By Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News –
If the betting public, NCAA selection committee and NBA Draft boards are to be believed, the next 72 hours will be a Big Blue coronation.
Kentucky is expected to win its eighth national championship, potentially in dominating fashion, with Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas making sure the flowers are properly arranged.
The Wildcats are the betting favorite, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and the most talented team in the Final Four, with three projected lottery picks in their starting lineup — more than the other participants combined.
Better teams, more experienced and polished teams, have come this far and lost. Houston ‘83 and Georgetown ‘85 come instantly to mind, but those powerhouses were upset by Cinderellas (North Carolina State and Villanova, respectively), and there are no Cinderellas in New Orleans. The lowest-seeded semifinalist is No. 4 Louisville, which won the Big East tournament.
Rather, Kentucky’s position as the prohibitive favorite over a stout group of challengers is comparable to Nevada-Las Vegas ‘91 (Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon), which lost to Duke (Christian Laettner), and Duke ‘99 (Elton Brand, Shane Battier), which stumbled against Connecticut (Rip Hamilton).
But assuming the Wildcats don’t stink up the Superdome, it will take a monumental effort to beat them. Specifically, it will take a team that:
Once the Wildcats set their half-court defense, with center Anthony Davis protecting the rim, they’re exceedingly difficult to score against. The basket is biggest in the first 5-10 seconds of each possession.
Scores from the perimeter.
Davis is regarded by some as the finest shot blocker since Patrick Ewing. The best way to neutralize his impact is from afar. The only two teams to beat UK this season, Indiana and Vanderbilt, were a combined 15 of 33 from 3-point range.
Easier said than done because of Kentucky’s athleticism and aggressiveness, but nonetheless essential. The Wildcats made 36 more free throws than their opponents in the Sweet 16 (Indiana) and Elite Eight (Baylor).
“I watched the Baylor game,” said CBS analyst Greg Anthony, the starting point guard for UNLV in ‘91, “and I didn’t sense in the first eight or 10 minutes that (the Bears) believed they could win.”
It all sounds simple enough, right?
Here’s a breakdown of the semifinal matchups:
Louisville vs. Kentucky — The talent disparity is significant, but several factors are working in Louisville’s favor:
The Cardinals held their own at Kentucky earlier this season (down six with eight minutes left) and won’t be intimidated — this is, after all, a rivalry game for them.
Louisville’s Rick Pitino is a better coach than his UK nemesis, John Calipari, and will undoubtedly serve up a tactical wrinkle that flummoxes the Wildcats.
In addition, the Cardinals’ top scorer, guard Russ Smith, relies on his midrange game and is unlikely to be affected by Davis’ presence underneath. (Smith scored 30 points against the Wildcats earlier this season.)
Bottom line: Close for 35 minutes, and perhaps 39, but Kentucky survives.
Kansas vs. Ohio State — A fabulous collision of two All-American big men: Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. (Both will be top-10 picks in the upcoming draft.)
But the most-hyped matchups are rarely the decisive ones. If Sullinger and Robinson cancel each other out, which team has the advantage?
KU guard Tyshawn Taylor was terrific against North Carolina (22 points), but he’ll have fewer opportunities against Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, perhaps the game’s best perimeter defender.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have two quality options in forward Deshaun Thomas and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who made several clutch baskets in the Elite Eight victory over Syracuse.
Bottom line: Ohio State survives a close game unless struggling wing William Buford finds his shooting touch. In that case, the Buckeyes win going away.