Saturday, March 31, 2012

2012 Men's Basketball Tournament Final Four Preview: Opponents Will Feel Big Blue

To me, the overpowering dominance of the Kentucky Wildcats is reflected on the Las Vegas odds on who will be the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.  Not all of them have great chances, but the fact that the ‘Cats’ starting five are in the discussion when the same can’t be said for Louisville, Ohio St. or Kansas shows that not only are they the best team on paper, they could be one of the greatest teams in recent history.

But still: Three freshmen and two sophomores?  The last grand experiment of riding underclassmen to the NCAA national title was Michigan and the Fab Five, and they lost in the championship games of 1992 and 1993.  That leads some people to believe that you can’t win on one- (and two-) and-dones alone.  You have to have glue guys, people who don’t have an eye on the NBA Draft and will do the dirty work to eke out tough games against opponents geared up to take their best shot at you.

If John Calipari has a role player, it might be senior point guard/jack-of-all-trades Darius Miller.  Kentucky’s size and length alone gives them an advantage in their interior offense, and obviously their inside defense is damn well near impenetrable.  So, although this is a broken record, the way to bring down UK still seems to center on starting PG Marquis Teague and Miller.  The three clubs will probably have to find a way to short-circuit the offensive attack by attacking the playmaker.

So of the three opponents, two of whom will get their chance to deny the Wildcats their chance at a title many of us think is preordained for him, who can do it?  What are their chances?

From worst to best:

Ohio St.: The Buckeyes’ chances on winning have ridden all year on Jared Sullinger.  He was out with a bad back in their regular season game against Kansas (which they lost), so maybe the rematch against the Jayhawks will be different.  But even if they somehow get past KU, their offensive flow runs right into the Wildcats wall.  If Sullinger has been frustrated with his foul trouble so far this tourney, he’ll be downright throwing crap if he faces Kentucky.  So unless Willie Buford turns into a combination of Glen Rice and Pete Maravich, they have little to no shot.  Chances of beating Kentucky: Five percent.

Kansas: I had no idea the Jayhawks have no McDonald’s All-Americans on their squad.  So I guess what Bill Self has done has been nothing short of remarkable.  And maybe the slow starts his club has gotten off on all tournament is just a way for him to suss out the opponent and find the best combination to surpass and then blow past them in the end.

However, I can’t see that this flexibility will help against Kentucky because Anthony Davis’s arms will be as long as they already are and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will still be as versatile as he is.  Thomas Robinson (and to a lesser extent Tyshawn Taylor) does a lot more things for his Jayhawks, but Davis and MKG will shut him down if Kansas tries to raise a stink on the down-low.  And Self can’t even think they can start slow against the ‘Cats – if they have a choice, that is.  Chances of beating Kentucky: Ten percent.

Louisville: So how in the hell do I think Kentucky’s opponent this evening, the one with only the 102nd-most efficient offense in the country, has the best chance of toppling Kentucky.  One man: Rick Pitino.

I forgot how good of a coach he is after the Cardinals were upset in the first round of last year’s tournament by Morehead St.  This year he has engineered masterful defensive schemes (now the most efficient in Division I, according to the same chart by Ken Pomeroy) to take out more talented teams.  I thought Michigan St. was slated for the Final Four before Pitino bugged the Spartans into their worst-shooting game (and thus their last) of the year.  And Florida had their way with the Cardinals in the offensive end before Pitino switched from a zone to man-to-man defense.  The Gators didn’t make a three-pointer in the second half of their Elite Eight come-from-ahead loss to Louisville.

And don’t forget that Pitino has had seven days to gameplan against the Wildcats and Calipari, who still has yet to win a championship (let alone appear in a title game that hasn’t been taken away by the NCAA).  Can he make sure UK can’t shoot from the arc?  UL ranks third overall with a 38% three-point field goal percentage against.  Can he find a way to turn Teague over?  They steal the ball nine times per game, seventh-best in the country.  Can he somehow get Davis and/or Kidd-Gilchrist into foul trouble, thus opening up the lane for Chane Behanan, MOP of the West Regional?

The problem: Pitino can generate a surefire way to hold Kentucky to 40 points and still might not win.  The Cardinals remain at best mediocre in the Big Dance when they have the ball, shooting just 42.5% from the field.  Unless Behanan and Russ Smith somehow put this team on their backs and score, say, 25 apiece, I still don’t see the Cardinals winning today’s game.  Cover, maybe; last time I checked they were being given 8 ½ points.  But win?  Chances of beating Kentucky: 15 percent.

Jason Lisk of The Big Lead calculates that this Kentucky team is overrated in the context of best teams of all-time, that this club wouldn’t be even in the top 15 of the best teams of the past quarter-century.  I say that’s conjecture, especially if they win both games this weekend by 15, which they may very well do.  And then we’ll wait to see if Calipari and Kentucky get to keep their championship.

Posted by WilliamSou at 3:05 PM


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