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Final Four Preview: Ohio State vs. Kansas

March 29, 2012 in Final Four, Preview

Who/When: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Kansas, Saturday, 8:49 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg

How They Got Here: Ohio State defeated No. 15 Loyola (Md.), 78-59, No. 7 Gonzaga, 73-66, No. 6 Cincinnati, 81-66, and No. 1 Syracuse, 77-70; Kansas defeated No. 15 Detroit, 65-50, No. 10 Purdue, 63-60, No. 11 N.C. State, 60-57, and No. 1 North Carolina, 80-67.

Coaches: Thad Matta (323–95 overall, 221–64 in eight seasons at OSU); Bill Self (475–157 overall, 268–52 in nine seasons at Kansas)

Ohio State in the Final Four:
Overall: 11th appearance (including 1999, when it was vacated)
Last Appearance: 2007, lost to Florida, 84-75, in national title game
Last Championship: 1960, defeated California, 75-55
Number of Titles: 1 (1960)

Kansas in the Final Four:
Overall: 14th appearance
Last Appearance: 2008, defeated Memphis, 75-68, to win national championship
Last Title: 2008, defeated Memphis, 75-68
Number of Titles: 3 (1952, 1988, 2008)

Ohio State’s View: Everything revolves around Jared Sullinger, who missed the Buckeyes' 78-67 loss at Kansas on Dec. 10. In the East Regional Final against Syracuse, Sullinger only played six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble but played the entire second half, finishing with 19 points and seven rebounds. Syracuse didn't have an answer for Sullinger and that ultimately led to their demise. The other big factor in that game, and one that has aided the Buckeyes through the tournament, is defense. They allowed just 59.7 points per game this season, and that tenacity in defending their basketball stretches throughout the entire roster. Guard Aaron Craft only had one steal against Syracuse, but made life miserable for Scoop Jardine all game, which took Syracuse out of its entire offensive rhythm. The other starters — Lenzelle Smith, Jr., William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas — are really good on both ends of the floor. But the team operates much better when Sullinger is playing — and he needs to play more than 26 minutes against Kansas if they're going to return to the national title game.

Kansas’ View: The Jayhawks can play their share of defense too, and they've also got a big man — Thomas Robinson — who makes everything better. Robinson had 18 points and nine rebounds against North Carolina in the regional final, while guard Tyshawn Taylor had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. But the main reason they defeated the Tar Heels was defense, specifically Self's triangle-and-two scheme that held UNC to seven of 31 shooting after halftime and no baskets over the last 5:46 of regulation. That's the key for the Jayhawks against the Buckeyes too. Ohio State does not boast the same offensive gifts as the Tar Heels, but their defense is much better than North Carolina's system.

Quotable: "Past teams, we just had so many weapons that could score from so many different spots. If we weren't all the way in tune defensively, we could cover that up by making some shots. And we knew at the beginning of the year that it wouldn't be the same." – Tyshawn Taylor

What I Expect: This game could get ugly quickly, but not in the traditional sense of the phrase. It'll be a defensive struggle and a big-time battle between Sullinger and Robinson in the paint. Craft could frustrate Taylor quickly, which will give a pretty big advantage to the Buckeyes. OSU's balance and depth, as well as Sullinger's amazing gifts, will prevail — possibly in overtime.

Prediction: OSU advances to face Kentucky in the national championship game.

Final Four Preview: Kentucky vs. Louisville

March 28, 2012 in Final Four, Preview

Who/When: No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 4 Louisville Cardinals, Saturday, 6:09 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg

How They Got Here: Kentucky beat No. 16 Western Kentucky, 81-66, No. 8 Iowa State, 87-71, No. 4 Indiana, 102-90, and No. 3 Baylor, 82-70; Louisville defeated No. 13 Davidson, 69-62, No. 5 New Mexico, 59-56, No. 1 Michigan State, 57-44, and No. 7 Florida, 72-68.

Coaches: John Calipari (503–152 overall, 100-14 in three seasons at Kentucky); Rick Pitino (616–227 overall, 262–99 in 11 seasons at Louisville)

Kentucky in the Final Four:
Overall: 15th appearance
Last Appearance: 2011, lost to UConn., 56-55, in national semifinals
Last Championship: 1998, defeated Utah, 78–69
Number of Titles: 7 (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998)

Louisville in the Final Four:
Overall: 9th appearance
Last Appearance: 2005, lost to Illinois, 72-57, in national semifinals
Last Title: 1986, defeated Duke, 72-69
Number of Titles: 2 (1980, 1986)

Kentucky's View: The Wildcats cruised pretty easily through the first four games of the tournament, paced by their killer combination of Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — who could match many NBA rosters in terms of talent. They've got a great offense and defense, are playing with poise and composure (considering there are only four juniors and seniors on the entire roster and none in the starting line-up). The team simply has been better than every opponent this season. But it has lost two games — and that's the rub on a single-elimination tournament. They might be the best team every time they play, but a Final Four is so much more than just what happens on the court. It's the battle of the coaches, the friends and family in the stands and, in this case, the animosity between two schools they occupy the same state and have two crazy-mad fan bases. There's no doubting that UK has everything it takes to win the title, but there are many other factors it must battle — including the fact that it lost the last time it entered New Orleans as the overwhelming favorite: that came in the SEC tournament title game to Vanderbilt, 71-64.

Louisville's View: If the Cardinals are going to beat the Wildcats, a few things need to happen. One, their defense must play the best game it has played all season. Louisville held Michigan State to 28.6 percent shooting and just 18 first-half points while Draymond Green scored just 13 points. Kentucky's Anthony Davis is better than Green and the Wildcats have a more potent and balanced scoring attack than the Spartans. But the Cardinals have a mix of tricks that can totally confuse the Wildcats and Pitino is doing his best Bill Belichick impression when it comes to defensive wizardry. The biggest test, believe it or not, for Louisville is going to come on offense, as the Cardinals are not a scoring machine and the Wildcats have a very good defense.

Quotable: "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville." – Rick Pitino after capturing the West Regional Final

What I Expect: This game will come down to the battle when Kentucky has the ball. If the Cardinals can slow down the Wildcats, which I think is feasible, then it'll be lower scoring and slower in tempo. But Louisville just doesn't have enough weapons to completely shut down Kentucky the way it did to Michigan State. They were fortunate to vanquish Florida — and Kentucky is much better than the Gators.

Prediction: Kentucky returns to the national championship game.

Final Four Week Begins

March 26, 2012 in Final Four, Preview

With Louisville, Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State clinching berths in the Final Four over the weekend, here are some notes and stats to whet your appetite for the big games in New Orleans:

* This year's Final Four only includes one No. 1 seed — one year after no top seeds made the Final Four. Last year, the highest seed was a No. 3 (Connecticut), who won the title. In fact, the last time a team that wasn't the highest remaining seed (including multiple No. 1 seeds) won the tournament was 2006, when No. 3 Florida beat No. 2 UCLA.

* I'm not sure if the committee had this in mind when they set the brackets, but boy does Louisville vs. Kentucky have some history. Firstly, coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari have faced each other in the tournament — but not at their current schools. In the 1992 East Regional Semifinal (aka Sweet 16) and 1996 Final Four, Pitino's Kentucky squad beat Calipari's University of Massachusetts team by seven and 10, respectively. (The 1996 Minutemen later vacated its five tournament games.) The 1996 Wildcats went on to beat Syracuse for the national title, while the 1992 Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight to Duke on Christian Laettner's famous shot.

* But wait… there's more… Kentucky and Louisville have been playing each other since 1913 (although not every year) and Kentucky leads the series, 29-14 — including a 69-62 win on Dec. 31, 2011 in Lexington. The teams have split four all-time meetings in the NCAA tournament, with the last coming in the 1984 Sweet 16. Needless to say, there's some history between these in-state rivals.

* The other match-up, Kansas vs. Ohio State, is nowhere near as heated, but includes two No. 2 seeds — which therefore gives it the later game on Saturday. It should also be a close game — but for very different reasons. (More on that later in the week.)

* Louisville is the third straight Big East tournament champion to make it to the Final Four. Last year, UConn. added the national title, while West Virginia lost to Duke in the national semifinals the year before.

* Three of the Final Four participants have won national titles before — and in fact, they've combined for 12 NCAA tournament crowns. Only Ohio State has never captured the championship.

* Comparing the four coaches, Rick Pitino leads most of the major categories — including all-time wins and NCAA tournament berths. Calipari is second, followed by Kansas' Bill Self and Ohio State's Thad Matta. Interestingly enough, though, Self's teams have a higher points-per-game and field-goal percentage average than the others. Where it matters most (number of titles), though, only two coaches have delivered a crown (and they've each only done it once): Pitino (1996 with Kentucky) and Self (2008 with Kansas).

* The four top conferences (as rated by RealTimeRPI.com) are the same as the quartet represented in New Orleans. In order, they're the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and SEC.

* Finally, if you're thinking of going to the games, tickets (according to TicketNetwork.com, a Fanspeak partner) range from $233 to about $5,000.

South Regional Final Preview

March 25, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears, 2:20 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg

How They Got Here: Kentucky beat No. 16 Western Kentucky, 81-66, No. 8 Iowa State, 87-71, and No. 4 Indiana, 102-90; Baylor beat No. 14 South Dakota State, 68-60, No. 11 Colorado, 80-63, and No. 10 Xavier, 75-70.

Coaches: John Calipari (Kentucky) and Scott Drew (Baylor)

History: UK is 5-7 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached 14 Final Fours overall (1942, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1966, 1975, 1978, 1984, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2011); Baylor is 0-1 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached two Final Fours overall (1948 and 1950).

Why Kentucky Will Win: It takes a special team to beat Kentucky and it seems that Baylor isn't it. The Wildcats have a very good — if not great — offense and defense and are on a roll right now, putting up an NBA-esque 102 points against Indiana Friday night. That being said, they still need to execute well and stay on their game plan. Baylor did not win the Big 12 tournament title on a fluke and will overcome the Wildcats if UK doesn't stick to what got them here: a talented roster centering around Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Davis can dominate the center and is hard to contain one-on-one.

Why Baylor Will Win: Coach Scott Drew's got magic, having led the Bears to the Elite Eight in two of the last three years. They've got Perry Jones III, Pierre Jackson, Quincy Acy, and Quincy Miller playing extremely well and certainly can take advantage should Kentucky make mistakes. And that's the key to beating the Wildcats: get their stars in foul trouble and out of their comfort zone. Baylor also can take a page from Syracuse, who got two quick fouls on Jared Sullinger and got him on the bench before the game was even seven minutes old. If the Bears can got at Davis and get to the paint, then they've got a chance to win. If they settle for jumpers, they'll fall into Kentucky's hands and it could be another long day for a Wildcats opponent.

What I Expect: Kentucky is the better team here and Baylor doesn't have the defensive prowess to slow down the best team in the country. The two teams to beat Kentucky this year, Indiana and Vanderbilt, held Kentucky to 72 and 64 points, respectively, and I don't see Baylor doing that.

Prediction: The Wildcats move onto the Final Four, where the real fun will begin.

Midwest Regional Final Preview

March 25, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks, 5:05 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

Announcers: Marv Albert and Steve Kerr

How They Got Here: UNC defeated No. 16 Vermont, 77-58, No. 8 Creighton, 87-73, and No. 13 Ohio 73-65 (OT); Kansas defeated No. 15 Detroit, 65-50, No. 10 Purdue, 63-60, and No. 11 N.C. State, 60-57.

Coaches: Bill Self (Kansas) and Roy Williams (UNC)

History: UNC is 9-5 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached 18 Final Fours overall (1946, 1957, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009); Kansas is 7-4 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached 13 Final Fours overall (1940, 1952, 1953, 1957, 1971, 1974, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1993, 2002, 2003, 2008).

Why North Carolina Will Win: The Tar Heels, probably for the first time this tournament, will be meeting a team that can match its talent. Without Kendall Marshall on Friday, UNC went to overtime with a game Ohio Bobcats squad, but ultimately hit shots when it mattered to gut out a victory. If Marshall can play today, they'll have the player that can keep them in an offensive flow and make everything more efficient. Without Marshall, they looked out-of-sorts and inconsistent. With Marshall, even not at 100 percent, they can make things move more smoothly. With that being said, they also will face more defensive resistance and size from the Jayhawks than they did from the Bobcats. The plan for the Tar Heels, though, remains the same: play solid defense and score, score, score. The other fact they have to overcome is emotion: Roy Williams hates facing Kansas, where he coached for 15 seasons and won 418 games (but no titles). With UNC, he's won 257 games in nine seasons, with one NCAA title (in 2009), but he'll always have a huge place in his heart for the Jayhawks — whom he has faced only once before in the NCAA tournament: the 2008 Final Four (an 84-66 win by Kansas).

Why Kansas Will Win: Without Marshall, the Jayhawks can take advantage of a team that isn't as good as it was during the season. That being said, the Jayhawks must shoot better than the 37.5 percent they shot against N.C. State on Friday night. On average, Kansas doesn't score as well as UNC (74 points per game compared to the Heels' 81.7), but they defend much better (61.4 points allowed compared to 66.7). Those 5.3 points might not seem like much, but it's the difference between a defense ranked 37th in the country and one ranked 145th. Kansas needs to play one of its best games of the year to beat UNC. The gap isn't huge, and it's one they can overcome, but the Jayhawks can't beat itself in a game of this magnitude. Guard play is key, especially with Marshall not as his best. If they can slow down the offense Carolina still has, and generate some of their own, then they'll have a great shot to get back to the Final Four.

What I Expect: Kansas and UNC will go toe-to-toe, but in the end, the Heels have too much talent, and too much balance — even with Marshall hobbled — to lose this game. Williams remembers that loss to Kansas and doesn't want to repeat it. In overtime on Friday, the Heels looked much better, led by Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller. Those guys should be huge again today and give their coach a huge victory.

Prediction: UNC edges the Jayhawks to return to New Orleans, site of its last title.

East Regional Final Preview

March 23, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 Syracuse Orange vs. No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes, Saturday, 7 p.m. (CBS)

Where: TD Garden, Boston

Announcers: Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery

How They Got Here: SU defeated No. 16 UNC-Asheville, 72-65, No. 8 Kansas State, 75-59, and No. 4 Wisconsin, 64-63; OSU defeated No. 15 Loyola (Md.), 78-59, No. 7 Gonzaga, 73-66, and No. 6 Cincinnati, 81-66.

Coaches: Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Thad Matta (OSU)

History: Syracuse is 3-1 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached the Final Four four times overall (1975, 1987, 1996, 2003); Ohio State is 2-1 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached the Final Four 10 times overall (1939, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1968, 1999, 2007) — the 1999 berth was vacated, however.

Why Syracuse Will Win: Last night, Syracuse shot 55.1 percent from the field and scored 64 points against the top defense in the country (in terms of points allowed per game) and seemed to be able to score at will throughout the game, especially in the paint. The Orange, meanwhile, shut down the Badgers' inside game but gave up 14 three-point shots (51.9 percent), which is abnormally high number for any team. In other words, Wisconsin was pretty much perfect on offense. The Buckeyes, however, do not have as good an defense as the Badgers (allowing about seven points more per game), but a much better offense that is similar in average to the Orange's (74.8 points per game for OSU and 74.5 for Syracuse). The Orange is playing some of their best basketball of the season and is deep, and they also have perhaps the deadliest fast break in the country. They can solve the Buckeyes and force them to shoot three pointers, which is not their specialty. Their zone adjusts not only between games, but during games — and teams that are not used to playing against it can be confused easily and/or start taking bad shots.

Why Ohio State Will Win: The Buckeyes have the two elements that typically beat Syracuse: a great inside game that can find gaps in the zone (usually around the free-throw line) and a good enough outside game that can stretch the zone to cover more space. But, with that being said, the Buckeyes will need to replicate their shooting performance from last night (48.2 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three-point range). Even with that, though, they were 8-17 from three-point range and must resist the urge to shoot too many from beyond the arc. Syracuse does not have a match for Jared Sullinger and he can easily take over the game and force the Orange to play out of its comfort zone on both ends of the court. The Buckeyes are a disciplined team that can avoid getting into foul trouble, which is essential when playing Syracuse — and something Wisconsin didn't do.

What I Expect: Syracuse has a belief in itself, and a way to win any game, that hasn't been present since the 2003 season when they won the NCAA title. They're deep (six players topped 19 minutes against Wisconsin and four hit double-digit points). In other words, defenses can't focus on one person because somebody else is liable to beat you. Their offense has come alive in the last two games and, against the Badgers, were scoring on nearly every possession. The game tomorrow night will be played at a much quicker pace than the game against Wisconsin, and that will help Syracuse's offensive rhythm even more. Sullinger should be able to have a monster game against the Orange, but the Buckeyes don't have the long-distance shooting pedigree of Wisconsin and that ultimately will be their downfall.

Prediction: Syracuse will advance in another nail-biter.

West Regional Final Preview

March 23, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 4 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 7 Florida Gators, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (CBS)

Where: USAirways Center, Phoenix

Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller

How They Got Here: Louisville defeated No. 13 Davidson, 69-62, No. 5 New Mexico, 59-56, and No. 1 Michigan State, 57-44; Florida defeated No. 10 Virginia, 71-45, No. 15 Norfolk State, 84-50, and No. 3 Marquette, 68-58.

Coaches: Rick Pitino (Louisville) and Billy Donovan (Florida)

History: Louisville is 2-3 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached the Final Four eight times overall (1959, 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986, 2005); Florida is 4-1 in the Elite Eight since 1985 and has reached the Final Four four times (1994, 2000, 2006, 2007)

Why Louisville Will Win: Their defense totally shut down Michigan State and held Draymond Green to 13 points and Brandon Wood to 14. Overall, the Spartans shot just 28.6 percent from the field and looked uncomfortable the entire night. The Cardinals shot 38.2 percent from the field but managed to turn on their offense in the second half to put away the Big 10 tournament champions. They have the kind of defense that can shut down any team any night and Florida is no exception. The Cardinals' huge bonus against Michigan State was center Gorgui Dieng, who played the entire 40 minutes, blocked seven shots, grabbed nine rebounds and made the first three-pointer of his career. Meanwhile, Chane Behanan had 15 points and Russ Smith had 11. The Cardinals' defense has been relentless all season and can befuddle the Gators easily.

Why Florida Will Win: Their offense. Against Marquette, hardly a defensive pushover, the Gators shot 40 percent from the field and held the Golden Eagles to 30 percent shooting. Marquette has a better offense than Louisville, so Florida can duplicate the effort against Louisville. Bradley Beal had 21 points last night, and can produce the kind of guard play that Michigan State didn't produce last night. The Gators can make Louisville's defense look out of sorts and not make the same mistakes that the Spartans continued to produce.

What I Expect: This is the classic battle of two hot teams who specialize in opposite sides of the ball. The Gators' offense will not do as well against Louisville's defense as they did against Marquette's, but then again, the Cardinals will not be as effective against the Gators as they were against the Spartans. The game should come down to the end, and the Cardinals are not always in position to win these kind of games against superior opponents. Florida is, and that'll be the difference.

Prediction: Gators return to the Final Four.

Midwest Region Sweet 16 Preview

March 22, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 13 Ohio Bobcats, 7:47 p.m. (TBS); No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks No. 11 N.C. State Wolfpack, 10:17 p.m. (TBS)

Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

Announcers: Marv Albert and Steve Kerr

How They Got Here: UNC defeated Vermont, 77-58, and Creighton, 87-73; Ohio defeated Michigan, 65-60, and University of South Florida, 62-56; Kansas defeated Detroit, 65-50, and Purdue, 63-60; N.C. State defeated San Deigo State, 79-65, and Georgetown, 66-63.

Coaches: Bill Self (Kansas), Mark Gottfried (N.C. State), Roy Williams (UNC), John Groce (Ohio U.)

Team Leaders:

Category UNC Ohio N.C. State Kansas
Points Harrison Barnes (17.3) D.J. Cooper (14.9) C.J. Leslie (14.6) Thomas Robinson (17.7)
Rebounds John Henson (10.1) Ivo Baltic (5.0) Richard Howell (9.1) Thomas Robinson (11.8)
Assists Kendall Marshall (9.8) D.J. Cooper (5.7) Lorenzo Brown (6.4) Tyshawn Taylor (4.7)

What To Expect: The big factor for UNC is the status of Kendall Marshall’s fractured right wrist. If he can play against Ohio, which as of this second doesn’t look likely, then the team might be able to keep up their dominance. Quite frankly, the team shouldn’t have a problem beating Ohio but Marshall’s availability for the regional final is another matter. Heading into the tournament, the Tar Heels were viewed as one of the biggest threats to Kentucky’s so-called dominance, and they nearly beat the Wildcats during an epic game on Dec. 3 in Lexington. The Heels ranked second in the nation, averaging 82 points per game, but allowed 66.8 points per game – an unimpressive 144th. (Ohio averaged 70.3 points per game, but did better on the defensive end by allowing 62.2 PPG.)

The other game is a far different story. Many have argued that N.C. State is under-seeded and they certainly impressed by beating two high-seeded teams in their first two games. Their stats are similar to that of the Tar Heels: pretty good offense (73.3 points per game) and pedestrian defense (67.8 PPG). Kansas, meanwhile, averages slightly more points than the Wolfpack (74.4), but their defense is far superior (61.5). Kansas is balanced and playing really well right now, but they sometimes can shoot themselves in the foot. For example, in the Big 12 title game against Baylor, the Jayhawks shot 42.6 percent from the field, but just 15.4 percent (2-13) from three-point range. Kansas shot 48.5 percent from the field on the season. Kansas teams typically lose in the tournament because they get frustrated and go out of their comfort zone. (You can say that about any team, really.) N.C. State needs to play some of their best defense of the season in order to advance.

Home Court Advantage: Kansas gets the nod on this one, despite being the No. 2 seed. Their campus is about 300 miles from St. Louis and Athens, Ohio, where the Bobcats are based, is about 500. The two teams from North Carolina will be traveling about 800 miles. That being said, the Tar Heels usually travel well, so a potential regional final between Kansas and UNC will have plenty of blue – albeit in two very different shades.

Predictions: It appears North Carolina and Kansas will meet in the regional final. Both teams are too good and should outclass their opponents. Of the lower seeds, N.C. State has the better chance to win, unless UNC is a total mess if Marshall can’t play. But, when it’s all said and done, it should be the Tar Heels and the Jayhawks playing for the right to advance to the Final Four.

South Region Sweet 16 Preview

March 22, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 4 Indiana Hoosiers, 9:45 p.m. (CBS); No. 3 Baylor Bears vs. No. 10 Xavier Musketeers, 7:15 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg

How They Got Here: Kentucky beat No. 16 Western Kentucky, 81-66, and No. 8 Iowa State, 87-71; Indiana beat New Mexico State, 79-66, and VCU, 63-61; Baylor beat South Dakota State, 68-60, and Colorado, 80-63; Xavier defeated Notre Dame, 67-63, and Colorado, 80-63.

Coaches: John Calipari (Kentucky), Tom Crean (Indiana), Scott Drew (Baylor), Chris Mack (Xavier)

Team Leaders:

Category Kentucky Indiana Baylor Xavier
Points Anthony Davis (14.3) Cody Zeller (15.5) Pierre Jackson (13.5) Tu Holloway (17.4)
Rebounds Anthony Davis (10.1) Cody Zeller (6.5) Perry Jones III (7.7) Kenny Frease (6.2)
Assists Marquis Teague (4.8) Jordan Hulls (3.2) Pierre Jackson (5.8) Tu Holloway (4.9)

What To Expect: Many people are calling this year’s tournament the Kentucky Invitational but I’m here to say “not so fast my friends.” And I suggest this for two reasons: one, Indiana’s already defeated the Wildcats this season, so they certainly know how to get it done, and two, Baylor is playing really well right now and they’ve got the offense to hang with UK. That being said, Kentucky is the best team in the region (and probably the country, but we’ll get to that next week).

The Wildcats-Hoosiers game is more evenly matched than you would think. Kentucky has the 18th-ranked offense and defense in the country (77.1 PPG, 59.5 points allowed), while the Hoosiers score well (averaging 76.9 points per game) but don’t defend as well (65.4). So, in order to secure a second win over the Wildcats this season, Indiana will have to contain Anthony Davis and try to get Kentucky into foul trouble – because they are not deep.

The Baylor-Xavier game, at least on paper, is no contest. Baylor is averaging 74.8 points per game and allowing 64.8 points per game, while Xavier is averaging 70.3 points per game and allowing 66.6 per game. Those may seem like small margins, but consider the competition of each team (Big 12 is the third-ranked conference by Real Time RPI, while the Atlantic 10 is seventh), and you’ll gain more insight. Baylor is balanced and playing very well right now.

Home Court Advantage: This region was built by Kentucky. The NCAA wanted the Wildcats to play as close as Lexington as possible, they’re 380 miles from home in Atlanta. They notoriously travel well and are, in fact, the third-closest of any team playing in a regional (Syracuse is only 315 miles from Boston and Kansas is about 300 miles from St. Louis). Otherwise, Indiana and Xavier are about 500 miles away and Baylor is about 850. This is where the Wildcats will have plenty of fans cheering for them in person (maybe including her).

Predictions: Kentucky and Baylor appear to be on a collision course to meet on Sunday. Both teams can score proficiently, play good defense and have gone through a grueling schedule even before they reached the NCAA tournament. That’s not taking anything away from Indiana and Xavier, but it seems there will be a battle of Wildcats and Bears on Sunday.

West Region Sweet 16 Preview

March 20, 2012 in Preview

Who/When: No. 1 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 4 Louisville Cardinals, 7:47 p.m. (TBS); No. 7 Florida Gators vs. No. 3 Marquette Golden Eagles, 10:17 p.m. (TBS)

Where: USAirways Center, Phoenix

Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller

How They Got Here: MSU defeated No. 16 LIU, 89-67, and No. 9 St. Louis, 65-61; Louisville defeated No. 13 Davidson, 69-62, and No. 5 New Mexico, 59-56; Marquette defeated No. 14 BYU, 88-68, and No. 6 Murray State, 62-53; Florida defeated No. 10 Virginia, 71-45, and No. 15 Norfolk State, 84-50.

Coaches: Tom Izzo (MSU), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Billy Donovan (Florida), Brent "Buzz" Williams (Marquette)

Team Leaders:

Category Michigan State
Louisville Florida Marquette
Points Draymond Green (16.3) Kyle Kuric (13) Kenny Boynton (16.1) Darius Johnson-Odom (18.5)
Rebounds Draymond Green (10.5) Gorgui Dieng (9.1) Bradley Beal (6.7) Jae Crowder (8.4)
Assists Keith Appling/
Draymond Green (3.9)
Peyton Siva (5.5) Erving Walker (4.6) Junior Cadougan (5.4)

What To Expect: Michigan State and Louisville are both pretty decent offensively and very skilled on the defensive end. The Spartans average 68.6 points a game and allow 61.1 (34th in the country), while the Cardinals are good for 72.4 points a game while allowing 59.4. Pitino and Izzo are veterans and have been known to will teams far beyond what might be expected. Izzo, after all, has been to six Final Fours as MSU head coach, while Pitino is the only coach in NCAA history to take three teams (Louisville, Kentucky, and Providence College) to the Final Four. The pedigree is there, and the talent is a given. This game hinges on whether Siva can match Appling in the backcourt and if Dieng (with help from his teammates) and contain Green. Dieng is a non-factor on the offensive end, so Siva and company will have to continue to find the scoring from elsewhere.

I'd be shocked if the late game is not a track meet. Marquette and Murray State were up-and-down for 40 minutes while Florida routed two inferior opponents. (The Gators, ironically as a No. 7 seed, are facing a higher-seeded team for the first time this tournament. ) Marquette should have the advantage, but both teams come from power conferences where they had to elevate their games all season. Neither team is particularly deep, so foul trouble could be a major factor. The key is whether the teams can stay poised on a bigger stage, with Florida getting an edge in that category because of Donovan.

Home Court Advantage: There's nothing western about either of these teams, with the teams traveling anywhere from 1,700 to 2,050 miles to get to Phoenix. Michigan State and Louisville traditionally travel well, and Florida might if this was a football game. All kidding aside, this is about a neutral court as you're going to get throughout the four regions.

Predictions: Michigan State is playing too well right now to slip up here, and something tells me that Florida has one more win in them. The Spartans earned the top seed for a reason, and it doesn't look like the Cardinals will have enough to emerge victorious. The Golden Eagles could beat Florida, but they might have to score 80 to do that. Then again, stranger things have happened. In the end, though, MSU and Florida will meet in a rematch of the 2000 national title game (won by the Spartans).