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The NCAA Final Four

The NCAA Final Four will feature nothing but blue bloods. Pedestrian teams need not apply.

The four teams that advanced to New Orleans have combined for 159 NCAA tournaments, 49 Final Fours (counting this year), and 13 national championships. Yes, all of them have won at least one title.

The field for next weekend at the Mercedes Benz Superdome sorted itself out Sunday when Kentucky overwhelmed Baylor and Kansas used a late surge to knock out North Carolina. So we have a top seed (Kentucky), two No. 2s (Kansas and Ohio State), and a No. 4 (Louisville) heading to college basketball’s ultimate weekend.

And what about the coaches? John Calipari of Kentucky, Bill Self of Kansas, Thad Matta of Ohio State, and Rick Pitino of Louisville have combined for 130 victories in NCAA tournament play during their careers, and all have made at least 10 appearances in the dance.

But even with all these traditional teams vying for the chance to cut down the nets next Monday night, Kentucky still ranks at the top – not only in history, but also in talent, coaching, and ability.

The Wildcats raced out to a 20-point halftime lead and cruised through the second half for an 82-70 victory over Baylor for the NCAA South Regional title in Atlanta, their 109th NCAA win, breaking a tie with North Carolina for No. 1 all-time. The freshman pair of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Somerdale, Camden County) and Anthony Davis impressed once again.

Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 points and Davis went for 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 blocked shots, and millions of palpitating hearts across Big Blue Nation when he came down awkwardly on his left knee early in the second half and spent a few minutes grimacing in pain on his team’s bench before he persuaded Calipari to put him back in.

Say what you want about Calipari and the fact that he’s coached two other teams in the Final Four – Massachusetts and Memphis – whose records were vacated because of violations involving his players. The guy can coach, taking incoming freshmen who focused solely on offense in high school and teaching them how to play the type of defense that wins championships.

“When you coach younger people and youthful people, I think you get more inconsistency,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Cal’s done an unbelievable job with the youth that he’s had. I can tell you why Anthony Davis and Gilchrist are projected 1 and 2 in the [NBA] draft after watching them today. Gilchrist is a man-child.”

Unless the freshmen wilt under the brightest of college basketball spotlights, the Wildcats will end up winning the national championship for the eighth time.

Of course, archrival Louisville, Kentucky’s opponent in the first national semifinal on Saturday, will have something to say about it, as possibly will either Kansas or Ohio State, which match up in the nightcap of the semifinal doubleheader.

In delighting a partisan crowd that crooned “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, KU” as the NCAA Midwest Regional final in St. Louis wound down, Kansas took over what had been a nail-biter and outscored North Carolina, 12-0, in the final 3 minutes, 7 seconds to take an 80-67 victory.

Yes, the Tar Heels were hurting again without point guard Kendall Marshall, who missed his second consecutive game with a broken right wrist. Freshman Stilman White again played steady basketball – seven assists, no turnovers – but couldn’t get the rock inside enough to Tyler Zeller or find Harrison Barnes in spots where he likes it.

But the Jayhawks dominated Carolina on the inside, taking a 40-30 win on the boards. Jeff Withey blocked shots on back-to-back Tar Heels possessions during the decisive spurt, and Kansas got a layup and a dunk off the swats.

If Tyshawn Taylor continues to play as he did Sunday (22 points, five assists, five steals) and Thomas Robinson gives his usual effort, the Jayhawks could make life miserable for Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes. We think they will.

Even in the preseason, people knew how good these teams were. The AP poll before the season ranked Kentucky second, Ohio State third, Louisville ninth, and Kansas 13th.

Now these four approach the finish line all feeling they have a shot at the championship.

We’re still going with Kentucky. How about you?

Jim Shorts Sports Director


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