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The Sideline

March 30, 2012

After five months and nearly 11,000 games, the long and winding road to the Final Four has finally reached its ultimate destination. In a few short days, champs of the college hoops world will be cutting down the nets in The Big Easy and CBS will once again remind us why we hate “One Shining Moment”. All that aside, four legitimate, well-coached squads remain in the running for the Wooden Trophy.

The Ohio State Buckeyes have once again flexed their muscle with a razor thin bench. Playing seven players most of the tournament, Thad Matta may well be the most efficient manager of personnel in the college game. A half-court team that can finish in transition is the most dangerous come tournament time, and that is exactly the type of team Matta has constructed. On the defensive end, the Buckeyes control the boards, averaging over 27 defensive rebounds per game from the starters alone. A mix of aggressive man-to-man pressure and a lengthy zone throw their opponents off their rhythm. Oh, and as if all of that wasn’t enough, they have the best floor general left in the tournament, Aaron Craft. Craft can slash, finish at the rim, hit the three and is the most effective on-ball defender in the Final Four. The Buckeyes are peaking at just the right time; they’ll be a tough out.

Ohio State faces off in the Final Four against the champs of the Big 12, Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks. If the game comes down to the final few possessions, look for Kansas to prevail. Self’s experience-laden squad came from behind against Purdue to steal a win and edged out North Carolina State by 3 in the round of 16. Rock Chalk Jayhawk boasts the best one-two combination in the country in senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor and junior big man Thomas Robinson. Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Connor Teahan contribute energy in the back court, and man in the middle Jeff Withey averages nearly 4 blocks per contest, providing defensive insurance in case the guards get abused off the dribble. Self’s roster contains no McDonald’s All-Americans, and 2011-2012 may be his best coaching performance, especially if the Jayhawks are cutting down the nylon on Monday night.

Recognized all season as the most complete team in the nation, the Kentucky Wildcats are primed for a run at their first national title since 1998. Say what you want about John Calipari, but the man has brought in top-notch talent throughout his tenure. Incredible length and freakish athleticism saturates the ‘Cats’ roster, but ultimately, their chances of winning ride on offensive balance. Six players average double figures, giving Calipari freedom in substitution, especially during a dry spell. Anthony Davis’s knee seems to have healed after colliding with Baylor’s Perry Jones during the regional final. Guard play and leadership are hallmarks of championship teams, and the ‘Cats have the best of both worlds.

The Final Four’s last entry is the somewhat surprising Louisville Cardinals out of the Big East. While America is surprised, they shouldn’t be. The Cardinals have the look of last season’s UConn Huskies: gain momentum late in the Big East season, win the Big East tournament and run the table in the Big Dance. While Kemba Walker is nowhere to be found, the Cardinals have a suitable replacement in junior guard Peyton Siva. Averaging 9 points, and seven assists in the NCAA tournament, Siva pilots the Cardinals every night out. Depth is an issue with Louisville, as they only play seven players on a regular basis. Look for Gorgui Dieng to make a huge defensive impact in the Final Four. A poor man’s Jeff Withey, Dieng garners nine rebounds and swats over three shots per game. Defensive intensity brought the Cardinals back against Florida in the Elite Eight. Switching from zone to aggressive man-to-man against Florida, showing they can guard, no matter the level of athleticism they face.

Ultimately, I expect Kentucky to edge out Louisville and for Ohio State to earn a victory against Kansas. Kentucky’s multi-faceted scoring attack will be too much for the Cardinals, and the phenomenal play of Buckeye guard Aaron Craft will move them on to Monday night’s finale. Because my bracket has been, not busted, but shredded over the past three weeks, I’ll stick with the only Final Four representative I actually predicted, the Kentucky Wildcats. UK’s been the most complete team all season, and come April, it’s not what a team does extraordinarily well that leads to a victory, it’s the management of shortcomings. The Wildcats are free of any real weakness, and I expect them to be cutting down the nets Monday night. Will I be wrong? Probably, but at least it will be fun to find out.

Kyle McEwen

Veteran Writer

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