Only three games separate college basketball fans from their national champion as we enter the last weekend of the season. The NCAA and CBS should be extremely pleased with the two matchups coming up on Saturday, but might that be the peak of the Madness?
Two teams from the state of Kentucky came out of the South and West regions of the bracket, and a history of bad blood between their two fan bases should provide enough of a spark to keep fans on the edge of their couches the whole way through. The Kentucky Wildcats came in as the number one overall seed and they have not disappointed. After an almost year-long reign as the undisputed best team in the nation, UK came out and whipped their competition, winning each of their first four games by at least 12 points. Last Sunday they jumped out to a commanding 20-point lead during the first half, and kept the pedal to the metal as they held off a "too little, too late" charge from the 3-seed Baylor Bears. Even a (temporarily) scary knee injury to star center Anthony Davis wasn't enough to derail the Wildcats on their route to a second straight Final Four.
Meeting Kentucky in the semifinals is Louisville, a team who is playing copycat to last year's title-winning UConn team. The Cardinals had an unimpressive regular season, but really notched it up as they won the Big East Tournament and rolled through some tough competition so far in the NCAA tourney. Led by diminutive point guard Peyton Siva and cutthroat head coach Rick Pitino, the Cardinals find themselves on an eight game winning streak.
The real juice to the Kentucky-Louisville matchup comes from the close proximity of the two schools. Though they aren't in the same conference (Kentucky plays in the SEC), fans of each team consider this the bitterest of rivalries. Don't believe me? Then ask the two elderly gentlemen, one supporting the Cardinals and the other for the Wildcats, who resorted to fisticuffs at a Kentucky dialysis clinic earlier this week. When the two teams played in December Kentucky won by 7 on their home court. It will be very interesting to see how the Wildcats handle the matchup on a neutral court, and against a completely reinvigorated Cardinals squad.
The other half of the semis provides intrigue as well, as two historically successful 2-seeds do battle. Similarities between the two teams are plentiful: both beat a 1-seed without one of its most important players in the Elite Eight, both are led by coaches who have been here before and both have a long history of producing talented basketball players. But the real interest for this game will be the head-to-head matchups of big men and point guards. It's no secret that OSU's Jared Sullinger and KU's Thomas Robinson were both thought of as candidates for the Naismith Award during the preseason, but only Robinson came through. As Sullinger looks to continue his nice run through the Tournament (and maybe boost his depleted draft stock some more), we as fans get to witness two future NBA studs do battle in the post. The pairing I'm more interested in watching is at point guard, where whoever wins the matchup will win the game. Tyshawn Taylor had a spectacular season for the Jayhawks, posting 17 points and nearly 5 assists per game. His numbers dwarf his counterpart Aaron Craft's 8.6 points and 4.6 assists, but Craft plays some of the best on-ball defense in the country. If Craft can single-handedly shut down Taylor, then the Buckeyes have enough bodies to throw at Robinson to slow him down.
As great as the Louisville-Kentucky and Ohio State-Kansas games are sure to be, the resulting championship game won't have the same amount of moxie. If Kentucky manages to get past rival Louisville (the Wildcats are favored by 8 points), then they will be expected to take down whichever team comes from the other semifinal. The top overall seed hasn't won the championship since Joakim Noah led his Florida Gators to a second straight title in 2007, but there isn't much standing in the way of Kentucky doing it this year. My advice: enjoy the heck out of two fantastic games on Saturday night, and then temper your expectations before watching Kentucky roll to victory on Monday.