TSHQ Final Four Preview
By Gus Elvin
Well we are down to the Final Four and with just 3 NCAA Tournament games remaining it is time to preview the National Semifinals and project a winner. The remaining teams: Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State have all won 4 games up to this point, but all 4 still stand 2 wins from the ultimate prize. In terms of seeds, we have Kentucky as the lone remaining #1 seed, Kansas and Ohio State as #2 seeds, and Louisville as a bit of a surprise as a #4 seed. If you have been following the site you are well aware of my 1st weekend struggles, but I have rebounded since, bouncing back with an 8-0 Sweet 16 round, and a 3-1 record in the Elite 8(lone loss UNC vs. Kansas). I look to continue that run with my Final Four projections as I will preview the 2 semifinal games and give you my unbiased and professional opinion on who the winner will be. If you don’t believe me, I agonizingly picked against my Alma Mater, Syracuse last round, in a move that truly made my stomach turn. So here we go we have finally reached New Orleans and it is time to preview the 2012 Final Four with TSHQ. We will start with the 2 semifinal matchups and then I will complete my NCAA Tournament Preview segment with my Championship Game Preview this Sunday, April 1st.
Saturday’s National Semifinals
*6:09pm 1 Kentucky vs. 4 Louisville (New Orleans, La)- If a Final Four tilt didn’t have enough drama, how ‘bout an instate rivalry game in the Final Four? Well that’s what we have this weekend as the Bluegrass state of Kentucky takes center stage in the world of college basketball, as Louisville meets Kentucky with a bid in the NCAA Championship game on the line. Add in that Louisville’s coach used to coach Kentucky and we have even more drama. The question is will the game live up to all the pregame hype and story lines? Or will this game be a one sided affair between the overall #1 seed Kentucky and an upstart Louisville team that really didn’t look convincing until the Big East Tournament.? Well we will find out this weekend as top seeded Kentucky and 4th seeded Louisville tangle in New Orleans in our 1st NCAA semifinal. The Wildcats come into this game as the favorite as they are the team with the 4 potential lottery picks and the team with the 36-2 record. Add in that UK beat Louisville earlier this season (69-62) and the Wildcats are a popular pick to advance past the Cardinals. The Wildcats have been the best team this season wire to wire thus far as their blend of talented freshmen and sophomores have led them to the Final Four. UK particularly relies on their frontcourt as Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis key this team both offensively and defensively. As good as Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist are, the biggest key to UK’s success is their center Anthony Davis. Davis, just a freshman, has been without a doubt the most influential player in the country this season as he not only leads the team in scoring (14.6ppg) and rebounding (10rpg) but also leads the nation in blocked shots, averaging 4.5 blocks per contest. This is where Davis has the biggest impact as the future #1 overall pick, completely takes over games on the defensive end because of his length, athleticism and timing. UK offensively is also extremely unselfish as a team, as they rarely force shots and seem to value winning collectively than individual statistics, which is rare for such a young team. On the perimeter the Wildcats are also quite capable as they shoot 39% from 3-point range as a team, led by marksmen Doron Lamb (47%) and Darius Miller (38%). While the Wildcats have rarely been threatened this season and in this tournament have yet to be seriously challenged , Coach Cal know it just takes 1 off day or 1 slipup and it’s all over. The team rooting for that slipup is the challenger, the Louisville Cardinals who once again have overshadowed an inconsistent season by getting hot late and making a late season run. In what has become Rick Pitino’s trademark the Cardinals have thrived late in the season building on their Big East Championship run by advancing all the way to the Final Four. The key difference for the Cardinals has been the improvement of their defense, as Louisville has turned up their pressure defense and thus have forced more turnovers and created more chaos for opponents. The 2 players at the center of this change have been speedy guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, as both have stepped up their play of late and been the sparkplugs of Louisville’s tournament run. Siva who emerged late in the season as the catalyst for the Louisville offense, has been at his best of late, as he is the team’s best penetrator, distributor and pressure defender. Siva is not Louisville’s only guard to take note of, as 3-point marksman Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith and the energetic Russ Smith are all capable of leading the team on a given night. In their last game against Florida, Russ Smith proved to be the key as the sophomore led the team with 19 points. In this rematch against Kentucky, the Cardinals will need solid production from all of their guards but in particular the guy they need to get going is Kyle Kuric. Kuric (13.1ppg, 4.4apg) who has been Louisville’s best player over the past 2 seasons has been nonexistent so far in this NCAA Tournament as the senior has amassed just 38 points in the 4 NCAA games. If Louisville is to have real ambitions of winning this game, more production from Kuric is not just a hope but a must. The final individual to keep an eye on for Louisville is Gorgui Dieng, their 6-11 Senegalese center. Dieng who has vastly improved all aspects of his game as a sophomore, may be the biggest key to this game as his matchup with Anthony Davis could go a long way in determining a winner. Dieng will need to slow down Davis defensively and also control the glass for the Cardinals if Louisville is to have any chance of knocking off their instate rival. In the end Kentucky has just too much talent and too much athleticism upfront for Louisville and will pull away late in the 2nd half. The Cardinals will compete in this game because of the 3-point shot and their pressure defense but in the end, Louisville just doesn’t have an answer for Anthony Davis and MKD, as Kentucky advances to Monday night’s NCAA Championship game. Kentucky has been the best team all year for a reason and going against a Louisville team that finished in the middle of the pack, the Wildcats will flex their muscles.
X-Factor: Gorgui Dieng, Louisville- The Cardinals will need their center to play larger than life Saturday as the sophomore goes head to head with the nation’s best center, Anthony Davis. Davis is the favorite in this matchup as the freshman averages 15 points, 10 boards and 4.5 blocks but don’t discount Dieng who much quietly is averaging 10 points, 9 rebounds and over 3 blocks. In this tournament Dieng has already shown he can be a major factor as against Michigan State’s vaunted frontline led by Draymond Green, it was Dieng who stole the show with 9 rebounds, 7 blocks and 3 steals. Louisville just needs Dieng and Chane Behanan(9 ppg, 7.4rpg) to be solid defensively against UK, as anything they get on the offensive end will be gravy as far as Rick Pitino is concerned. Dieng is capable, and in a matchup of 2 of the nation’s top shot blockers it will be interesting to see which has the bigger impact on the game. If Dieng can make life difficult for Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and the guards of UK, Louisville has a chance to pull off a stunner.
Last Word: Kentucky has passed almost every test so far this season and once again the Wildcats will pass the test as this young UK team will march on to the NCAA Finals. People do not realize how much of an impact Anthony Davis makes on the game and in this one Davis will deter Louisville’s guards from getting into the lane and on the other end will be a nuisance on the offensive glass against a smaller Cardinal team. As much as it pains me to say it UK will march on and await the winner of Kansas and Ohio State. Kentucky lacks a true weakness, and with their talented frontcourt and ability to shoot from the perimeter , this team looks to be on a mission to win the NCAA title.
*8:49pm 2 Kansas vs. 2 Ohio State (New Orleans, La)- In our 2nd semifinal, we have another rematch and I think the potential for one of the best games of the entire tournament. Both teams come in as 2 seeds, with Kansas at 31-6 on the season and Ohio State 31-7 on the year. In the 1st matchup Kansas beat the Buckeyes in Lawrence 78-67. The catch is in that game Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes best player did not play. In the rematch, things should be a lot more even as everyone is healthy and a trip to the finals is on the line. I could talk about field goal percentages or defensive statistics but instead I am going to get right down to the matchups and my prediction. To me this game comes down to individual matchups as Jared Sullinger takes on Thomas Robinson, and Tyshawn Taylor matches up against Williams Buford. We will start in the frontcourt where Sullinger (17.6ppg, 9.3rpg) and Thomas Robinson (17.9ppg, 11.8rpg) lock horns for the 1st time. Robinson who has had a remarkable season, especially when you consider what he has been through in the last year, is one of the favorites for National Player of the Year. The junior has been almost unstoppable in the paint as he has scored in double figures in all but one game this season. Robinson, a terrific athlete, will look to overpower Sullinger inside where he has an advantage in terms of athleticism and power. Sullinger is also an All-American and has added to his repertoire this season developing an outside shot which has added to his versatility and made him tougher to guard. In this matchup the ability of Sullinger to step out will help pry Robinson away from the lane and create open alleys for Buford, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. In the end though this matchup will be pretty much a wash, as both players are going to get theirs, so to speak and cancel each other out. In the backcourt the matchup of senior guards Williams Buford(14.7ppg, 4.9rpg, 3apg) and Tyshawn Taylor(17.3ppg, 4.8apg) is an intriguing one, as both have star potential but both also have had their share of struggles lately. If you don’t believe me, neither guard has scored more than 18 points yet this tournament, and in reality the 2 have combined for just 2 good shooting games out of a possible 8. In this game and with this atmosphere, I expect both to come to life as both are too good to be shut down for this long. Look for both to eclipse 18 points in this contest, as the 2 should have quite a duel from the shooting guard position. Once again I think this matchup will be too close to call, and in the end the 2 will cancel each other out. This is where I see the difference in the game, as the supporting casts for both teams should decide the victor. In the battle of the supporting casts, I like Ohio State as Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr, as this group is deeper and more talented than the role players of the Jayhawks. DeShaun Thomas(15.4ppg) to me looks like the biggest matchup problem as who will stop the versatile forward of the Buckeyes. Thomas who has been on a tear in this NCAA Tournament will be the difference once again as Kansas has no answer for Thomas, who should continue his recent run of play with another 20 point game.
X-Factor: DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State- Thomas is a handful for opponents in general but in this National Semifinal, Thomas will be especially tough to contain as Kansas has no one to truly matchup with him both inside and on the perimeter. Thomas has been Ohio State’s best player all tournament long, averaging a “pedestrian” 22ppg. in this game loaded with star power(Sullinger, Robinson, Buford, Taylor), it will be Thomas who steals the show, as the sophomore has emerged as a star for Thad Matta this season.
Last Word: Ohio State will squeak by Kansas because of their supporting cast of DeShaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. While both teams stars will cancel each other out, it will be the benches and the supporting players who will decide this game and that is why the Buckeyes are my pick to advance to Monday’s final against Kentucky.