The Final Four: “Who do you pick to win?”

NEW ORLEANS – The question going around is , “Who do you pick to win?” The practical, most informed answer is always the same:

“Which team shoots the ball better, plays the best defense and gets the best breaks, will win the game.”

This is NCAA Tournament time, and on a given day, with the favored teams taking their lower seeded opponents too lightly, and the lower seeds having nothing to lose, anything can happen, and very often does.

Just ask the Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans were seeded No.1 in the West, and were picked, almost unanimously to make it to the Final Four, in New Orleans. But somebody forgot to tell the Louisville Cardinals that they were supposed to lose.

The Cardinals used a stifling, pressing defense to take Michigan State out of its rhythm. The Spartans were obviously shaken early on, and showed it. Their most highly touted player, All American Draymond Green never got on track, as Louisville’s coach, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals executed their defensive plan against him almost to perfection. Green was high point man for the Spartans, but it was not enough.

Tournament Most Outstanding Player Chane Behanan led the Cardinals to their win over the Spartans. Behanan did not score as many points as his teammate Russ Smith did, but his tough defense and timely rebounding was key in Louisville’s victory over Michigan State. Louisville defeated Michigan State to become the first Final Four participant.

In the other West Regional Semifinal game the Florida Gators dispatched the Marquette Golden Eagles. Florida, under the floor generalship of their 5’8” senior guard Erving Walker, was relentless in its offensive attack and defensive tactics. They had to be, as Marquette came in at a higher seed than did Florida. It was a fast paced game, with both teams featuring fast, skilled guards and strong front lines.

Teams with higher seeds in the tournament of whom expectations were also high, fell by the wayside, as the tournament sifted its way from the First Four of the 68 teams that started to the Final Four, that will play for the National Championship in New Orleans on April 2, 2012.

The first “shocker” of the 2012 tournament came when Duke, National Champions just two years ago, fell to little known Lehigh, in the Second Round. Although Duke was not a number one seed, expectations are always that Duke will get higher in Tournament play than it did.

In addition to Michigan State, two other Number One Seeds, will not see New Orleans. While both made it to “The Elite Eight”, Syracuse was knocked out by Ohio State in the East Regional and North Carolina was defeated by Kansas, who will represent the Midwest Region in The Final Four.

The remaining One seed, the Kentucky Wildcats looks almost unbeatable, as the team consisting of some of the best freshmen and sophomores in the country dispatched Baylor, in the South Regional to cruise into the Final Four. Led by their incredible forward/center Anthony Davis, Kentucky is expected to win the National Championship by most.

The PAC-12 had only two teams selected to the field of 68. Colorado, the winner of the PAC-12 Tournament, and California represented the PAC-12, and neither did well enough to advance. The California Golden Bears, one of the “First Four” lost their first game, and the only chance they had to “play in” to the tournament, while Colorado won its first game and then lost to Baylor.

Teams coming from schools West of Kansas got few spots and little respect, and won’t as long as the East Coast media continues to dominate the thoughts of the NCAA Selection Committee.

There is such a bias in favor of teams from The Big East, The Atlantic Coast Conference, The SEC, and The Big Ten, that a lopsided number of schools are selected to play in the tournament from each of those conferences.

The results of tournament play should refute the supposed superiority of Eastern teams. No conference is so good that it should have six or seven of its teams selected to play in the NCAA Division I Mens’ Basketball Tournament, while leaving out teams such as the Washington Huskies, the PAC-12 Conference winner.

When basketball skilled youngsters on the West Coast turn on the T.V. to watch games, they get a steady diet of Eastern media bias. All times are set to be viewed by the East, the East is more densely packed, so there are more viewers, and being three hours ahead, they don’t want to stay awake to watch teams play in the West. That includes the media folk in the East. So, the young basketball players who want to enhance their chance to be noticed, go East.

This years Final Four promises to be a very exciting one. In the first game, on March 31st, Kentucky will meet Louisville. These two schools, from a state where college basketball is “king”, promise to post a classic battle to NCAA Basketball history.

Both teams are populated by very talented youngsters. The Louisville Cardinals has only two seniors on its roster, Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith. They are led by junior guard Peyton Siva, a junior from Seattle, and Russ Smith, a sophomore from Briarwood, N.Y.. In their victory over the Florida Gators it was freshman forward Chane Behanan who provided the winning spark to get them to The Final Four.

They will face the Kentucky Wildcats, who boast a bevy of talented players that is not only expected to win it all, but which is just plain scary as an opponent.

Anthony Davis their freshman forward/center has been named the winner of the Adolph Rupp National Player of the Year Award, and selected to the AP and NABC All America, John Wooden, and nearly every other prestigious team recognizing the best of the best.

Davis is joined on the Wildcat roster by several other young McDonald All American teammates: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, also selected to the NABC All America Team, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjern, and Doron Lamb, all whom are key figures on the powerhouse Kentucky Wildcat team.

The Louisville Cardinals was the first team to qualify for the Final Four, and is the only team that made it without an All-American on its roster. They can take pride in the fact that they beat a team with one, Draymond Green of Michigan State. A lot depends on guard Peyton Siva, who must shoot and make more often than he seems to want to. Part of Siva’s best game is to drive into the paint, where shot blocking Anthony Davis awaits.

So, Louisville has a tough hurdle if they are to play for the National Championship. While both the Cardinals and the Wildcats had to work to get to the Final Four, Kentucky team made it look easy, and seemingly has the edge, having beaten all of the teams they faced in the Tournament by double digits.

The other side of the bracket features The Kansas Jayhawks and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State features two time All American Jared Sullinger, a tough sophomore center who plays good defense and provides reliable offense.

At The Final Four, Sullinger will face fellow All-American Thomas Robinson, of the Kansas Jayhawks. Both Kansas and Ohio State will arrive in New Orleans with nearly identical records, with 31 wins each.

The Jayhawks are a tall “run and gun” team that has Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, , rebounder Kevin Young and Jeff Withey, their 7’ center teaming with Robinson. Withey, will be a problem for 6’9” Sullinger, who will have to resort to his outside shooting skills and foot speed to equalize his match-up with Withey.

Ohio State, although short on height is long on basketball ability. The Buckeyes will likely slow the tempo of the game down to throw Kansas off. Sullinger won’t be trying to beat the Jayhawks by himself. He gets plenty of skilled help from William Buford, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith Jr..

The 2012 Final Four will showcase the three All-Americans in Davis, Sullinger, and Robinson, and promises to be well worth watching.

Although there are no upstarts, and no Cinderellas to pull for, the cream has risen to the top. All four of the participants have Final Four histories, but three are returning as underdogs. On paper, and in overall basic basketball skill, Kentucky seems to be too deep to be denied the National Championship.

But, this is the Final Four and unexpected outcomes, with few exceptions, are the rule, not the exception.
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By Luke Conley
OBSERVER Correspondent