Next weekend’s Final Four in New Orleans has everything except something to hug. There are no lovable nicknames, or coaches named “Shaka,’ or teams left in the field that play in Hinkle field house. Butler is the past’s blast, Virginia Commonwealth has deferred to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and all the 11th-seeded teams have gone home for the harvest.
This is a members’ only racket. Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas are all basketball bullies who like to steal your lunch money.
Call it a Final Fearsome Foursome.
The rafters in these programs reek of history. Each school has won at least one national title – with a total of 13.
The total seeding number (1, 2, 2, 4) of the schools adds up to nine. Last year it was 26.
Louisville, the West’s winner but the “runt” at No. 4, “only” won this year’s Big East tournament championship.
Kentucky, champion of the South, survived in tact as the top overall seeding with Sunday’s 82-70 win over Baylor.
A collective Heimlich maneuver was performed in Lexington when star freshman center Anthony Davis writhed in pain after suffering a second-half left knee injury.
The candlelight vigil was canceled, though, after Davis returned to the game.
“The knee is doing fine,” he said afterward, closely followed by the sound of “whew.”
No. 2 Ohio State took down top-seeded Syracuse in the East and re-established itself as the title-contending threat it was supposed to be in November.
No 2 Kansas was the last team to check in at Amazing Race when it defeated No. 1 North Carolina in the Midwest.
The national semifinal matchups – Kentucky vs. Louisville at 6 p.m. EDT Saturday, followed by Ohio State vs. Kansas – have a chance to be epic.
The last person leaving Kentucky on their way to New Orleans has been asked to turn out the coal lamps.
Kentucky vs. Louisville is the angriest rivalry outside of Duke and North Carolina, or maybe even inside of it. Duke and North Carolina, for all the fuss, have never met in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky vs. Louisville was dubbed the “rivalry that never was” by former Louisville coach Denny Crum because of Kentucky’s refusal to acknowledge Louisville existed.
Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp (who later had the arena named after him) had an unwritten edict of not scheduling in-state schools. Kentucky and Louisville met three times from 1948 to 1983 only because of matchups in the NCAA tournaments.
The schools would have met for the NCAA title in 1975 had Louisville not lost in the national semifinals to UCLA.
Kentucky and Louisville have split four NCAA tournament games, Kentucky winning in 1951 and 1984 and Louisville taking 1959 and 1983.
It was Louisville’s overtime victory against Kentucky in the 1983 NCAA regional finals that prompted a resumption of the series the following season. The schools have met every season since.
The ramp-up to Saturday’s game may require crisis counselors. Kentucky coach John Calipari, in his third year, has tried to douse the rivalry flames by periodically suggesting to boosters the schools only play once a year and aren’t even in the same conference.
Calipari says he asks, “Why do you guys get all worked up?” and they respond, “Are you out of your mind!?”
Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, of course, who led Kentucky to its sixth national title in 1996.
Kentucky won this year’s meeting, 69-62, on Dec. 31 in Lexington. Davis had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots. Russ Smith, the hero of Louisville’s West regional title win over Florida, had 30 points off the bench.
Pitino says they might have to fence the bridges in Lexington if Louisville were to upset Kentucky next weekend in New Orleans.
“But I don’t get into these petty things, Kentucky-Louisville,” Pitino said of the all the extracurricular noise. “To me it’s nonsense.”
Ohio State vs. Kansas gets second billing but is still a pedigree matchup. Ohio State hasn’t won a national title since it beat California in 1960 at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, but has a fairly storied NCAA history and advanced to the NCAA title game as recently as 2007.
Ohio State was considered a title contender the instant center Jared Sullinger announced he was returning this season. The Buckeyes fell off the national radar, though, during a February stretch in which they lost three of four games.
Ohio State has won eight of nine games since a Feb. 26 home loss to Wisconsin that prompted coach Thad Matta to go all Woody Hayes in a clear-the-gym tirade.
Some Buckeyes headed to New Orleans think the media left them for road kill.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team,” Sullinger said after Saturday’s Syracuse win. “Said we was the underdogs, we wasn’t good enough, physically strong enough. Mentally immature, we heard all that.”
Kansas (three national titles) won the Midwest on Sunday, 80-67, pulling away late from a North Carolina team severely diminished by the absence of point guard Kendall Marshall, who sat out his second straight game with a broken right wrist.
It was a good day for Kansas but too bad for North Carolina, considered by most the second-best team in the field behind Kentucky.
Another added twist: Calipari, desperately seeking his first NCAA title, may have to get past two coaches who have denied him in the past.
Pitino and Kentucky, in 1996, defeated Calipari’s Massachusetts team in the national semifinals.
In 2008, Bill Self’s Kansas team won a dramatic overtime victory over Calipari-coached Memphis.
Louisville’s band, after Saturday’s win over Florida in Phoenix, serenaded fans with “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Wait a bluegrass minute, an outsider could reasonably wonder: “Whose old Kentucky home is it?”