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April 17, 2014

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In battle of heavyweights, Kentucky the team to beat

By any measure, this is a Final Four for heavyweights. The best barometer may be the smiles on the faces of the CBS executives, who know there is nothing better for ratings than the draw of brand names.

The four teams that advanced to play in New Orleans on Saturday — top-seeded Kentucky, the No. 2 seeds Kansas and Ohio State and No. 4 Louisville — all have potential Hall of Fame coaches, generate an eye-popping amount of revenue (almost $90 million annually) and have a combined 50 Final Four appearances, including the Buckeyes’ vacated 1999 trip. The four coaches also rank among the 10 highest paid in the country. Louisville ranks No. 1 in both revenue and coach’s salary — the Cardinals made $40.9 million in 2010 and Rick Pitino earns more than $7 million annually.

But even with four of college basketball’s most prominent programs on its biggest stage, the big question looming over this Final Four will be: Can anyone knock off Kentucky?

“I think Kentucky wins it,” said St. John’s assistant coach Tony Chiles, whose team played Kentucky and Louisville this season. “I thought the only team that could beat them was Syracuse when they had Fab Melo.”

For as much wattage as Kansas and Ohio State bring to an event like the Final Four, the semifinal between them will simply act as an undercard to the bad blood and geographic proximity that make Kentucky and Louisville one of the country’s most heated rivalries. Kentucky and Louisville playing in the Final Four is like the Boston Red Sox playing the New York Yankees in a World Series Game 7, if those teams played just once every regular season.

There will be families whose loyalties are divided, cold shoulders at office water coolers and some interesting verbal tap dancing at news conferences, as Kentucky coach John Calipari and Louisville coach Rick Pitino privately loathe each other. Both will choose their words more carefully than a presidential speech writer this week, but it will not be hard to read between the lines.

Between the lines on the floor, coaches say that limiting Kentucky’s transition opportunities will be the key for Louisville. At times against Indiana and Baylor last weekend, the Wildcats looked as if they were running practice layup lines.

Davidson coach Bob McKillop, whose team beat Kansas and lost to Louisville this season, said that the best thing Louisville did in their NCAA tournament matchup was to attempt just five 3-pointers. The lack of long rebounds limited Davidson, which lost, 69-62, to just a pair of transition opportunities throughout the game. But can Louisville afford to attack the basket as much against Kentucky, which has Anthony Davis, the country’s best shot blocker, looming in the middle?

McKillop pointed out a few interesting nuances about Louisville. He said the Cardinals wore teams down with their offense as much as their defense; he said Cardinals point guard Peyton Siva got three or four ball screens a possession, which exhausts big men. He also said Louisville did a great job hiding its offensive players on the baseline, specifically freshman forward Chane Behanan, giving them great angles at the basket and availability for dump-off passes when Siva penetrates and opposing big men are forced to help.

Chiles said for Louisville to have a chance it would need a strong performance from the mercurial shooting guard Russ Smith. He scored a season-high 30 points in 27 minutes the first time the teams played, keeping Louisville in a game it lost, 69-62, at Kentucky on Dec. 31.

“I think Kentucky wins it going away,” Chiles said of Saturday’s rematch. “They’re just so long and so athletic.”

McKillop so marveled at how Kentucky defended Baylor shooting guard Brady Heslip that he asked his assistants for a copy of the tape to analyze further what it did.

“When the game was a game,” he said, “that kid didn’t even sniff an open look.”

Chiles said the way St. John’s stayed close in the first half against Kentucky was by having the Red Storm’s interior players go right at Davis.

“We went to the basket and told people to get into his chest,” he said. “If he blocks a shot, who cares. Don’t shoot floaters. Just really get into his body.”

Chiles predicted that the player Pitino would call on to do that was Gorgui Dieng, a raw sophomore from Senegal who is still limited offensively.

“I think Pitino is going to go to him early and try to get him going to make Davis play honest,” Chiles said of Dieng.

Ohio State and Kansas also played in December, a result that does not translate well to the rematch because the Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger missed the game with back spasms. Sullinger provides a wonderful foil for the gritty Kansas star Thomas Robinson.

Ohio State has seemed to find itself in the NCAA tournament after slogging through February, when its youth and immaturity were exposed. But the Buckeyes outlasted Syracuse on Saturday and are the team with the best chance to knock off Kentucky in the national title game.

“Sullinger can be physical with those guys,” Chiles said.

Kansas has taken perhaps the least impressive path to the Final Four, beating three double-digit seeds and outlasting a top-seeded North Carolina team that was without its starting point guard, Kendall Marshall. But the Jayhawks have also shown they can win close games, and boast an impressive frontcourt with Robinson and shot blocker Jeff Withey.

Coach Bill Self also flashed his acumen Sunday, stymieing North Carolina with a triangle-and-two defense in the second half.

“I just love Kansas’ toughness,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They’re just so mentally tough.”

Brey called Final Four Saturday a “heck of a day.”

That’s what happens when four big boys descend on the sport’s biggest stage.

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