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First Look at the Final Four

A four-stage look at what’s in store in New Orleans:

As fond as my memories are from last year’s NCAA tournament, there was a pervading sense that by the time we reached Houston, the drama was on a downward arc. Butler had already delivered a buzzer-beater, the gaffe game, and a double-digit comeback against Florida; VCU had dropped so much swag on the bracket, upsetting Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, that you worried if the Rams were spent. Kemba-mania had captivated the country for weeks already, and the Kentucky team that made an ahead-of-schedule appearance was not on the same level as the big, bad blue menace that dominated 2011-12. At Reliant Stadium, we witnessed an underwhelming Final Four and a widely panned title game. We went home hoping that next year would be better.

In a few days, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas will arrive in New Orleans, and the vibe will different. The vibe is already different — there is the sense that the tournament has been building up to this quartet, rather than winding down. That after so many buzzer-beaters gone wrong, so many games bogged down by painful officiating, we are due for a few epics. We have endured the agony of these endgame malfunctions …

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Many Agonizing Moments

The comments more likely to linger are that of Pitino, talking about the enemy’s fans: “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.” Or the words from Cardinals guard Chris Smith, who said on Saturday, without naming Kentucky but clearly referring to Kentucky, that “we owe some people some pain.” He also told CBSSports.com that he believed Louisville center Gorgui Dieng was as good as national player of the year Anthony Davis, and that Cardinals freshman Chane Behanan, who won the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player award, was the third-best power forward in the nation. Which means that Smith was modest enough to leave room for Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson at the top of that power forward list, but not Kentucky’s Terrence Jones. Them’s fightin’ words, and it’s only Monday. Final Four week and hate week have merged into one, and it should be glorious.

On the subject of Smith’s power-forward rankings: The only way Kentucky-Louisville was getting pushed to the early slot — 6:07 p.m. — on Saturday was if CBS had the opportunity to market something monumental in the nightcap. A clash of Sullinger and Robinson, first-team All-Americans and soon-to-be lottery picks, qualified as monumental. The nation was robbed of seeing the 6-foot-9 bullies square off on Dec. 10 in Lawrence, when back spasms kept Sullinger out of the game and Kansas won handily, 78-67. Either the Gods listened to all the whining from the punditry (and NBA scouts) over that missed opportunity and arranged this rematch, or Sullinger (who had 19-and-7 against Syracuse in the Elite Eight) and Robinson (who had 18-and-9 against North Carolina) were just too dominant to be kept out of the Final Four.

If you’re looking to arm yourself with talking points for the prize fight, these might help:

• Sully and T-Rob have actually faced off multiple times in the past calendar year — as summer counselors at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio, and the Adidas Nations Global Experience in Los Angeles. At LeBron camp in July, Robinson called Sullinger “one of the smartest basketball players I’ve been around.” Video snippets of some of the Adidas Nations scrimmages from August can be found on DraftExpress, and some longer, grainy footage also exists on YouTube. T-Rob was just starting to showcase his off-the-dribble game, and Sullinger wasn’t putting in anywhere near the defensive effort that he does at Ohio State (the presence of defensive-minded Thad Matta on the sideline, rather than a sleepy scrimmage crowd, obviously has an impact). Scouts in attendance at both camps were impressed with Robinson, and he remains slightly higher on most draft boards, but a huge semifinal from Sully could result in a stock readjustment.

• Sullinger is a more efficient offensive player (a 119.0 rating while using 27.4 percent of his team’s possessions) than Robinson (a 106.9 rating while using 29.7 percent of possessions). But Robinson is the more dominant rebounder, with OR/DR% splits of 11.3/31.0 compared to Sullinger’s 12.3/24.2.

• Robinson is twice as likely to get points in transition than Sullinger is. Fastbreak possessions account for 10.4 percent of Robinson’s offense, and just 4.7 percent of Sullinger’s, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

• When they range away from the blocks, Sullinger is the superior jump shooter by a margin of 1.016 points per possession to 0.701 PPP, according to Synergy. He has also made 16 threes (at a 42.1 percent clip) to Robinson’s six (at a 46.2 percent clip.) But if the game comes down those two taking long-range shots, it’ll have a hard time living up to its billing.

Is it wrong that I’m more excited to see Louisville’s maddening star, Russ Smith, try to create points against Kentucky’s defense than I am to see Sully/T-Rob? Anyone who was in Phoenix this weekend developed an affinity for Russ, whom Pitino has nicknamed “Russ-diculous” for the sheer volume and range of plays — positive and negative — Smith makes when he’s inserted off the bench. If you haven’t been watching Smith, he’s like a scrawnier version of Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, with even more energy and less restraint on his shot. (And if you haven’t been watching Taylor, be aware that he has no restraint.)

Pitino likes to say that Smith, who carried the Cardinals to the Final Four with 19 points against Florida, makes coffee nervous. The coach was so annoyed by Smith’s constant nail-biting in practice that he ordered the Cardinals’ trainer to put cayenne-pepper oil, purchased in the baby section at Walgreen’s, on Smith’s hands to make him stop. Smith has so much excess fuel to burn that he stayed up until 2 a.m. “doing pushups” on the night before the Elite Eight game. I devoted a whole column to Russ-diculous on Saturday and willing to write more — especially if he replicates his 30-point effort from the first Louisville-Kentucky game, and the result is different. That would make him a Bluegrass legend, as the fearless guard who took on Kentucky’s alien force in the paint, Anthony Davis, and found a way to release shots beyond the reach of his 18.125-unibrows-long wingspan:

The NCAA tournament has not been without its surprises: No. 15 Norfolk State shocking Missouri (and the world), No. 15 Lehigh dissecting Duke, Ohio reaching the Sweet 16 and taking North Carolina to the wire. But the statistic that links together the four regional champs is not a coincidence:

• West Regional teams, in order of defensive efficiency ranking on kenpom.com: Louisville (1), Michigan State (3), Marquette (14), Florida (70). Louisville locked down everyone in its path, in stunning fashion, and cut down the net in Phoenix.

• East Regional teams, in order of defensive efficiency ranking: Ohio State (2), Wisconsin (5), Syracuse (17), Cincinnati (22). Ohio State emerged from Boston.

• South Regional teams, in order of defensive efficiency ranking: Kentucky (11), Baylor (39), Xavier (56), Indiana (62). Kentucky moved on to New Orleans.

• Midwest Regional teams, in order of defensive efficiency ranking: Kansas (4), North Carolina (10), Ohio (41), NC State (63). Kansas reigned in St. Louis.

In every quadrant of the Sweet 16, the best defensive team won. In the past 10 seasons, just four teams have reached the Final Four with a defense ranked outside the top 30 in efficiency: Texas (44) and Marquette (101) in 2003, and Butler (49) and VCU (86) in 2011. This is the age of defense in college basketball — pace and point totals are down because of the physical, tough-to-crack defensive schemes, not to mention extra-terrestrial shot-blockers — and nothing will come easy in New Orleans. It’s fortunate that the oddsmakers’ projected Monday-night pairing of Kentucky (No. 2 in points per possession) and Ohio State (No. 7) would also feature two elite offenses. Without scoring, no one will call the title game a climax.

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