Final Four Saturday Previews

We’ve spent two and a half weeks on the final March To New Orleans. Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ve spent the last four days breaking down all four teams. Now it’s time for LouisvilleKentucky and KansasOhio State to hit the floor. TheSportsNotebook previews today’s two Final Four games, both televised on CBS…

Louisville-Kentucky (6:09 PM ET): Why is this the early game rather than the prime one? I realize Kentucky’s a solid 8.5 point favorite and a lot of observers expect this game to be a blowout, while thinking the Kansas-Ohio State one will be tight, but Cards-‘Cats is also the only game everyone’s talking about. Yet it’s the one that will tip right in the middle of the dinner hour in the East and Central time zones. But hey, someone at CBS is getting paid a lot of money to make these decisions, so this must know something, right?

Perhaps what they know is the conventional wisdom and that it’s going to be tough for Louisville to hang in this game deep into the second half. The presence of Anthony Davis for Kentucky gives the Wildcats a shotblocking presence and the ability to eliminate mistakes. He blocked six shots against Louisville when the teams met back on New Year’s Eve. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 24 points and hauled in 19 rebounds in that game, just one example of how Kidd-Gilchrist has raised his game this year for Kentucky’s biggest moments. If Louisville drops its defense back to focus on these two (oh, and Terrence Jones, lest I forget him), Doron Lamb hits nearly half of his shots from three-point range. Point guard Marquis Teague knows his role as the distributor, but he can also knock it down if Pitino sags his defense.

Offensively, Louisville just does not have firepower if this game starts to open up. Russ Smith came up big in the West Regionals last weekend and even bigger in the New Year ’s Eve game when he lit up Kentucky for thirty points—but he was also the only player to produce in that regular season meeting. I find it hard to imagine that center Gorgui Deng can manage anything against Davis down low. In the backcourt, Louisville is not overmatched—Peyton Siva, Smith, and Chris Smith are at least competitive with Teague and Lamb, and the Cards have good people at the forward spots with Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan. But “not overmatched” is a far cry from saying they’re better, and even if we want to be generous and give Louisville an edge, that’s still a far cry from saying it’s enough to compensate for Kentucky’s edges on the frontline.

So is there a path for Louisville to win? They have to keep the game ugly, a formula they’ve used successfully all season with the kind of rugged defense that wins in the Big East and that Kentucky doesn’t see in SEC play. They need Lamb to go cold from the outside and allow the ‘Ville defense to direct all its energies to the paint. Do these two things and they can hang with the ‘Cats and hope that Kentucky’s youth finally catches up to them in key moments. All the pressure is on UK in this game, as their kids face the heat of being a heavy favorite in the biggest game in the history of a basketball-crazy state.  The scenario’s within the realm of reason, but it’s tough to give it more than a 20 percent chance of coming through. I’m sticking with the chalk and picking Calipari’s ‘Cats to move on to Monday night.

Ohio State-Kansas (8:40 PM ET): The focus in this game is down low, and rightly so. Kansas brings Thomas Robinson to the post, while Ohio State has Jared Sullinger, both destined to be top five picks in the NBA draft when the time is right. Each team has a key supporting piece down low with Jeff Withey for Kansas and DeShaun Thomas for Ohio State. But each frontline duo plays with a different style and the most pronounced difference comes from the sidekicks. Withey is a classic inside player who wants to stick within a few feet of the basket, get his rebounds and take up space. Thomas is more of an athlete, able to step to the perimeter and knock down a jumper, and with good range from behind the arc. Sullinger is also a little more versatile with the ball than Robinson. This may sound like I’m complimenting Ohio State, but it’s really a neutral observation. If Thomas is hitting his jumper and Sullinger ‘s able to outmaneuver Robinson, it will  be a compliment. But if the shooting touch goes cold, or Robinson’s strength starts muscling Sullinger off the blocks, than the Buckeyes will have an extremely difficult time winning this game.

The guards are no slouch here either. Tyshawn Taylor for Kansas is the most versatile guard on the floor, a skilled playmaker and good three-point shooter. But Ohio State’s tandem is better, with Aaron Craft knowing his role as the floor leader, and William Buford a good shooter, although we should note that Buford is much more effective hitting from the 15-foot range than he is from downtown.

These teams played in December and Kansas won, but with Sullinger sitting the game out and it being played in Kansas City, it’s tough to see any predictive value there. I like Ohio State here, although I think it’s a close as the (-2.5) point price on the Buckeyes makes it sound. My reason is that there are six true impact players on the floor—Robinson, Taylor, Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft (Withey is too inconsistent for me to include him here). Ohio State has four of the six, so on that simple basis I’m picking them. Where my selection goes awry is if Thomas can’t hit his jumper and either bring Withey out from under the hoop, or force Bill Self to pull the big guy from the game for defensive purposes.

Final Four Saturday is here and more Memories Of March Madness are set to be added.