Final Four 2012: 15 Biggest Questions Still to Be Answered
Four teams arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday with their eyes on the prize—the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship.
Storylines abound as Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas prepare for Saturday's semifinals, with the winners advancing to Monday night's championship game.
But as many storylines as there are, there are even more questions as this Final Four begins.
Let's take a look at the 15 biggest questions still to be answered.
Will They Really Need to Build Fences on the Bridges in Lexington?
As soon as the West Regional championship was Louisville's, their coach, Rick Pitino, began the psychological warfare for Saturday's semifinal matchup with arch-rival Kentucky.
“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," Pitino said to CBSSports.com. "They've got to put the fences up on bridges."
"It doesn't matter this time of year. It matters to fans, but we're not worried about that,” he said.
But for a Wildcats team that is the odds-on favorite to leave the Big Easy with the championship trophy Monday night, the pressure is clearly on their shoulders, regardless of their coach's comments.
Can Louisville Take the Same Route as UConn Did to the Title?
Three teams in the Final Four won or shared their regular season conference championships, demonstrating excellence over an extended period of time.
The other, Louisville, is attempting to duplicate the path taken by fellow Big East member Connecticut last year, when the Huskies followed up a so-so regular season by first sweeping through the conference tournament and, with a full head of steam built up, did the same in the NCAA Tournament.
Or, Has Louisville Gone as Far as They Can Go?
“Outside of the births of my six children, this is the happiest day of my life,” Pitino said after winning the West Regional by defeating his former player and assistant coach, Billy Donovan.
This from a man who has won an NCAA championship (while coaching Saturday's opponent, Kentucky). Doesn't that imply that Pitino didn't expect this club to get this far?
Admittedly, it is an improbable run from a team that finished seventh in its conference. But the Cardinals have bought into Pitino's emphasis on defense and are clearly playing their best basketball of the year.
Will the Kentucky-Louisville Game Resemble Their First Meeting?
The first meeting between the two teams this season took place on New Year's Eve in Rupp Arena and contained a number of statistical oddities.
For one, the Cardinals got nearly half their total points from sophomore guard Russ Smith, who came off the bench to score a career-high 30 points. No other Louisville player scored in double figures.
In addition to that, Chane Behanan, Louisville's freshman power forward, was shackled with foul trouble, playing just 15 minutes before fouling out.
Last weekend, Kentucky had a lot of trouble stopping Baylor's Quincy Acy, a player of similar build and playing style to Behanan. The likelihood of additional floor time for Behanan should help Louisville not only reduce the whopping 49-28 rebounding advantage Kentucky enjoyed the first time, but also aid in keeping the tempo to their liking.
On the other side, Kentucky shot a dreadful 29 percent from the floor, but was saved by freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (19).
One thing that shouldn't change from the teams' first meeting is the difficulty of getting a shot cleanly to the rim from in close. Louisville's Gorgui Dieng and the 'Cats' Anthony Davis swatted away six shots each. Expect more of the same.
What Would Kentucky Look Like If Everyone Had Stayed?
If you think the team that Kentucky puts on the floor Saturday night looks unbeatable, imagine what it would have looked like if the last two years' "one-and-done" players were still there.
In the last two years Kentucky has seen DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and John Wall all race through Lexington faster than a few of the horses I've bet on at Keeneland.
When evaluating this year's Wildcats team, it is something worth considering that the Wall-Cousins team that also included Patrick Patterson and cruised to the regular-season and SEC tourney crowns could not make it out of their region to the Final Four.
Thus far, this Kentucky team has shown no signs of difficulty dealing with the pressure, but let's not forget that this is the youngest team to ever step on the "Big Stage," and none of Calipari's previous editions has come home with the coveted championship yet.
Many feel last year's team was the most talented in the tournament, knocking off the East Region's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in Ohio State and North Carolina, respectively. But they fell to a more-seasoned Connecticut team, led by Kemba Walker, in the semis.
Dealing with the incredible pressure of playing before a sold-out Superdome crowd with millions more watching around the world is something that is difficult to analyze when so many key players are facing such a situation for the first time.
Could It Be Calipari vs. Self Again for All the Marbles?
In 2008, John Calipari's Memphis Tigers led Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks by nine points with only 2:12 left in the national championship game in San Antonio.
Memphis had the game in their clutches, but made just one of five free throws in the last 72 seconds and got caught by a Mario Chalmers three-point shot with 2.1 seconds remaining.
The overtime was all Kansas and the Jayhawks had their third national championship while Self captured his first.
A year later, Coach Cal departed for Bluegrass Country. At Kentucky, his three teams have compiled a 100-14 record. In his first season, the 'Cats reached the Elite Eight. Last year, they made the Final Four. This year, they are a heavy favorite to make the championship game.
If they do, and the Jayhawks can get by Ohio State, the two head coaches will meet for the second time in five years in the national title game.
Will the Kansas-Ohio State Game Resemble Their First Meeting?
In this case, for a most obvious reason: Jared Sullinger didn't play last time.
On Dec. 10 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas dealt Ohio State its first loss of the season, 78-67.
Sullinger sat out for the second straight game with recurring back spasms. In his absence, the Kansas frontcourt combined to make 15 of 20 shots from the floor, led by Thomas Robinson's 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
Trying to pick up some of the offensive slack, the Ohio State backcourt duo of William Buford and Aaron Craft combined for 32 points, but on just 12-for-34 shooting and 2-for-9 from three-point range.
For the game, Kansas shot 58 percent from the floor to Ohio State's 38 percent. They also out-rebounded the Buckeyes by a 30-27 margin.
Which William Buford Will Show Up for Ohio State?
For the season, Ohio State guard William Buford is connecting from the floor at a 41 percent clip. Over the first 21 games the senior shot 40 percent or better from the field in 14 of them. But, in the last 17 games he has managed that feat just six times.
What's even more worrisome to the Buckeye faithful is his last three games in the tournament, in which Buford has been a dismal 8-for-33.
Buford's senior leadership has been a steadying influence for the Buckeyes this season. It's unlikely, however, that they can survive another subpar offensive effort from him.
Can Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Sustain Last Weekend's Surprise Numbers?
The very best teams usually have enough components to offset a poor effort by one player with an unexpectedly good one by another.
Last weekend at the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Ohio State demonstrated just such an ability.
With the Buckeyes receiving much-less-than-expected outputs from their lone senior, William Buford, sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. stepped up with the second and third-highest-scoring games of his career.
Against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, Smith hit 7-of-8 shots from the floor, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, for 17 points. He also collected six rebounds and dished out two assists while committing no turnovers.
In the Elite Eight victory over Syracuse, Smith shot 40 percent from the floor and was 3-of-6 from three-point range. He also made 7-of-9 free throws for a total of 18 points.
Have I mentioned that prior to last weekend Lenzelle Smith, Jr. was averaging just six points a game?
Needless to say, Smith has been the X-factor that helped punch Ohio State's ticket to New Orleans. Can Smith do it again and will the Buckeyes need him to do it?
Is This Season Bill Self's Best Job of Coaching so Far?
Yes, Bill Self is one of the two remaining coaches who has a national championship to his credit (Rick Pitino being the other), but might this be ranked as his finest hour as a coach thus far in his career?
The Kansas Jayhawks lost 68 percent of their scoring from last year's Big 12 regular season and conference tournament champions, a team that made it to the Elite Eight.
The departures included four of their five top scorers.
Since finishing second in his first year at the helm, Self's Kansas teams had reeled off seven straight seasons in which they either won or shared the Big 12 regular season championship.
There were few who expected that streak to continue this year.
But, with the emergence of Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey, plus an Izzo-like non-conference schedule to toughen them up, the Jayhawks once again steamrolled the Big 12, rolling to a 16-2 regular season record that clinched an eighth straight title.
When it's all said and done, national championship or not, Bill Self will probably look back at this team and consider it his finest coaching job to date.
Is There Anyone Not Rooting for Thomas Robinson?
Unless you have a vested interest in one of the three other teams in the Final Four, you have to be rooting for Thomas Robinson of Kansas.
Most college basketball fans know the story of Robinson's junior year, when he lost his mother and both maternal grandparents in the space of a month. Only weeks after that, Robinson had to undergo surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee.
He returned after the surgery, but only played limited minutes the remainder of the season, capped by a scoreless performance in the Jayhawks' upset loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the Elite Eight game.
In the offseason, Robinson rededicated himself to being prepared to lead this Kansas team to new heights and the results have been nothing short of amazing.
This past Monday Robinson was named as a unanimous selection to the Associated Press' All-America team.
He is the first unanimous choice since Blake Griffin in 2009.
And who better than Robinson's coach, Bill Self, to put this incredible story in perspective:
"It's an unbelievable honor for a kid that came as a semi-highly recruited guy, played seven minutes as a freshman, 10 minutes as a sophomore, endured the tragedies he's had and then somehow made so many sacrifices, not only for the betterment of himself but the betterment of all of us. To be unanimous, it's just something that blows me away."
So, you may be rooting for someone other than Kansas, but rooting against Thomas Robinson just seems wrong.
Did Jared Sullinger Grow Up in the Regional Final?
Or was it the culmination of a process that began in late February when Sullinger was frustrated by double and triple teams and stopped going hard to the basket?
Since a three-game stretch against Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin in which Sullinger attempted five three-point shots (including a career-high three attempts against the Wolverines) and only a total of nine free throws (of which the 76-percent shooter made just three), the sophomore power forward has played with a noticeably-increased determination.
That determination was never more obvious than in his second half effort against Syracuse. Sullinger had to sit for nearly 14 of the 20 first-half minutes after committing his second personal foul, a call he was clearly unhappy with.
Without Sullinger, the Buckeyes fought the Orange to a 29-29 tie at the break.
In the second half, however, with Sullinger on the floor the entire time, the Buckeyes broke away from the 'Cuse early and staved off a late run to prevail, 77-70.
Sullinger had 15 points in the second half, working determinedly inside throughout. That resulted in his getting to the free throw line for 12 attempts, of which he converted nine.
That sort of performance against Kansas and Thomas Robinson could make this semi-final a classic.
What Achievements of Note Have Occurred or Will Occur This Saturday and Monday?
Four storied programs have reached this Final Four.
Between them they have now reached 49 Final Fours and, as of Monday night, will have captured 14 national championships.
Ohio State has one (1960), Louisville has two (1980 and 1986), Kansas has three (1952, 1988 and 2008) and Kentucky has seven (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978,1996 and 1998).
For John Calipari or Thad Matta, it would be their first national championship. For either Rick Pitino or Bill Self, it would be a second title.
If Louisville were to win, Pitino would become the first coach to ever win a national championship at more than one school.
A Kentucky championship would make Calipari the fifth different coach to lead the Wildcats to a national title. The others were Adolph Rupp (four times), Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith.
Kentucky-Louisville is only the fourth time the Final Four has had an intra-state matchup. The others were La Salle-Penn State in 1955, and Ohio State-Cincinnati in 1961 and 1962.
Kansas-Ohio State is just the second time since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979 that two No. 2 seeds have met in the Final Four.
Will the Most Outstanding Player Once Again Come from the National Champions?
Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger have been busy collecting all sorts of hardware this postseason.
Among other things, each has won some type of conference player of the year award.
The Most Outstanding Player award in the NCAA Tournament has gone hand-in-hand with the National Championship Trophy every year since 1983, when Hakeem Olajuwon won it while playing for runner-up Houston.
Barring a surprise by Louisville or an unexpectedly great pair of performances by a teammate, expect one of those three figures to add the M.O.P. to their trophy cabinet.
How'd the College Basketball Coaches Do Predicting the Final Four?
163 days ago, the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Preseason Poll voted Kentucky No. 2, Ohio State No. 3, Louisville No. 8 and Kansas No.13.
That means they got two of the Final Four correct 23 weeks ago.
You filled out your brackets only two weeks ago. You got anybody besides Kentucky left?
Didn't think so.