NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: National SemifinalsPosted by Brian Otskey on March 30th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
#1 Kentucky vs. #4 Louisville – National Semifinal (at New Orleans, LA) – 6:09 PM ET on CBS
Kentucky. Louisville. In the Final Four. Armageddon in the Commonwealth. Yep, it’s well worth the hype. The 44th meeting between these bitter in-state rivals comes to us from the ultimate setting in the national semifinals at the Superdome on Saturday night. Kentucky leads the all-time series, 29-14, and has won six of the past eight meetings dating back to 2004. The Wildcats enter this game with just two losses on the season and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night. In order to advance to the championship game, Kentucky must continue to defend at a high level. By no means is Louisville an offensive juggernaut and that’s where the stifling UK defense must take control of the game. With shot blocker extraordinaire Anthony Davis on the back line of its defense, Kentucky and its #1 eFG% defense should be able to limit the Cardinals offensively. Do that and you would think the Wildcats have enough offensive weapons to win the game. But it’s not always that simple. While John Calipari and his team have a huge edge in talent, all the intangibles favor Louisville. When Rick Pitino said they would need to put fences on bridges in Lexington if Kentucky loses to Louisville, he wasn’t kidding. All of the pressure is on Kentucky, a team expected to win a national title. Louisville, a team that went 10-8 in a down Big East, certainly wasn’t expected to make it this far. The Cardinals have absolutely no pressure on them in this game and Pitino would love nothing more than to stick it in the face of Calipari and Kentucky fans. Pitino and his players couldn’t wait to talk about the matchup last week while Cal and his squad kept on saying this is just another game. That’s pure BS. They know the stakes and the weight on the collective shoulders of this young team could perhaps be Louisville’s best chance to win. The Cardinals boast the top defensive efficiency in the land so a grinder-type game should be expected. Three of the last four games in this rivalry have been decided by nine points or less and, despite the talent gap, we’d be surprised if this one isn’t as well given the stakes. The key for Louisville will be to push the pace and score in transition without allowing Kentucky to do the same. UK is lethal in transition but a game with fewer possessions favors the Wildcats. They excelled at a slower pace in the second half of the SEC season and we’re just not sure Louisville will be able to score enough points in a low possession half court game. That means Louisville, and Peyton Siva specifically, can’t turn the ball over. If the Cardinals wait and let Davis and UK set up in half court defense, their task becomes incredibly tough. Scoring in transition takes the Davis defensive threat away and allows the Cardinals to set up their zone press. Pitino is a master at morphing his matchup zone into man-to-man defense in the blink of an eye and changing defenses could throw Kentucky off balance. The best way to beat UK is to take away Davis inside (Gorgui Dieng can do that, provided he stays out of foul trouble) and force them to make jump shots. Kentucky doesn’t take many outside shots but Louisville’s defense could force them into contested mid-range looks that might not fall. One problem area for the Cardinals could be the defensive glass. If UK is taking lots of jumpers (a good thing for Louisville), UL must block out and prevent Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from crashing the offensive glass. Louisville has struggled all year in this department but must come up with a better effort on Saturday night. Siva makes everything go for Louisville and it’ll be interesting to see if Calipari puts Kidd-Gilchrist on him at times as he has done with other point guards this season. The freshman with an unquenchable motor could frustrate Siva and force him into turnovers, fueling UK’s transition attack. While we feel the intangible aspect of this game favors Louisville in a big way and we’d love to pick the Cardinals just for that (and to be different), Kentucky’s superior talent is undeniable. Louisville will make it close but Kentucky simply has too much in the end and should advance to play for all the marbles on Monday night.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky
#2 Ohio State vs. #2 Kansas – National Semifinal (at New Orleans, LA) – 8:49 PM ET on CBS
Although we think the first game will be closer than most expect, the nightcap may turn out to be the more competitive and better contest. These two teams met in Lawrence back in December but Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger did not play due to back problems. Kind of a big hole in the middle, wouldn’t you say? Sully won’t miss this one though. The matchup between him and Thomas Robinson is one that has had fans drooling in anticipation for five days now. Whether directly from him or not, Ohio State gets most of its offense through Sullinger. If Robinson and Jeff Withey can double team the post, something Kansas has historically done, they may be able to frustrate Sullinger and get him into early foul trouble. That would be a game changer and swing the edge in favor of the Jayhawks. Easier said than done, of course. Getting the upper hand in the battle of the big men will be important for both teams but the game could be won or lost at the point guard position. Ace defender Aaron Craft will matchup with Kansas senior Tyshawn Taylor, enjoying a renaissance season for Bill Self. Craft limited Taylor to nine points and forced seven Taylor turnovers in the first meeting but the resilient KU guard managed to dish out 13 assists in the victory. Most of those assists were to Robinson, who took advantage of Sullinger’s absence, or Elijah Johnson who made five threes in the game. With Sullinger on the bench, William Buford tried to do too much for Ohio State and it cost them. Buford scored 21 points but needed 23 shots to do so, hardly a model of efficiency. This time around, Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas should be considered reliable scorers for the Buckeyes given the way they’ve played of late. If Buford can chip in with production of his own, Ohio State will be awfully tough to beat. Buford’s production is down across the board this season and he’s shooting just 13 of 44 (29.5%) in Ohio State’s four NCAA Tournament games. Still, Self and Kansas won’t take the 6’6” swingman lightly. He can explode at any time and you would think he’s due after what he’s been through of late. Buford has scored over 17 points only once in the last month and a half but that was a 25-point effort in a gutty March 4 win at Michigan State. For Kansas, the offense runs through Robinson and Taylor. As we said earlier, the game could be decided on the perimeter. If Craft can shut down Taylor, it’ll be really difficult for the KU guards to get the ball into Robinson. Quite frankly, we have more trust in Craft in a game of this magnitude. What does Kansas have going for it? The #1 interior defense in terms of two point percentage against. With two shot blockers in Robinson and Withey on the front line, Kansas can limit Sullinger. Another key will be containing Thomas and Buford. Thomas appears to be a matchup nightmare for the Jayhawks because either Robinson or Withey will have to chance him around in man coverage, a problem similar to what Kansas faced with Missouri in Big 12 play. Look for Self to mix in some junk defenses and possibly the triangle-and-two that frustrated North Carolina in the Midwest regional final. Kansas can’t afford to let Buford and/or Thomas have a big game even if the Jayhawks manage to contain Sullinger in the post. We always say it but matchups will truly decide the outcome of this game. The point guard and low post matchups are fascinating but we think the difference will be Buford and Thomas for Ohio State. It’s pretty much a toss-up game but that is likely just enough to push the Buckeyes on to Monday night’s championship game.
The RTC Certified Pick: Ohio State.