Walking down Bourbon Street or anywhere near the French Quarter, one might think the Presidential Debates are taking place in New Orleans this weekend. A sea of red on one side with a blanket of blue on the other, as if the political parties are ready to take center-stage and do battle. The Superdome will be packed Saturday night, however, not for inspirational speeches or empty promises but instead for an action-packed rollercoaster ride with twists and turns resulting in two polar opposite emotions—pure joy and bitter disappointment.
Both of these Final Four match-ups tonight feature rematches from earlier this season, but much has changed since then, as it's win or go home. The Cinderellas have left the ball and it's time for these four perennial heavyweights to do battle to decide who gets to cut down the nets and who goes home empty-handed.
I'm going to give four predictions for this year's Final Four and also predict who is going to be celebrating during this year's "One Shining Moment."
Our first battle between red and blue is the Battle for the Bluegrass state, and it just got a little bigger, potentially becoming a battle for bragging rights over the entire nation. This match is full of tasty storylines, in-state rivalry, Louisville's coach Rick Pitino going against his former team, and Kentucky's coach John Calipari seeking his first-ever National Championship.
These teams last met on December 31st in Rupp Arena and ended with a 69-62 victory for the Wildcats. The two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament four previous times and the series is split, with no match-up as big as this one.
Kentucky came into this tournament the favorite and presumed winner in most brackets around the country, while Louisville has quietly taken care of its business, upsetting No. 1-seed Michigan State and having a comeback for the ages against Florida.
The key match-up in this game is in the middle. Which team's big man can have a bigger impact, most importantly on the defensive side? Louisville is going to need defense to win this game. They won't be able to outscore Kentucky with a fast-paced style, so their zone defense that has worked very well this tournament needs to continue to have success.
Gorgui Dieng has been an imposing force that almost single-handedly beat Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. Averaging just over three blocks per game and eight rebounds, Dieng has become an interior force, and while it doesn't show up on the stat sheet, he has dominated in altering shots.
For Kentucky, Anthony Davis is their man in the middle, and as a Freshman has pretty much solidified himself as a No. 1 pick in this year's upcoming NBA Draft. Davis offers a little more offense than his counterpart Dieng and statistically has better defensive numbers as well, blocking 4.5 shots per game and grabbing 11 rebounds per contest.
For Kentucky, I think using Davis in the post and trying to get Dieng in foul trouble will help alleviate the pressure of Louisville's defense and open up the inside for Davis to do what he does best—dominate the paint.
Prediction 1: Kentucky will beat their rivals again and advance to the championship game with a 72-64 victory.
Red vs Blue No. 2: With political affiliations aside, the second game of tonight's double header again features a rematch from December. Without Jared Sullinger due to injury, the Buckeyes rolled into Lawrence only to lose to the Jayhawks 78-67.
This time around, both teams are healthy and poised to claim the other spot in the championship game. Both teams are coming off wins in which they took advantage of opposing team's injuries and knocked off their region's No. 1 seeds, with Ohio State edging Syracuse and Kansas defeating North Carolina. Syracuse has been without starting center Fab Melo all tournament due to academic issues, and North Carolina had played its final two games without point guard Kendall Marshall.
Again I look to the big men down low to find the key in this game. Like I said, Jared Sullinger wasn't available for the first game between these two on December 10th, and Jayhawk's PF Thomas Robinson dominated, going for 21 points and seven rebounds. Robinson is continuing to dominate throughout this tournament, easily averaging a double-double, but he takes on Sullinger, who's been averaging 18 points per game thus far. Defensively, expect Kansas to turn to seven-foot center Jeff Withey to defend Sullinger much of the time to disrupt and frustrate on the interior. Withey has a good three inches on Sullinger and is averaging 5 blocks a game during the tournament, including ten versus NC State in the Sweet Sixteen.
For the Buckeyes, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas has stepped up his game considerably, taking his season average of 16 ppg and 5 rpg to an incredible 22 ppg and 9 rpg and establishing himself as a considerable threat to the Jayhawk defense. Both of these teams have weapons, but the Buckeyes have risen to the occasion and are presenting multiple threats and tough match-ups throughout their starting lineup.
Another key battle is between the point guards, with Ohio State's Aaron Craft and Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor. Craft is one of, if not the, best on-the-ball defenders in the country and has to deal with the speed and quickness of Taylor. Both guards have quick hands on the defensive end and will look to put pressure on each other, helping to prevent easy entry passes to their big men down low.
Prediction 2: Ohio State will even up the score with Kansas by narrowly winning the rematch 65-61.
Alas, we have made it to the Championship game. With what may have been confused as a political debate in the books, the battle of red versus blue is......oh wait, a potential Championship game featuring Kentucky and Ohio State presents us with a recount!
This NCAA Final has the preseason No. 2 vs No. 3 in a battle to cut down the nets, concluding a fantastic year in college basketball. Ohio State vs. Kentucky, Buckeye vs. Wildcat, Matta vs. Calipari, Lil Jon vs. Ashley Judd and of course red vs. blue.
Talk about a game that features 1-5 talent. Both Kentucky and Ohio State have a starting five that can fill the stat sheets. Kentucky is coming in with only two blemishes on their resume, while Ohio State has seven, though one could argue in a much tougher conference. In fact, Kentucky's first loss of the season was to an Indiana team that Ohio State had to play twice, going 1-1 in those games.
Kentucky has looked just about unbeatable much of the year, without question winning every game in this tournament by double digits. However, Ohio State is arguably playing their best basketball ever, having a nearly flawless March aside from a four-point loss in the Big Ten Championship to No. 1-seeded Michigan State.
Both teams showcase future NBA talent and have a recent history, especially, of producing it. Both John Calipari and Thad Matta have tasted the bitterness of defeat in this game before, and both are looking to win as a coach for the first time.
Kentucky has six players averaging double digits in points for the tournament, and all have the potential to drive and score and get to the free throw line. Ohio State can match the Wildcats with athleticism and, with Craft at the point guard position, can bother some of the driving abilities of Kentucky and disrupt Freshman guard Marquis Teague. The battle between Anthony Davis and Jared Sullinger could be a fun one to watch, but then again I think the match-ups all over the court present can't-miss entertainment.
Both teams get to the free throw line a lot, with Kentucky shooting a tad better as a team. Calipari's teams have been done in by free throw shooting in the past, but not this time.
Prediction 3: Kentucky sharpens its scissors and cuts down some nets for Calipari by winning 73-67.
Anthony Davis will wind up perhaps the biggest winner; yes, because he is the tallest among the Wildcats, but also because along with his National Championship, he will walk away with the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player and likely be the No. 1 in this summer's NBA Draft.
Davis, though flanked by deserving candidates for this award, was a staple in the middle for Kentucky this year and dominated even the best of teams on both sides of the court. At the next level, he'll need to bulk up a little bit if he hopes to have similar personal results in the NBA, but his size and frame were more than enough to give his Wildcats a win in the Battle of the Bluegrass State, the nation and, of course, the Battle between Red and Blue. (Even though it's not Tar Heel blue, President Obama and the rest of the democrats approve).
Prediction 4a: Anthony Davis will win the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player Award.
Prediction 4b: The Battle of Red vs Blue will rage on this upcoming November...