Saturday, March 31, 2012

Four Rounds Down, Four Teams Left

As I post this, one of the key games of this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament will be getting underway—U. of Kentucky vs. its cross-state rival, the U. of Louisville. I promise not to tailor this posting to what may be occurring before my eyes in that one.

Kentucky, of course, is the #1 seed of the entire field, the pre-tourney favorite, and a team that has, so far, fully justified its rating. I won’t say that they toyed with their four opponents so far, but none of the games were close in the end. The key one for them up until now was their revenge victory over Indiana University, the only team to defeat the Wildcats in the regular season. They were charged up from the beginning, and, though the Hoosiers caught up and even led briefly in the second half, there was never doubt (in my mind, anyway) that they would win.

Louisville is the lowest seed remaining, at #4 in its region (called, technically, the “West”), but no longshot—after all, the Cardinals did win the Big East tournament. They have shown a lot of heart and resilience, as well as employing well coach Rick Pitino’s trademark full-court press for the full 40 minutes. Since the second round*, a tough battle against #5 seed New Mexico, Louisville has battled adversity or, in the case of their third-round match vs. #1 regional seed Michigan State, a favored opponent with talented, more famed players. The toughest game was actually in the regional final against regional #7 Florida—the tourney’s biggest overachiever, in terms of its seeding (though it gave a very good account of itself, showing the quality of the Gators’ late-season play, in the Southeastern Conference semifinal against Kentucky just before the tournament started): Louisville trailed most of the game and needed a late surge to pull out the victory.

I see the current matchup as, potentially, the greatest challenge Kentucky faces in its route to the championship. Louisville’s press could expose the closest thing Kentucky has to a weakness, its backcourt play. Point guard Marcus Teague is talented, but he is still a freshman and far from being the most accomplished of their starters. Louisville may be able to unnerve him or, worse, get him in early foul trouble.

If that happens, it will reflect too well on Pitino and badly on Kentucky’s coach John Calipari. Pitino’s team’s best game, against Michigan St., was like this one in Louisville’s having a full week to prepare (I wonder if he’s been able to keep them off the streets of New Orleans). Calipari has come up short in the later rounds before, despite having the best talent in the field: he has to have known what is coming and developed strategies to beat the press. I suspect that, if his star Anthony Davis is fully healthy (he had a minor knee injury in the last game), one will be to have Davis help out with that task. Davis is a fine ballhandler who was a point guard in the Chicago high school system until a late growth surge made him a spidery, agile shot-blocking big man ripe for the pros--he’s projected as the first pick in the pro draft.

In the other semifinal, I’m going with Ohio State over Kansas. Both teams were rated #2 in their regions, but the Buckeyes have looked far more impressive, with the exception of a few minutes when Kansas’ late surge allowed the Jayhawks to defeat its regional top seed, North Carolina. I honestly believe Ohio St. deserves the game more (Kansas won two earlier games—against Purdue and Florida State--they did not really deserve); both teams are equally talented, though Ohio St.’s top players have shone more so far, and finally, if Kentucky defeats Ohio St. in the final I stand to win the office pool. Confirmation bias, anyone?

* I refuse to go with the NCAA’s new labeling of the preliminary round, which has only four games with eight teams, all seeded below #10 in their regions, as the first round. It’s probably a sneaky move toward expanding the field yet again, and I’m not buying into it; until at least half of the teams in the tourney play it will remain “the preliminary round” in my commentary.

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