edition of the Buckeyes entered the NCAA tournament as the overall No. 1 seed and looked primed to earn the school’s second national title. But a plucky Kentucky team sent them home early. This year, the same team, minus its best outside shooter, has made it two games further, into the Final Four. So what gives? Chemistry.
Ohio State has the right makeup for a long run in the tournament: a confident and highly competent point guard in Aaron Craft, secondary scorers capable of creating their own offense in Deshaun Thomas and William Buford, talent in the key role positions and a superstar in the paint in All-American Jared Sullinger. They’re also a year older and little wiser after the disappointment of last year. The Buckeyes coach, Thad Matta, has been here before, losing in the title game in 2007. Kansas will present a tough matchup of similar style: a bruising and talented big man and a willingness to grind it out. Thomas could be the difference for OSU. The sophomore shoots very well for his size and presents match-up problems for most teams.
Why they won’t: Sullinger is a wide body that plays mostly below the rim. He likes to bang but doesn’t block shots. That kind of play occasionally leads to foul trouble, and in three of the Buckeyes’ losses this year Sullinger had four fouls. Another factor when Ohio State struggles is outside shooting, something OSU lost when Jon Diebler graduated.
Craft is not a credible scoring threat from behind the arc and Buford can go cold, as he did in several of Ohio State’s losses.
Even if Sullinger and Thomas deliver in the Final Four, it will be important for the Buckeyes to get scoring from a third source — either Buford or Craft or perhaps one of their role players. While decent defensively, the Buckeyes aren’t a team that can shut you down for the full 40 minutes. In an up-and-down game, Ohio State may find itself unable to produce enough points.
Why they’ll win: This season’s Kansas team has far exceeded most observers’ predictions, and that’s mostly due to Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson, who has been dominant from the opening of the season. When the Jayhawks are on, their passion, energy and will are evident, and those stem directly from their star player. On the defensive end, center Jeff Withey has become one of the nation’s best, and he allows the Kansas perimeter defenders to gamble because he can erase opponents’ drives.
Thomas rarely, if ever, has a bad night. And like former KU forward Danny Manning, now an assistant at his alma mater, Robinson has the stuff to carry a team. If enigmatic guard Tyshawn Taylor and defensive ace Elijah Johnson are hitting jumpers, the Jayhawks become a very hard team to beat because of their defensive intensity.
Why they won’t: Occasionally, the “bad” Taylor shows up. He makes some boneheaded decisions and can take bad shots. When this happens, the team struggles mightily to score, as it did against N.C. State in the Sweet 16, a game Kansas barely won. It becomes glaringly obvious when Taylor is off that KU has no other complement scorer to Robinson. Ohio State’s defense will be much tougher to manufacture points against than North Carolina, so getting Taylor involved will be key. Kansas doesn’t have trouble defending. If the Jayhawks lose, it will likely be because they just don’t have enough people who can put the ball in the basket consistently.
Why they’ll win: Mayhem. Pure and simple. While this Louisville team doesn’t have the star power you’d expect from a Rick Pitino-coached club, the players are solid. There are a few potential pros on the roster in point guard Peyton Siva and frontcourt players Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. But none of the Cardinals are capable of putting the team on his back for two more games. That said, star power is not why Louisville won the West Region and the Big East tournament.
The Cardinals frustrate you with pesky defense and opportunistic scoring, especially on steals and deflections that lead to run-out baskets. Pitino’s team wants to make the game as frenetic as possible, offering you open shots you shouldn’t take and charging the passing lanes when you hesitate. When Louisville becomes toughest is when the game is ugliest. Pitino’s coaching acumen — which gets questioned mostly because of his erratic recruiting in recent seasons — could be the difference in the high stakes of the Final Four.
Why they won’t: The Cardinals’ margin for error is minuscule. When Siva is off, the team is, too. He’s lightning quick, but that occasionally leads him to play out of control. He’s not a good outside shooter, so teams try to bait him into taking threes in lieu of driving to the basket, his strong suit. Without Siva, the Cardinals look lost on both ends. Russ and Chris Smith, no relation, are the only players who seem to create their own offense for Louisville. Leading scorer Kyle Kuric has good range but disappears for long stretches.
When the Cardinals have struggled this season, it’s usually been about offense, not defense, which is a bit ironic since the popular perception of Pitino is as an offensive whiz. In truth, his best — and most successful — teams have usually been the ones that get into the opponents’ heads defensively. But you have to score more points than the other team, too, and if Louisville is missing shots, they revert to being what they are on paper: a better-than-average Big East team.
Why they’ll win: The easy answer is talent. The right answer is elite defense. Yes, John Calipari’s roster is stocked with high school All-Americans (again). And yes, the Wildcats will probably lose nearly all of those talented freshmen to the NBA (again). But the reason this season’s group is vastly different and vastly better than the John Wall-led crew that lost in the Elite Eight two seasons ago is two-fold: this version plays as aggressive a brand of defense as you’ll see and Anthony Davis.
Davis, very likely the national Player of the Year, is a once-in-a-generation talent. A freak physically (and eyebrow-wise), Davis is the one player no one in the country can match. While the Wildcats feature a stacked deck of potential lottery picks, it’s Davis who gives Calipari the trump card.
Fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be the second-best first-year player in the nation. His offense is raw, his jump shot awkward, if effective, but his energy is unmatched at the college level. Long and strong, MKG, as the UK fans have come to call him, is another matchup nightmare: too fast and quick for traditional power forwards and way too physical for most small forwards. He was named MVP of the South Region. Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis are hard to stop. But then junior Terrence Jones starts blocking shots and finishing alley-oops, or senior Darius Miller hits a three or sophomore Doron Lamb finishes on the break or… you get the point.
But it’s Kentucky’s defense, especially Davis’ blocks, that make the Cats go. Davis keeps many of his blocks in play, leading to fast break opportunities that the talented Kentucky players can finish. If you saw the first half of UK’s win over Baylor in the Elite Eight, you can see why opponents don’t want that to happen. When it does, the Wildcats are unstoppable.
Why they won’t: In an NBA seven-game series, talent might win out every time. But in the NCAA’s one-game version, simply having more good players than the other team isn’t enough. That’s what happened to Wall and the 2010 Wildcats. When the three-point shooting dried up, things fell apart. This season’s Wildcats are more consistent outside threats, but any team can have, and does have, that game: when everything goes wrong. That’s why UK’s defense is so key for them. It can help offset a bad shooting game.
Though very skilled, Jones has a reputation for disappearing. He’s been strong in this tournament, but he is key for the Kentucky attack and Kentucky can look clunky when he’s in his own head. Ditto for the senior Miller.
In truth, Kentucky has so many weapons a series of things has to go wrong for them to lose to Louisville and then either Ohio State or Kansas. But in the Final Four that does happen. There’s a reason they call it March Madness, after all, even if the final game is in April.