• By: OLM Staff

The Final Four: Kentucky, and the Rest

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas sparked an interesting debate on Twitter last Sunday: how many Final Four appearances has Kentucky head coach John Calipari actually made? The NCAA has vacated two of Calipari’s previous visits, with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, due to rules violations involving star players Marcus Camby (in 1996) and Derrick Rose (2008). Bilas contends that Calipari’s first two Final Four appearances are, in fact, legitimate, as both teams lost upon reaching the national semifinals, and none of Calipari’s losses were vacated. Bilas’ point, unfortunately, is neither foolproof nor accurate. Not only was Memphis’ entire 2007-08 season vacated (including the losses), but Bilas’ point begs the question: If Calipari’s teams had won the national championship instead of losing, would the Final Four appearances still be legitimate?

Semantics aside, Kentucky’s four victories in the 2012 NCAA Tournament has guaranteed Calipari a trip to his second consecutive Final Four. (His 2011 appearance with Kentucky, which culminated in a 56-55 loss to Connecticut in the semifinals, has yet to be vacated.) Calipari has won 11 tournament games in just three seasons at Kentucky, and while previous teams populated with future NBA talent failed to survive March Madness, this Wildcats squad has a golden opportunity to clinch the school’s eighth national championship, and Calipari’s first as a head coach.

Kentucky will enter the 2012 Final Four as prohibitive favourites, a result of the team’s overwhelming proficiency at both ends of the basketball court and the elimination of their strongest possible opponents. Calipari plays just seven players with any regularity, yet those seven men form the most destructive, cohesive and talented unit of teammates in the entire country. Sometime this upcoming weekend, Anthony Davis will collect the Naismith College Player of the Year award as the top men’s player in Division 1, becoming the first freshman to claim the honour since Kevin Durant in 2007. Davis’ interminable wingspan and peerless defensive presence evokes a hybrid of Durant and Kevin Garnett, while 2011-12 averages of 14.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game have entrenched the 6’10 Davis as the top prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Davis is complemented by 6’7 freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a devastating athlete in transition with the ability to score, defend and rebound from the small forward position. Explosive sophomore forward Terrence Jones, sharpshooting sophomore guard Doron Lamb and gifted freshman point guard Marquis Teague (brother of the Atlanta Hawks’ Jeff) round out the starting lineup; senior Darius Miller is the nation’s best sixth man, while Canadian freshman Kyle Wiltjer provides depth in the frontcourt. The length and versatility of Kentucky’s wings and forwards allows Calipari to rotate these seven players in any possible combination, shifting ball-handling duties to Lamb or Miller when Teague goes for a rest or relying on Jones to control the interior with Davis on the bench.

Despite their youth and potentially frightening lack of depth, Kentucky has rolled through their competition, dropping just two games en route to the final weekend of March Madness. (One of those losses came on a three-pointer at the buzzer against Indiana in December, though Kentucky avenged the defeat with a 102-90 beat-down in the Sweet Sixteen.) The Wildcats have gotten this far with such ease due in large part to their impressive ability to defend without fouling. Although Kentucky broke the NCAA team record for blocks in a single season (326, through the Elite Eight), they have committed 154 fouls less than their opponents. Davis has fouled out of just one game this season, while Kentucky loses a player to fouls just once every four games on average, keeping their core group on the floor late in games.

The other reason that Kentucky has enjoyed so much success in 2011-12 is, simply, that they’re better: better than previous Wildcat teams under Calipari, better than their fellow #1 tournament seeds and most certainly better than the three teams joining them in New Orleans this coming weekend. Indiana shot 52.2% from the field and scored 90 points in the Sweet Sixteen, only to watch Kentucky score 102. The Wildcats went on a 16-0 run against Baylor in the Elite Eight, turning an early deficit into a rout within four minutes. Unlike Calipari’s last two Wildcat teams (who still enjoyed considerable tournament success), Kentucky is equally destructive on offense and defense, picking from a myriad of worthy scoring options and suffocating the opposition with unprecedented vigour.

Despite their loss in the SEC Tournament final to Vanderbilt, Kentucky appeared to be a tier above their fellow #1 seeds entering the NCAAs: Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State. Syracuse was hamstrung by the suspension of center Fab Melo for academic reasons, avoiding the greatest upset in tournament history with significant help from the officials, topping a plodding Wisconsin team by one and eventually falling to #2 Ohio State. North Carolina lost sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall to a fractured wrist in the second round, narrowly surviving in overtime against #13 Ohio and falling apart late in a loss to Kansas. Michigan State earned a #1 seed on the basis of their Big Ten tournament championship, but imploded offensively in a 57-44 loss to Louisville.

A mere 76 miles separate Louisville and Lexington, one of American collegiate sports’ most heated rivalries, a conflict dominated on the basketball court by Kentucky, both recently (Kentucky is 3-0 under Calipari) and historically (29-14 Wildcats all-time). Saturday’s semifinal will represent the schools’ first NCAA Tournament matchup since 1984, and their first-ever meeting in the Final Four. The focus will be cast upon Calipari and legendary Louisville bench boss Rick Pitino, who led Kentucky to a national title in 1996 (topping Calipari’s UMass team in the semifinals). Kentucky is a tremendous favourite on paper, however, and nothing the Wildcats have done in their first four games suggests that they will falter now. It is exceedingly unlikely that the leadership of point guard Peyton Siva, the three-point prowess of Kyle Kuric, the inside presence of Gorgul Dieng (who should play an admirable foil to Davis, nonetheless) or the boundless energy of sixth man Russ Smith will be enough to derail the Kentucky machine.

The same goes for the finalists on the far side of the bracket: dueling 2-seeds Ohio State and Kansas, who rode the absences of Melo and Marshall, respectively, to minor upsets in the Elite Eight. Ohio State is led by a quartet of sophomores, most notably prospective lottery pick Jared Sullinger and crafty point guard Aaron Craft (there’s really no other word to describe him). The Buckeyes are plagued by the same depth issues as Kentucky, though Ohio State’s reserves offer no reliable secondary scoring option. Expect all five Buckeyes starters to play upwards of 35 minutes if they can escape foul trouble.

The Kansas Jayhawks, meanwhile, start five upperclassmen, led by player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and emerging 7-footer Jeff Withey, who form a daunting tandem on the inside. The Ohio State-Kansas tilt promises to be the most enthralling of the weekend, with the victor likely to combat Kentucky in the national championship. Barring any injuries, Kansas should be favoured by a smidge, but the Jayhawks’ recent success against Calipari (defeating his Memphis team in the 2008 title game) will offer no reprieve against the Wildcats on Monday night.

A more pressing debate concerns a statement made by CBS temp Charles Barkley, who asserted, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that this Kentucky team would defeat the Toronto Raptors. While the Wildcats boast seven future pros in their lineup, Barkley seems to have ignored some of the obvious problems Kentucky would face in such a matchup: Marquis Teague trying to corral Jose Calderon; Andrea Bargnani and his 20 points per game in the NBA; the unspeakable atrocities that would occur when Davis inevitably got into foul trouble; and the general strength, experience and basketball knowledge possessed by professionals in the greatest league in the world. Unless the bulk of the Raptors can regain NCAA eligibility by Saturday evening, however, it appears that Kentucky will cruise to Calipari’s first title and solidify their positions as champions of March Madness and the best team in the country.