Looking for upstarts, bracket busters or Cinderellas in this Final Four? Wait ’til next year.
Actually, waiting until next year is what 64 other college basketball teams who began the NCAA Tournament three weeks ago are doing. It’s Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, and Kansas, each big-time programs with championship pedigrees, who have advanced to New Orleans for the national semifinals on Saturday, March 31.
The schools and their coaches are no strangers to the Final Four. Kentucky is there for the 15th time and has won seven national titles. Kansas has won three titles in its 14 trips there. Ohio State, in its 11th Final Four, is seeking its second title and Louisville, there for the ninth time, has two national titles.
The four coaches’ resumes are intertwined with national championship game triumph and disappointment. Louisville coach Rick Pitino won a national title as Kentucky’s coach in 1996. Kansas coach Bill Self won it all in 2008 when he beat a Memphis team coached by current Kentucky coach John Calipari. Ohio State coach Thad Matta lost in his only title game appearance, in 2007 when Florida — coached by Pitino protege Billy Donovan — beat the Buckeyes.
There is more recent history between the semifinalists. Bluegrass State rivals Louisville and Kentucky played their annual game on Dec. 31, 2011 with Kentucky winning 69-62 on its home floor of Rupp Arena in Lexington. Kansas beat Ohio State 78-67 back on Dec. 10, 2011 at Phog Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kan.
The meeting of storied programs with rabid fan bases has led to a jump in ticket prices on the secondary market over last year’s Final Four in Houston. According to ticket search site TiqIQ.com, the average resale price for the national semifinals on Saturday, March 31 is $750.63, which is more than double the average price of $336.77 last year, when Butler played Virginia Commonwealth and Kentucky faced Connecticut. The “get-in” price for Saturday, March 31 has doubled as well, up to $200 from $85 last year.
As for the final on the night of Monday, April 2, TiqIQ’s stats show an average resale price of $434.38, up from $251.49 for Butler vs. UConn last year. The get-in price for the final ($48 to $97) has doubled from last year, too. TiqIQ spokesman Chris Matcovich told TicketNews that prices for the final should go up even higher should the championship game match equally hoop-crazed Kansas and Kentucky.
Of course, the Final Four has become much more than just the games. A week-long series of events in New Orleans includes a coaches’ convention, announcement of Basketball Hall of Fame inductees (Pitino is a finalist), collegiate and high school all-star games, tailgate parties, and, this year, concerts on consecutive days at Woldenberg Park in New Orleans. Scheduled to appear are KISS on Friday, March 30, The Black Keys on Saturday, March 31, and Jimmy Buffett on Sunday, April 1.
As for the games, here’s a closer look at the match-ups on Saturday, March 31 at the Superdome:
Louisville (30-9), West No. 4 seed, vs. Kentucky (36-2), South No. 1 seed, Saturday, 6:09 p.m.
Outlook: The battle for basketball-mad Kentucky is ratcheted up to a new level. Beyond the longstanding bitterness between the fans, is the coaches’ less-than-cordial relationship. While some consider the two to be mirror images of each other, their mutual disdain for one another is well-documented. Pitino resurrected the Kentucky program in the 1990s, left for a disastrous stint with the Celtics in the NBA, then returned to the college game with the Wildcats’ in-state rival. Calipari left success and controversy — resulting in NCAA penalties — behind in stints at Massachusetts and Memphis before he took over at Kentucky.
Asked if the buildup to the game might shut down the state, Kentucky-area ticket broker Doug Dearen, owner of DerbyBox.com, told TicketNews, “I think it’s headed that way. They’ve met a few times in regionals before. Including one in the mid-80s that’s known as the ‘Dream Game’ around here [an 80-68 Louisville victory that sent the Cardinals to the Final Four in 1983]. That was in Knoxville, Tenn., with about 12,000 seats. This takes it to a whole different level.”
Dearen said the demand “is like a Super Bowl or BCS game.” After tickets are distributed to students and season ticket holders through a lottery early this week, “a lot of people will be left out in the cold,” he said. “We’ll be ready. I expect to get hit pretty hard by Wednesday or Thursday.”
On the court, Kentucky is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and has played like it. Calipari again has potential top NBA draft picks in college player of the year favorite Anthony Davis, a shot-blocker extraordinaire, and Michael Kidd Gilchrist, named the most outstanding player of the South Regional. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but a Louisville victory over a team that has won its previous four tournament games by double-digits would be a shocker. Pitino’s Cardinals average 68 points a game and will have to hit their three-pointers (they were 4-for-18 in losing to Kentucky earlier this season) to have a chance.
Ohio State (31-7), East No. 2, vs. Kansas (31-6), Midwest No. 2, Saturday, 8:49 p.m.
Outlook: The Louisville-Kentucky match-up has overshadowed this meeting between two more of college basketball’s elite. Kansas won the earlier meeting this season, but the Buckeyes played that game without their big man, 6-foot-9 Jared Sullinger. He’ll be back for this one and go up against Kansas’ 6-10 Thomas Robinson. Each was named to the Associated Press All-America first team this week, along with Kentucky’s Davis.
While those big men may cancel each other out, Kansas also has 7-footer Jeff Withey, who has 20 blocks in four tournament games. Meanwhile, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas has sent his NBA draft stock soaring by averaging 22.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in four tournament games.
In the backcourt, dynamic guard Tyshawn Taylor led Kansas past No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Midwest final with a 22-point performance on 10-for-19 shooting. Still, Taylor has yet to hit a three-pointer in the tournament, going 0-for-17. He’ll likely have to end that drought if the Jayhawks are to get past the Buckeyes. Also in a shooting slump is Ohio State guard Will Buford (6-for-30 on threes). A breakout game from the senior, who has scored 20 or more points nine times this season, could send the Buckeyes to the final.