What are the top story lines of the Final Four?
1. Battle for the state of Kentucky:
No. 1 Kentucky battles No. 4 Louisville in the first Final Four contest on Saturday, and in case you didn't know, the two schools don't really like each other. Rather, the fans of the two schools despise each other. This isn't your run of the mill fan trash talk, this is good 'ol country hate. There are rivalries, and then there are dialysis patients pounding each other while getting treatment--as was the case this week. And then there is this:
All that separates the Kentucky and Louisville is a 75-mile strip of Interstate-64, and despite being in different conferences they do battle early every season. This year, the Wildcats bested the Cardinals, with the schools ranked Nos. 3 and 4 respectively at the time, at Rupp Arena in Lexington 69-62 thanks to a massive game (24 points and 19 rebounds) from freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Louisville proved, however, to be one of the Wildcats' feistiest opponents, even on the road. Despite the fact that the Cardinals are outmatched in talent on the court, with a week to prepare, Rick Pitino's squad seems like a good bet to, at the very least, cover the nine-point spread on Saturday.
2. Thomas Robinson vs. Jared Sullinger
The other semifinal game between Ohio State and Kansas pits the two best power forward prospects in the country against one another. Robinson and Sullinger were supposed to square off back in December, when the Buckeyes traveled to Allen Fieldhouse, but back spasms held Sullinger out of the game and the Jayhawks prevailed 78-67.
It would take a lot more than back spasms to keep Sullinger of this Final Four matchup. The two-time All-American is from Columbus, and would like nothing more than to bring a championship to his hometown school before heading off the the NBA.
Sullinger was the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year, and despite averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, he has taken a backseat in the Player of the Year race to Kansas' Robinson, who went from a role player last year to the only unanimous First-Team All-American. Built like a house, Robinson averaged 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
Unfortunately for basketball fans, it's unclear how much time the two will spend guarding each other Saturday. Kansas coach Bill Self indicated that he would likely have Jeff Withey, not Robinson, matched up on Sullinger early.
For Ohio State defensively, if Sullinger is matched up on Robinson he has to be careful to stay out of foul trouble, as he has been prone to picking up quick fouls all season.
3. Danny Manning and Barry Hinson leaving Kansas
This week Kansas lost two members of its coaching staff to head coaching positions elsewhere. First, Barry Hinson, Kansas' Director of Basketball Operations, accepted the head coaching job at Southern Illinois. Then Kansas legend Danny Manning was hired to take over Tulsa basketball, a team that current Jayhawks' coach Bill Self once led.
Both Hinson and Manning will remain with Kansas through the Final Four, but how will their impending departures impact the Kansas team? Could they become a distractions? Or will the team rally around them to send them off in style?
Manning's influence on the Kansas program has been as tangible as anyone's. In addition to being one of the team's all-time best players and leading Kansas to the 1988 National Championship, he has been an integral part of the coaching staff since joining in 2004.
Under Manning's tutelage, Kansas' big men have gotten markedly better during their time in Larence. The examples are a-plenty, from Wayne Simien, to Darrell Arthur, to Darnell Jackson, to Cole Aldrich to the Morris twins to this year's project: Robinson.
4. Can anyone beat Kentucky?
The numbers are obviously astounding. Six players average double figures. The team shoots nearly 50 percent from the field (and even make 73 percent of free throws, which is great for a John Calipari team)!
The athleticism is even more impressive. The length of Anthony Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist is nreal, but what is more impressive is the unselfishness of the players. Any of Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague could likely average 20 points a game. But instead they share the basketball, and Davis leads the way at 14.3 points a game.
The Wildcats have already beaten two of their potential opponents this season. The beat Louisville in the aforementioned game, and they also downed Kansas 75-65 in the second game of the season. Despite those wins, it is hard to put too much stock in November games. Both Kansas and Kentucky are different, better and more-experienced teams than they were back in November.
Regardless, Kentucky is the odds-on favorite to win the National Championship. But title-less John Calipari might have to take on a pair of former-champion coaches in Pitino in the semis and Self in the finals, so the Wildcats still have some hills to climb.