NEW ORLEANS -- Technically, it is called the Final Four, but a more appropriate title would be Kentucky and the Three Hopefuls. There is simply no doubting the overriding storyline heading into college basketball's culminating weekend. Beating the Big Blue in the Big Easy is going to be very, very hard.
But wait, there's hope. The Other Three are very good teams; otherwise, they wouldn't be here. Fortunately, your resident Hoop Thinker -- or should I say, Hope Thinker? -- has come along to drain a few three-pointers as I outline how Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas can pull off the upset.
These teams are more plodding than their reputations would lead you to believe. According to Kenpom.com, the Cardinals are ranked 125th in the country in tempo; Kentucky is 160th. Still, Louisville is the one that really needs to keep the pace slow and possessions low. That means employing the early-and-late strategy on offense. If the Cardinals can get a transition bucket and score early in the shot clock, they should do it. If they can't, they should run some clock. The last thing the Cardinals want is for Kentucky to get its fast break going. Once UK starts running, the Wildcats will be going downhill all night.
The best way to manage pace is to take care of the basketball. On that front the Cardinals have shown some promise -- but only lately. During the season they ranked 217th in the country in turnover percentage. During the NCAA tournament, however, they have committed 15 fewer turnovers than their opponents. Against Florida's vaunted fullcourt pressure, Louisville coughed it up just six times. Point guard Peyton Siva has committed 12 turnovers to go along with 28 assists in these four games. So they've proven they can do it. Whether they do it on Saturday is still a question.
It's ironic that on the 25th anniversary of the year Rick Pitino's Providence Friars rode the three-point shot to the Final Four (in New Orleans, naturally), he has brought one of the worst-shooting teams he has ever had back to the Big Easy. This season, the Cardinals made just 31.7 percent of their three-point attempts, which was ranked 14th in the Big East and 272nd in the country. During the NCAA tournament, they have made 39 percent -- much of that coming courtesy of the two Smiths, Chris and Russ. (Or as Pitino calls him, Russ-diculous, in deference to his shot selection.)
Can they keep that up? Hard to say. But if they do, they've got a puncher's chance.
The Cardinals will enjoy a huge psychological advantage in this game -- and they know it. Nobody expected them to be here. Everybody expected Kentucky to be here. Louisville's fans are thrilled their team is playing in this game. Kentucky's fans are panicked their team might lose it.
John Calipari knows it's pointless to tell his players to tune out all of these externals. They're too wired in. That wouldn't be such a concern if this weren't such a young team, but there's no telling how 19- and 20-year-old kids will perform under this kind of duress.
So Louisville's best strategy is to hope the young Cats succumb to the pressure and play terribly. It's hard to make shots when you can't breathe.
If the Wildcats play the Buckeyes on Monday night, it will be one of the few times all season that they go up against a team that's equal, if not stronger in the rebounding department. Both teams were ranked in the top 10 nationally in rebound margin this season, but the Buckeyes' margin (+7.6) was slightly better than UK's (+7.3). During the tournament Kentucky has out-rebounded opponents by six per game; Ohio State by 10 per game. Ohio State is ranked second in the country in defensive rebound percentage; Kentucky is 104th.
An edge on the backboards wouldn't just give Ohio State more possessions. It would dent Kentucky's spirit. The Wildcats love to intimidate opponents, but Big Sully and company are not going to be pushed around so easily.
Most of the Buckeyes have done their part on this front. Deshaun Thomas has been a revelation, leading the team in scoring at 21.8 points per game while draining 41.2 percent of his three-point attempts (and 52.2 overall). Lenzelle Smith Jr., is shooting 46.7 percent from three and 53.8 percent overall. Aaron Craft isn't doing much from behind the arc, but at least he's making 52.4 percent from the floor. Even Jared Sullinger has made three of his five attempts from three. Makes you wonder why he didn't take more of them during the season.
The lone exception has been William Buford, the Buckeyes' only senior. Buford has defended his tail off, to be sure, and he did grab nine rebounds in the regional final against Syracuse. Offensively, however, he has been inept. During the NCAA tournament, Buford is shooting a woeful 29.5 percent overall and 33.3 percent from three-point range. If he doesn't shoot better in New Orleans, Ohio State probably will not get by Kansas, much less Kentucky.
Anthony Davis has put up some remarkable numbers this season, but this one might the most remarkable of all: One. That's the number of times he has fouled out. In fact, there have only been three occasions when Davis committed as many as four fouls -- and none since Dec. 10 in the loss to Indiana.
Yet, Davis did pick up his second foul early in the first half against Indiana in the Sweet 16. Calipari sat him the rest of the half and he didn't commit any fouls after intermission. Indiana's front line is not as big and strong as Ohio State's, so the Buckeyes have a better chance of putting Davis in foul trouble.
To pull this off, they're going to need some help, not just from Davis but especially from the referees. If the zebras call the game tight, then the Buckeyes' chance to win goes from slim to 50-50. That's their best hope. Davis getting in foul trouble is Kentucky's kryptonite. Without him, the Wildcats not quite so Super.
If Kansas hadn't been such a terrific defensive team (especially in second halves), the folks in Lawrence would still be muttering to themselves about that painful loss to Purdue.
The Jayhawks were one of the best defensive teams in the country this season (fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, sixth in field goal percentage defense, 11th in blocks), but they have been especially good during this tournament. Opponents are shooting just 35.7 percent from the field and 26 percent from three. (During the regular season those numbers were 38.1 and 34.5.) And of course, the Jayhawks have the only player at the Final Four who is in Davis' galaxy when it comes to blocking shots -- Jeff Withey, the 7-foot junior whose 10 blocks against N.C. State were the biggest reason KU got past the Sweet 16.
This asset will be in high demand should the Jayhawks play Kentucky in the final, as I believe they will. While Kentucky's defense has earned its share of hosannas, they have been even better on offense during the tournament. They're shooting well from the field (53.0 percent), the three-point line (44.9), and especially from the foul line (76.6). Ironic, isn't it? (See Calipari, John and Rose, Derrick in 2008 NCAA final.)
That overall field goal percentage is inflated because Kentucky is so good in transition. By himself, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a one-man fast break, and a breathtaking one at that. So the first thing Kansas will have to do is beat the Cats back in transition. Then they have to lock 'em up in the halfcourt. It's easier said than done. But it must be done.
It's remarkable, but Tyshawn Taylor has not made a single three-pointer during this tournament. That's 0-for-17 and counting. In fact, Taylor has never made a three-pointer in a dome in his entire career. When that was pointed out to him after the regional final win over North Carolina, Taylor asked, "Is New Orleans a dome too?" Told that it was, he replied, "Aw, man."
But Taylor is to Kansas what Buford is to Ohio State. Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford have done well to supplant Taylor's offensive problems the last two weeks, but to beat the best, a team's best players have to play their best. If Taylor can't find the bottom of the net this weekend, the Jayhawks won't be worth a damn in the dome.
A true competitor (or decent human being) would never hope for an opponent to suffer injury or illness, but let's be honest: the Jayhawks caught a huge break (literally) when North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall was lost to a fractured wrist. The Tar Heels played Stilman White at point guard for 28 minutes, and it was still a one-point game with three minutes to go. It's not unreasonable to suggest that North Carolina would have won if Marshall had been in the lineup.
Likewise, Baylor fans weren't hoping that Davis would hurt his knee (or at least I hope they weren't hoping), but their only hint of optimism in the second half came when Davis bruised his knee and had to be helped to the sideline. Maybe Kansas will get (gulp) lucky again. Maybe Davis's knee isn't 100 percent. Maybe Kidd-Gilchrist will come down with a nasty stomach virus and have to run off the court to go potty, a la Bobby Hurley during the 1990 championship game loss to UNLV. Maybe Terrence Jones will somnambulate through this game like he did the Indiana game back in December. A funny bounce, a bad call, an accidental tip-in, a mechanical error with the clock ... anything can happen during a basketball game, especially one as big as the NCAA championship.
So no, the cause isn't lost. The games must be played. If there's one thing we've learned in sports, it's the power of belief and chance. That's why we love sports so much. We still believe in a place called hope.