Big Boys only in the Big Easy

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by John Marshall

It’s going to be big boys only in the Big Easy.

After a couple years of mid-majors breaking into the party and little guys leading their teams to titles, the Final Four will feature power players from power conferences.

FreshmanAttention
FRESHMAN PHENOM—Kentucky’s Anthony Davis works against Baylor defenders during the first half of an NCAA tournament South Regional finals college game March 25, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The players are as good as it gets when it comes to big men: Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. They’re all first-team All-Americans, and Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng isn’t bad, either.

The teams, traditionally strong: Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State. Every one of them has won a national title, been to at 10 or more Final Fours—all at least once in the past seven years—and have coaches who have won titles or coached in the title game.

Did we mention Louisville and Kentucky are playing each other?

Yeah, this is going to big.

THE STARS

You know college basketball, you know these guys. We’re going to tell you about them anyway.

Robinson, Kansas. Big, strong, athletic, a double-double waiting to happen. Hard to believe this unanimous All-American wasn’t much more than a bit player last season.

Davis, Kentucky. The 6-foot-10 forward has had as much an impact as any of coach John Calipari’s recent run of freshmen phenoms. Athletic and with a pterodactyl-like wingspan, he scores, he swats, he disrupts.

Sullinger, Ohio State. The AP’s first repeat All-American in three years, Sullinger is the prototype of today’s big man: Big and physical, yet with good touch away from the basket and agile enough to get to the rim. Didn’t play when Kansas beat the Buckeyes on Dec. 10 because of a sore back.

Peyton Siva, Louisville. The Cardinals point guard can take over games with his scoring, but it’s his ability to get everyone involved that makes him so dangerous. Quick enough to get around a lightning bolt, he’ll keep probing the defense until he finds the best shot for himself or a teammate.

THE SIDEKICKS

Not the stars, but not far behind.

Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas. Ty is the guy when it comes to running Kansas’ offense.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State. Sullinger gets all the attention, but Thomas has been the Buckeyes’ leading scorer in the postseason, averaging 21.8 points per game.

Kyle Kuric, Louisville. The Cardinals’ leading scorer barely needs to touch the ball to get a shot off.

Terrence Jones, Kentucky. The Wildcats have an NBA team in the making, so it was hard to pick just one player. We went with Jones, the super sophomore with the multidimensional skills who creates so many matchup problems.

THE COACHES

Rick Pitino, Louisville. The first coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, he’s put together one of the best coach-’em-up jobs of his career this season, leading a team that had some big stumbles during the season into his sixth trip to the Final Four.

Calipari, Kentucky. Became the second coach to take three teams to the Final Four when he got the Wildcats to Houston last season. Only thing missing for this master recruiter is a title.

Thad Matta, Ohio State. Has the Buckeyes in the Final Four for the second time in six years after reaching the title game with Greg Oden in 2007. Kicking the team out of practice after a rough stretch in February, which prompted a team meeting, helped kick-start OSU’s run to New Orleans.

Bill Self, Kansas. Solidified his reputation by winning 2008 national title with Jayhawks, led a team that was supposed to be rebuilding to the Final Four this season.

NUMBERS

2.5—Ohio State’s line over Kansas.

8.5—Kentucky’s line over Louisville.

13—Combined national championships by this year’s Final Four teams: Kentucky (7), Kansas (3) Louisville (2) Ohio State (1).

52—Years since Ohio State’s lone national title.

77.9—Points per game by Kentucky, most of the Final Four teams.

SUBTLETIES

The natural inclination during a basketball game is to follow the ball. Whoever puts it through the hoop most wins the game, so that makes sense.

Beyond that simple action, there are countless subtle things that lead to the ball going in or, in the case of the defense, not going in.

Here’s a few to watch during this weekend’s games:

Dieng’s anticipation. It’s one thing to see Louisville’s Senegalese shot blocker swoop in at the last minute and swat a shot away, but watch before the shot goes up, the way he sets himself up and figures out when to jump. And that coil—he’s like a cobra waiting to strike.

Sullinger’s footwork. Satch Sullinger, Jared’s father and high school coach, had the Ohio State forward working on his footwork from an early age and now he’s like Chris Brown dancing around the basket. Pay particular attention to the way he uses his pivot foot to face up to the basket.

Taylor’s first step. The Kansas point guard can blow past pretty much anyone in the game. That quick first step is what does it; watch how quickly he gets it even or past the defender’s leg to shoot by him.

Aaron Craft’s off-the-ball defense. The Ohio State point guard has tap-dancer-quick feet and is like a second jersey while following an opposing guard around. He doesn’t want his man to get the ball, he’s probably not going to get it.

ODDS

Here’s your odds to win the title, from Glantz-Culver, even though no really bets on these things (Yeah, right):

Kentucky, 6-5.

Ohio State, 2-1.

Kansas, 5-2.

Louisville, 6-1.

DID YOU KNOW?

Kansas forward Justin Wesley’s two older brothers, Keith and Kevin Langford, both played in the NBA. Freshman guard Christian Garrett is the cousin of former NFL player Mike Garrett and New York Yankees great Chris Chambliss.

For the inroads mid-majors have made in recent years, the national champion will come from one of the six power conferences for the 22nd straight year. UNLV in 1990 was the last smaller-conference school to break through.

Louisville’s Chris Smith is the younger brother of J.R. Smith of the NBA’s New York Knicks and Mark Jackson Jr. is the son of former NBA guard and current television analyst Mark Jackson.

Calipari played point guard at Clarion State from 1981-82, leading the team in assists and free throw percentage.

The Superdome is expected to hold more than 74,000 fans after the lower bowl was reconfigured. Attendance was 54,524 when it last held the NCAA title game in 2003.

Ohio State guard Shannon Scott’s father is former Boston Celtics great Charlie Scott.

Marquis Teague’s brother, Jeff, plays for the NBA’s (Atlanta Hawks) and his Kentucky teammate Terrence Jones is the cousin of former NBA player Damon Stoudamire.

Ohio State has finished as the national runner-up four times: 1944, 1945, 1946, 1968

That should be enough to get you going. And, enjoy—it’s hard to imagine a Final Four much bigger than this one.

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