John Calipari changed college basketball with his ability to bring in top-flight “one-and-done” players, who would leave for the NBA after their freshman year, and still mold them into winning teams at Kentucky. That was never more evident than in 2012. Kentucky was joined by Kansas, Ohio State, and Louisville on the sport’s biggest stage in New Orleans. Here’s a look back at the paths all four teams took to reach the 2012 Final Four, and Kentucky’s ultimate triumph.
Calipari was in his third year in Lexington and had already made the Final Four in 2011. He went out and landed an elite freshman in Anthony Davis to play center, along with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at forward. Davis would average 14 points/10 rebounds per game, anchor the defense with his shot blocking, and win National Player of the Year. Kidd-Gilchrist posted a 12/7 line. The “veterans” of the lineup were three sophomores—Terrence Jones at forward, with Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague in the backcourt. All were double-digit scorers.
The youth didn’t stop Kentucky from being ranked #2 in the preseason polls. They beat Kansas at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats won non-conference showdowns in Rupp Arena against North Carolina and Louisville. Only a last-second loss at Indiana marred their record. Then, Kentucky blasted through the SEC with a 16-0 conference record. They lost in the final of the conference tournament, but still got the #1 seed in the South Regional and entered the NCAA Tournament as the favorite to win the national title.
Jones led the way in the opening game against Western Kentucky, getting 22 points/10 rebounds in an 81-66 win. Kentucky concluded the weekend at Freedom Hall in Louisville by beating Iowa State 87-71. The key to the win was hitting 10/20 from being the three-point line while the Cyclones only went 3/22.
It was on to Atlanta for the regionals and a chance to avenge their loss to Indiana. The Hoosiers were the 4-seed and the rematch was a fast-paced exciting game on Friday night. Kidd-Gilchrist delivered 24 points/10 rebounds, while Lamb knocked down 21 from the perimeter. Darius Miller added 19 points off the bench. But the biggest difference came at the free throw line. The Wildcats got 37 free throw attempts and converted 35. Indiana went 13/17. Kentucky got a 102-90 win.
The South Regional had lost its 2-seed when Duke suffered a stunning Round of 64 loss to Lehigh. Baylor picked up the slack. The 3-seed Bears ousted Xavier 75-70 in the Sweet 16, with 20 points/15 rebounds from Quincy Acy.
In Sunday’s regional final, Kentucky’s defense was smothering. They built a 42-22 lead at the half. Davis scored 18 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and blocked six shots. Kidd-Gilchrist sealed a Most Outstanding Player regional performance with 19 points. The defense softened in the second half, but the final 82-70 outcome was never in doubt. The ‘Cats were going back to the Final Four.
Kansas had been to the NCAA Tournament every year going back to 1990, starting under Roy Williams and continuing after Bill Self took over in 2004. That stretch included 14 trips to the regionals, five appearances in the Final Four and a 2008 national title that came at Calipari’s expense, when the latter was at Memphis. This year’s edition of the Jayhawks was led by 6’9” forward Thomas Robinson, who averaged 18 points/12 rebounds. Tyshawn Taylor was a dynamic guard, scoring 17ppg and averaging five assists per game.
This year’s KU team was a little underrated, coming in at #13 in the preseason polls. After the early loss to Kentucky, they also fell to Duke in Maui, before beating then-#2 Ohio State. Kansas then did what they do with ruthless efficiency—win the Big 12 conference regular season title. Even though they fell in the semis of the league tournament, it was enough to pick up the #2 seed in the Midwest Regional.
Kansas opened the NCAA Tournament in Omaha. They beat Detroit Mercy 65-50 thanks to a defense that held Detroit to 31 percent shooting from the floor. The Round of 32 game with Purdue was a little dicey. Neither team got it going offensively and Robinson only shot 2-for-11. But he got 13 rebounds, Elijah Johnson scored 18, and it was enough to survive and advance, 63-60.
The Midwest bracket had seen its top two teams, including 1-seed North Carolina advance to St. Louis, and upsets seemed to clear the way for them to meet in the regional final. Kansas played another ugly game in the Sweet 16 against 11-seed N.C. State, but they held the Wolfpack to 28 percent shooting and won 60-57. North Carolina moved past 13-seed Ohio University by dominating the Bobcats on the boards, 56-26, and winning the game 73-60.
After two straight subpar games offensively, the Jayhawks got it rolling on late Sunday afternoon. Taylor would score 22 points, get six rebounds, hand out five assists and come up with five steals. It was tied 47-47 at the half. Robinson’s low post presence continued to make a big difference. He delivered 18 points/9 rebounds, and Kansas pulled away to win, 80-67. Robinson was named Most Outstanding Player and the Jayhawks were returning to the Final Four.
It was Rick Pitino’s 11th year in Louisville, and the program had not reached the Final Four since 2005. They had knocked on the door a couple of times recently, losing Elite Eight games in 2008 and 2009. This year’s push would be led by the guard trio of Russ Smith, Chris Smith, and Kyle Kuric, all double-digit scorers. Chane Behanan was a 6’6” forward who played bigger than his size, averaging 10 points/8 rebounds. Gorgui Deng manned the middle as a rebounder and defensive presence.
Louisville was ranked #9 in the preseason and rose to #4 during non-conference play. The Big East schedule went a little rougher. The Cardinals only went 10-8 during the regular season. But when they went to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, a switch flipped. They won the league tourney and vaulted to the 4-seed in the West on Selection Sunday.
A game with Davidson out in Portland began the bracket. Another backcourt contributor, Peyton Siva, stepped up with 17 points. That, and some tough defense, delivered a 69-62 win. A similar formula was followed in a tough battle with 5-seed New Mexico. Russ Smith hit for 17 points, and defense covered up a lack of rebounding in a 59-56 win.
Top-seeded Michigan State stood in the way in Phoenix for the Sweet 16. But Louisville’s defense was completely locked in, and they smothered Sparty to the tune of just 28 percent shooting. Behanan’s 15 points and nine rebounds were enough to get a 57-44 win.
Meanwhile, the other side of the bracket had come undone. Missouri was the 2-seed and went out in the first game at the hands of Norfolk State. Third-seeded Marquette then fell to Florida here in the Sweet 16. The Gators got 21 points from Bradley Beal and won 72-68.
The regional final pitted Pitino against his former player, Billy Donovan. The two had combined to take Providence to the 1987 Final Four. Now, they were going to head-to-head in what was the first game of Elite Eight weekend on Saturday afternoon.
It would be a classic game. Florida looked in control at the half, ahead 41-33, and poised to advance as a 7-seed. But Russ Smith stepped up with 19 points. Behanan scored 17, grabbed seven rebounds and solidified a Most Outstanding Player performance. Louisville pulled it out 72-68 and was heading back to the Final Four.
Thad Matta was on a good run in Columbus. He had reached the national final in 2007. In 2010 and 2011, he had been seeded on the top two lines before losing in the Sweet 16. This year’s team was right in that mold. Jared Sullinger was one of the best post players in the country, averaging 18 points/10 rebounds. DeShaun Thomas and William Buford were excellent forwards themselves, combining to add 31 points/10 rebounds a night. The Buckeyes were ranked #3 to start the season. They stayed among the national elite all season and ultimately shared the Big Ten title with both Michigan State and Michigan. A loss in the tournament final to Sparty cost Ohio State a 1-seed, but they still picked up the 2-line in the East.
The Buckeyes began NCAA Tournament play in Pittsburgh against Loyola Marymount. They used sheer power—a 46-23 rebounding edge, with 31 points/12 rebounds from Thomas—to get a 78-59 win. Thomas, along with Sullinger, scored 18 points against Gonzaga in the Round of 32. And a terrific game from point guard Aaron Craft—17 points and 10 assists—pushed the Buckeyes past the Zags, 73-66.
Cincinnati was the 6-seed and after knocking off 3-seed Florida State, the Bearcats were ready for a shot at Ohio State in the regionals at Boston Garden. The two forwards continue to control the interior. Sullinger went off for 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Thomas added 24/6. The Buckeye defense forced 18 turnovers and they easily pushed back Cincy 81-66.
Saturday night would be a showdown of heavyweights. Top-seeded Syracuse survived feisty Wisconsin 64-63 by shooting 55 percent from the floor, mostly inside the arc. Could the Orange’s famed 2-3 zone deal with the Buckeye inside game?
It was a even for a half, tied 29-all at intermission. But the Ohio State bigs would win the battle. Sullinger scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. As a team, the Buckeyes outrebounded the Orange 37-22. Ohio State chiseled out a 77-70 win and punched their ticket to New Orleans.
THE 2012 FINAL FOUR
The Bluegrass State was hopping, as Kentucky and Louisville were paired up in the first national semifinal game. Kentucky’s defense, anchored by Davis, was attacking. They held the Cardinals to 35 percent shooting from the floor. Davis scored 18 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and blocked five shots. Louisville hung in, but Kentucky always had the Cards at arm’s length. The Wildcats led 35-28 at the half and won 69-61.
Ohio State seemed in control of the nightcap when they took a 34-25 lead at halftime. But Kansas was playing defense and rebounding the basketball. The Jayhawks held the Buckeyes to 34 percent shooting and outrebounded them 41-39. Robinson’s 19/8 line, along with 13/10 from Elijah Johnson helped Kansas turn it around pull out a 64-62 win.
Kentucky was on a revenge tour. They had beaten traditional rivals Indiana and Louisville. Now, Calipari could exorcise his personal demons from 2008 by beating Self on Monday night. The Wildcats took control early behind their defense. Even though Davis had a rough night shooting, going 1-for-10 and finishing with just six points, he more than made up for it. Davis hauled in 16 rebounds and blocked six shots. The defense forced Robinson into a 6-for-17 night. Lamb gave the ‘Cats the offensive lift they needed with 22 points. Kentucky led 41-27 at the half and the 67-59 final is deceptive closed.
Davis’ defensive dominance on Monday, combined with his overall game on Saturday, got him Most Outstanding Player honors at the 2012 Final Four. For the first time since 1998, the proud Kentucky basketball program was back on top. And Calipari had his long-sought ring.