Final Four preview: Predicting the winners
Semifinal No. 1: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 1 Kentucky
As a kid who grew up in Kentucky, I can't tell you how crazy this matchup is. I spent about 1,200 words trying to explain it earlier this week, but I still feel like I should write more. I will refrain, at least until the game is over, since I live in Seattle now, but you can be sure that I'll take to Twitter this afternoon with a flurry of thoughts/insights/rants/etc. It'll be an ugly fight, but it's also a special time to be a Kentuckian. First, we get four teams in the NCAA tournament (Murray State and my alma mater Western Kentucky being the other two). And now one of the greatest rivalries in sports will provide the victor with a chance to play for the national title. Insane. Can't wait.
If Louisville wins ... It will be because the Cardinals' stellar defense is effective at limiting Kentucky and making this a somewhat low-scoring game. The Cards don't have the firepower to outscore Kentucky. They need a halfcourt game. They need center Gorgui Dieng to control the paint defensively. And they need Peyton Siva to stay out of foul trouble and control the pace of the game. It also wouldn't hurt if they had an incredible shooting night and made 10 three-pointers. Senior guard Kyle Kuric, the Cardinals' leading scorer, really neeeds to show up. As the underdog, as the team that's not even supposed to be here, the Cardinals should be able to play relaxed and free.
If Kentucky wins ... It will be because the Wildcats allow their superior talent to take over. Louisville doesn't have answers for all of Kentucky's weapons; actually, no one in college basketball does. This figures to be the kind of physical, tough game that Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could thrive in, so don't be surprised if he has a big game. Anthony Davis is a matchup problem for Dieng with his inside/outside game. And because Louisville figures to play its matchup zone and make Kentucky hit perimeter shots, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague must make open shots. The Wildcats don't get enough credit for how good they are defensively. At times, they're by far the best in the country. Couple that with Louisville's season-long scoring issues, and that's a huge problem with the Cards.
Prediction: Kentucky 68, Louisville 59.
East Region: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Kansas
Despite all the Kentucky-Louisville hype, this game should be the most interesting -- and entertaing. You're talking about two tough, balanced, athletic teams that play with great intensity.
If Ohio State wins ... It will be because the Buckeyes dominate the glass, and guard Aaron Craft, the best perimeter defender in college basketball, shuts down Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor. Ohio State is outrebounding opponents by 10 boards a game in this NCAA tournament, which is a huge reason for its success. Though Jared Sullinger is their best player, Deshaun Thomas is having an incredible tournament, leading the team in both points (21.8) and rebounding (8.5). William Bufford is a huge X-factor. If he gets going, the Buckeyes are even more dangerous. But he's shooting only 29.5 percent in four tournament games.
If Kansas wins ... It will be because Taylor has success against Craft, and forward Thomas Robinson stands out as the best post player in this game. The Jayhawks have some nice complementary pieces -- Elijiah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford, in particular -- but Taylor and Robinson have accounted for 46.4 percent of their points this season. Their combined production has to be 35 points or more for Kansas to keep pace. That's just how the Jayhawks, who are actually more of a defensive team even though their offense is quite efficient, are built.
Prediction: Ohio State 74, Kansas 71.