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Looking Back, Ahead

April 3, 2012 in Rankings, Recaps, Recruiting

As expected, Kentucky completed a season atop (or near the top) of the polls after winning the national championship with a 67-59 win over Kansas that wasn't as close as the score might indicate. The question now for Kentucky is in two parts: how many players will leave for the NBA and who will replace them next season in Lexington?

As for the final poll, after Kentucky, the rest of the top-10 were Kansas, Ohio State, Louisville, Syracuse, North Carolina, Michigan State, Baylor, Florida, and Marquette.

Other than Kentucky's dominance, three other story lines emerged out of this past season:

1. The Big East is still dominant, getting nine teams into the tournament, one to the Final Four (Louisville) for the third straight season and another to the Elite Eight (Syracuse).

2. Kentucky's one-and-done model worked, but its sustainability will still be questioned. John Calipari likes to defend his philosophy but eventually his team is going to tank — and considering this was his first national title, he's still not in the same league as others with multiple championships.

3. The top seeds still dominate. If you look at the past 28 national champs, 16 were captured by No. 1 seeds and, of the remaining 12 teams, only three defeated No. 1 seeds to win the title (not including when No. 1 seeds faced each other). Only two were not a top-four seed and no team outside a BCS conference has won a title since the 1990 UNLV Runnin' Rebels.

Moving forward, every team is affected by players leaving, and that's especially true of the Elite Eight. The main recruiting season is done but there are a few top players who haven't committed yet: ESPN's No. 1 recruit Nerlens Noel, who has narrowed his choices down to Syracuse, Kentucky and Georgetown; ESPN's No. 2 recruit Shabazz Muhammad, who has a longer list of UCLA, USC, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and UNLV; and ESPN's No. 7 recruit Anthony Bennett, whose choices are Florida, Kentucky, Washington, Oregon and UNLV.

So far, ESPN's top-15 recruiting classes are Arizona, Texas, Baylor, North Carolina, Michigan State, N.C. State, Providence, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Xavier, and Syracuse — but that certainly can be changed by any of the players listed above.

With all of that, here's the really early top-25 by ESPN's Andy Katz:

1. Indiana
2. Louisville
3. Kansas
4. Kentucky
5. Ohio State
6. N.C. State
7. Michigan State
8. Michigan
9. Florida
10. Baylor
11. North Carolina
12. Arizona
13. Memphis
14. Syracuse
15. Duke
16. Texas
17. Notre Dame
18. Creighton
19. Gonzaga
20. Kansas State
21. Wisconsin
22. VCU
23. San Diego State
24. Tennessee
25. Missouri

As you can see, teams ranked 2-5 comprised this year's Final Four and four more in the top-15 made it to the Elite Eight. Other changes for next season include Missouri's move to the SEC as well as West Virginia's and TCU's exit to the Big 12. Bigger changes are in store for 2013-14, but we're not even close to discussing that yet.

Enjoy your summer and check back here for occasional updates.

National Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. Kansas

April 1, 2012 in Final Four, Preview, Recaps

The University of Kentucky has been able to defend its No. 1 overall seed against different styles, different sizes, and different opponents. Last night against Louisville, they were a bit flustered by the Cardinals' match-up zone, but prevailed because of superior size and skill — despite being out-rebounded, 37-32. Kansas, meanwhile, seemingly came out of nowhere early in the season, gained momentum throughout the campaign and has put an exclamation point on its tournament performance by defeating the University of North Carolina and the Ohio State University in the Midwest Regional Final and national semifinal, respectively, to reach the opportunity to square off with Kentucky for the national title tomorrow night just after 9 p.m.

The Wildcats and Jayhawks, the two winningest programs in the history of college basketball, have only met twice in the tournament since 1985– an 88-76 Kansas win in the 2007 second round and a 92-88 Kentucky win, also in the 1999 second round. Kentucky leads the all-time series, 20-6, including a 75-65 win on Nov. 15. Their season-long averages are quite similar: Kansas averaged 73.9 points per game and allowed 61.6, while Kentucky scored 77.6 points per game and allowed 60.6.

Kansas has the offensive pedigree and defensive ability to match Kentucky like no other opponent has this tournament — or this season, for that matter. Louisville may has provided a blueprint for Kansas to beat the Wildcats, especially if the Jayhawks' triangle-and-two zone can reek havoc and if Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ends up in foul trouble, which he did against the Cardinals.

Self, who today was named the Naismith Men's College Basketball Coach of the Year, can unleash a big man (Thomas Robinson) that can give the Wildcats' all-world freshman Anthony Davis the most difficult night of his career. Robinson, after all, scored 19 points in his battle with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger last night. It's very possible that Davis, Robinson and Sullinger will be in the NBA next season along with a several others playing in the title tilt.

Like many other opponents of Kentucky this season, Kansas must execute perfectly and convert on a large number of their shots. They made 44.6 percent of their shots against Ohio State, but were down 34-25 at halftime. Overcoming a similar halftime deficit against Kentucky might not be as feasible. They out-rebounded Ohio State, 41-30, something they must repeat against Kentucky.

Kentucky, meanwhile, just needs to keep doing what it's been doing all season. They simply have overcome every challenge and swatted away every opponent. Yes, they lost to Indiana in December and Vanderbilt two weeks ago (in the SEC tournament final played across the street from the Superdome), but it seems that the magic has never left the Wildcats' paws. Kansas may provide the most valiant challenge to Kentucky's ascension to basketball immortality, but in the end, it appears the Wildcats will capture its first championship since 1998 and John Calipari his first title.

Final predicted score: Kentucky 75, Kansas 71.

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.

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.

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.

An Upsetting First Weekend — For Some

March 19, 2012 in Preview, Recaps

In one game Friday night, Duke's loss to Lehigh, two things occurred that had never happened before: Duke lost an NCAA Tournament game in Greensboro, N.C., and a No. 2 seed lost twice in the first round of the tournament. (Missouri had already lost to Norfolk State.) But those weren't he only top-four seeds to not advance to the Sweet 16: Michigan, the fourth seed in the Midwest Region, lost to Ohio University and Georgetown, the No. 3 seed in that very same Midwest Region, lost to N.C. State on Sunday. Florida State also lost to Cincinnati, although that wasn't as big of an upset. Those games (and others) led to three teams seeded 10 or higher making it to the Sweet 16: Ohio, N.C. State and Xavier.

Otherwise, believe it or not, the seedings pretty much held. And, despite so many calls for their collapse, Syracuse's nine-point victory over UNC-Asheville (in front of an anti-Orange crowd in Pittsburgh) was not the narrowest margin of victory by a No. 1 seed all weekend. That dubious distinction belongs to Michigan State, who beat the St. Louis University Billikens by just four.

So here are your Sweet 16 match-ups:

Thursday/Saturday

East: No. 1 Syracuse Orange vs. No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers, 7:15 p.m. (CBS); No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats, 9:45 p.m. (CBS)

This region boils down to two Big Ten vs. Big East match-ups. Syracuse-Wisconsin will be entertaining on numerous levels. One, without Fab Melo, it's entirely possible Syracuse is actually rebounding better than they did with him during the regular season and, two, Rakeem Christmas has played pretty well as a freshman starting in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers are one of the best defensive teams in the country, so this will be a battle of Wisconsin's man-to-man defense vs. Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. The OSU-Cincy game will be more of the same. Both teams have good big men and both can score in spurts. Cincy was one of the teams to beat Syracuse this season, so they've got the pedigree to win big games.

Midwest: 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)

Both games involve top seeds against teams who upset top seeds. North Carolina should be able to stop Ohio's roll, while Kansas — who escaped their round-of-32 game against Purdue — might have more troubles with the Wolfpack. Like the East, this could yield a interconference regional final and, in this case, one that comes out of the Tar Heel State.

Friday/Sunday

South (Atlanta): 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)

Kentucky gets a crack at the only non-conference team to beat them this season. And Indiana just beat a VCU team that still had some magic leftover from last season's run to the Final Four. If Kentucky plays the way it did this past weekend, things could get out of hand quickly, but the Hoosiers are no pushover, and money says that this one stays close throughout. Xavier and Baylor might be another high-scoring affair, but Butler clearly has the better pedigree here.

West (Phoenix): 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)

This is a doozy of a region. The Michigan State-Louisville game is going to be a slow, methodical defensive battle with lots of physicality and plenty of rebounding. The Spartans have the edge because Louisville has no match for Draymond Green. In fact, the Cardinals' center, Gorgui Dieng, is pretty good on defense but he's no threat on offense. During the Syracuse-Louisville game in Kentucky earlier this year, the Orange purposely stopped guarding Dieng, who continued to miss wide-open shots. Don't think Tom Izzo won't look at that game tape. The Gators-Golden Eagles game will be an up-and-down score-fest. (Those who watched the Marquette-Murray State game will understand.)

Look for a more in-depth preview of each game later this week.

Footnote: Of the three Final Four teams from 2011, only Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 in this year's tournament. UConn. lost in the first round, VCU in the second and Butler plays Penn tonight in the College Basketball Invitational, which pretty much amounts to the Toilet Bowl of postseason hoops.

South Region Preview

March 14, 2012 in Preview

Top Four Seeds: Kentucky, Duke, Baylor, Indiana
Sleepers: UConn., Wichita State, UNLV
Best players: Anthony Davis (Kentucky), Jordan Hulls (Indiana), Perry Jones III (Baylor), Austin Rivers (Duke)
Best coaches: John Calipari (UK), Jim Calhoun (UConn.), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
Best nickname: Mississippi Valley State University Delta Devils (who lost in the play-in game)

Overview: With two Hall of Fame coaches (and another who specializes in the one-and-done), this region is extremely balanced. Kentucky is the presumptive pick to win it all, and while I can't guarantee that, it's hard to find a team that will defeat them. However, it won't come without some scares. UConn. is playing very well now, UNLV is trying to reconnect with its glorious roots and Duke can cruise to a title at any point.

Predicted Final Four Representative: Kentucky.

Yes, there are major hurdles. Yes, they're not that deep. But they're also the best team in the country and that'll be enough to return them to Final Four.