Monday, March 26, 2012

Final Four Preview: Red vs. Blue

By Ross Lancaster

There are four states in the union where college basketball takes on a cultural and sporting significance unlike the other 46: North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, and Kansas. The namesake universities of those four states compose 20 national championships. Other schools in those states are responsible for an additional eight titles. In this year's Final Four, three schools will come from Kentucky and Kansas alone.

Yet college basketball's importance in the Bluegrass State is magnified due to the absence of pro sports or big media markets with pro sports teams. From November until early April, college basketball is front and center among sports in Kentucky, with no NFL or NBA teams to grab the spotlight.

Even if you don't take into account the upper-echelon, big-money-making levels of college basketball, the 2011-12 season has been a banner year for hoops in Kentucky. Murray State lost two games all season and threatened to go undefeated. Western Kentucky was one of the nation's worst teams as late as January before firing its coach and going on a historic run through the Sun Belt tournament.

However, each school's NCAA tournament win in 2012 pales in comparison to what the Commonwealth has felt in the past week with Louisville and Kentucky winning their respective NCAA regions to set up a showdown for the ages in New Orleans.

There's no other way to state this: the game between the Wildcats and the Cardinals will be unlike anything we've ever seen in the Final Four. The college football equivalent would be if Auburn and Alabama could meet in the semifinals of a hypothetical playoff.

Of course, there's the rivalry and what it means to fans. Even if each team were to come into their annual late December meeting winless, the clash would be substantial for bragging rights among UK and UL fans who live, work and play amongst each other. But then there are the added psychological and emotional implications of this game, in this season, with these two teams and these two head coaches.

For Kentucky, 2011-12 has been treated as a title-or-bust campaign from a very early stage. No team in the country is more talented, nor has any team played nearly as well from November until now. It went through the SEC undefeated until losing to Vanderbilt in the final of the conference tournament, in a game John Calipari seemed fairly indifferent about winning. The Wildcats, despite their youth, carry a dominating swagger that isn't seen too often anymore in college basketball. With all due respect to Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose, this is Calipari's best team ever.

Louisville, on the other hand, looked to be anything but a Final Four team through large parts of January and February after starting 12-0. At their worst, the Cardinals looked like a train wreck offensively, and various injuries forced the use of some unconventional lineups. While it wasn't like Louisville was a bubble team by any stretch of the imagination, it still spent the winter months in the relative shadow of the school 80 miles to the east. As I've found out from former Kentucky residents, such an attention deficit is not unique to this season.

Some number of months ago, I asked my friend and grad school classmate Eric (a Kentucky native) about the rivalry. I particularly wanted to know what about how much of the state cheered on each team.

"Unless you're from Louisville or you went to Louisville, you're a UK fan. And even then, you might be a UK fan," he said.

The fact that UK has dominated the season, and dominates basketball in the Commonwealth is the main reason why I find this game so unbelievably fascinating. Simply put, if king Kentucky was to somehow lose to little brother Louisville on Saturday with possibly the best team college basketball has seen in the last 15 years, it would be about as devastating as a result could get for a fan base. And that's not even mentioning the fact that the hated Rick Pitino coaches the little brother.

From a totally objective viewpoint, it's tough to see how Louisville is going to beat Kentucky. It seems as if the Wildcats are just about the perfect basketball team. They score at will and get to the line at an astonishing rate. Their length and defensive acumen makes it impossible to score consistently against them, in the paint or on the perimeter. They can play up-tempo and get easy baskets in transition, as was the case against Indiana on Friday, or they can play methodically in the half court, as they did through much of the SEC season.

For a team that plays three freshmen and two sophomores in what is essentially a six-man rotation, it's downright unreal how high their basketball IQ is. This intelligence could be seen early on in the regional final against Baylor, as Terrence Jones, often maligned for his attitude, had several assists before taking a shot. Statistically speaking, on the year, the one thing Kentucky did not do was force turnovers at a high rate. I dare anyone who watched the Baylor game to tell me that the Wildcats can't.

Despite all of those factors, you just know that there's going to be a point in the game on Saturday where you ask yourself, "Shouldn't Louisville be down by a lot more right now?" It happened in the first game between the Wildcats and Cardinals, it happened on Saturday in the regional final against Florida, and it will probably happen again. There's something about the leadership and heart of Louisville's players that prevents them from getting blown out or quitting, even if the Cardinals are being outshot and outcoached for long periods of time, as they were against Florida. If Saturday's game comes down to the wire, Louisville will have all the confidence in the world in the final possessions, regardless of the talent gap.

While I can't agree with Chris Smith's assertion that Gorgui Dieng is as good as Anthony Davis, or that Chane Behanan is a top three power forward, Dieng and Behanan have certainly been forces in the paint for Louisville. Cardinal guards like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith can be maddening, inefficient and error-prone, but one of the two point guards almost always contributes key plays when a game is to be won.

Where Kentucky resembles six perfectly coordinated, hyper-athletic robots programmed to deliver Calipari his elusive first national title, Louisville is reminiscent of a high school team whose players have known each other for years and love committing to the defensive end of the floor for one another.

It's yet another dichotomy that adds to the intrigue of one of the most anticipated Final Four games in memory.

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