Here’s the only takeaway, really, you need from Elite Eight weekend: my gosh, Kentucky should win the national championship.
Kentucky defeated Baylor 82-70 on Sunday to reach the Final Four, which will be played next weekend in New Orleans. But the score masks Kentucky’s dominance: Kentucky led by 20 at halftime, and shot 53% from the field; the freshman with the endless wingspan, consensus national player of the year Anthony Davis, finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and six blocked shots. Kentucky has blocked more shots in a single season than any other college team, ever, and Davis has now played in 13 games in which he has blocked 6 or more shots. That’s simply frightening.
The Wildcats are clicking at an NBA level. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – yes, another Wildcat freshman not long for the college game – is a 6’7″ specimen with every kind of basketball skill: he finished with 19 points and five rebounds against Baylor. Marquis Teague, Kentucky’s third first-year star, is always in control of the game. Kentucky has championship depth – don’t forget the names Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, and Doron Lamb. Why? They’ll soon be playing at an NBA arena near you.
This is Kentucky coach John Calipari’s fourth Final Four: in this one, he faces more pressure than ever to win his first national title. First, he’s never had a team that so outclasses the remaining competition. In 1996, when Calipari was at UMass, its national semifinal opponent, Kentucky – coached by Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach who will oppose Calipari in these national semifinals in a delicious in-state rivalry match-up – was the team loaded with NBA players. Pitino won his lone championship that year. Last year, Kentucky’s loss to UConn in the national semis was no shocker. In 2008, when Calipari coached Memphis, he had the best team, led by then-freshman Derrick Rose – the 2011 NBA MVP. But the talent gap wasn’t this wide. That ’08 championship game loss to Kansas, in overtime, still stings for Calipari. But a loss in New Orleans will hurt much more.
Especially if Kentucky falls on Saturday, to Louisville. Wildcat fans are still sore that Pitino ditched the Bluegrass State for the Boston Celtics in 1997. Plus, Pitino had the nerve to land back in college at Louisville, a bitter rival, back in 2001. “There will be people in Kentucky who will have a nervous breakdown if [the Wildcats] lose to us,” Pitino said on Saturday, after his Cardinals rallied to beat Floria, 72-68, in the West regional final. He’s absolutely right.
As if Calipari did not have enough pressure on him, Pitino helped Calipari get his first head coaching job. But the pair has since had a falling out. “We don’t send each other Christmas cards,” Calipari said on Sunday. Louisville has a shot-swatter of its own, Gorgui Deng: his matchup with Davis will be a treat. But if the overachieving Cardinals somehow upset Kentucky – Louisville lost by 31 points to lousy Providence in January – Calipari’s critics will be have a feast. The teacher (Pitino) will always be so much better than his brash, unappreciative protege (Calipari). Calipari is a master recruiter-salesman. But when it comes to the craft of coaching, he’s a lightweight.
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(Many people will root for neither of these coaches, since two of Calipari’s previous Final Four appearances were vacated due to various violations, and Pitino is still recovering from an embarrassing personal scandal in which it was revealed he had extra-marital sex with a woman in a restaurant, and gave her money to have an abortion: the woman was later sent to prison for extorting Pitino).
On the other side of the Final Four bracket, Ohio State and Kansas will slug it out. Ohio State power forward Jared Sullinger, who surprised many hoops observers by deciding to return to Ohio State for a sophomore year, only to hurt his draft stock with an inconsistent regular season, is playing better: his deft post moves were the difference in Ohio State’s 77-70 win over Syracuse in the East regional final. In the Midwest region Kansas, superbly coached by Bill Self, beat North Carolina, who badly missed injured point guard Kendall Marshall down the stretch of that game, 80-67.
If Ohio State wins this national semifinal, Sullinger’s strength could get Kentucky’s interior players in foul trouble. If Self and the Jayhawks survive, Calipari might sweat after seeing Self on the other bench, given what happened the last time Calipari and Self met on a Monday night in April: back in the 2008 title game, Kansas’ Mario Chalmers famously hit a three at the end of regulation to force overtime against Memphis, and the Tigers withered in the extra session.
Still, if Kentucky isn’t cutting the nets down on April 2, it would be a cataclysmic letdown for the rabid Wildcat nation, and an indictment of Calipari’s coaching.