By Eddie Pells/The Associated Press
Two games. Two rematches.
One Final Four repeat is between Kentucky and Louisville, teams that know each other all too well. The other has Kansas facing Ohio State, teams that had more or less been strangers until this season.
Earlier in the season, Kentucky beat Louisville 69-62, handing a loss to Rick Pitino, the coach who once led the Wildcats, but left for the NBA, only to return down the road to lead their in-state rivals. Kansas defeated Ohio State 78-67 in a game the Buckeyes played without their star, forward Jared Sullinger.
The stakes are higher this time. The winners of Saturday’s semifinals will play for the national title next Monday.
“You know if you get this far you’re going to play a great team, no matter what,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And you know what? They’re going to get to play a great team, too. It should be pretty fun.”
Absent from this year’s final hoops weekend, taking place at the Superdome in New Orleans, are the longshots and little guys who have made March Madness so special over the years. Although there are no Butlers, VCUs or George Masons, there are plenty of good stories to tell. That list starts with Pitino vs. his old school.
It was Pitino who restored Kentucky to its former greatness when he arrived there in 1989 and the Wildcat program was coming off the sting of NCAA violations. Pitino took the program to three Final Fours and won one championship, but left in 1997 to take a second shot at the NBA, where he had previously coached the New York Knicks.
He fared far worse in four seasons with the Boston Celtics, and when the call back to the college game came, it was from Louisville, located only 70 miles up the road from Lexington and very much in the crosshairs of Kentucky fans. It has been 11 years since his dramatic return, and most of the shock has worn off from what was once deemed an unforgivable betrayal. But there’s nothing like a Final Four meeting to stir up some old memories.
“It is in our state. They’re a great program. We’re in two different leagues,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Wildcats beat Baylor 82-70 in the South Regional to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year. “The city of Louisville drives our state. The University of Louisville drives that city. So it’s a very important thing for our state, and it’s important that that school does well.”
Maybe just not Saturday.
The teams play every season, and most recently, they were ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in The Associated Press poll when they met on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky won by seven. Now, it’s top-seeded Kentucky against Louisville, a No. 4 and the worst-seeded team in the Final Four.
“We think they’re excellent. We think they’re great. I coached there. It’s great. Great tradition,” Pitino said Saturday, after Louisville rallied for a 72-68 win over Florida that put the Cardinals in the Final Four for the second time since the coach arrived. “But we want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission. But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship.”
In the other semifinal, Sullinger got what he wanted when he decided to return to Ohio State for his sophomore year — a trip to the Final Four. The Buckeyes are early 2.5-point picks over Kansas in the matchup of No. 2 seeds.
They finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten, widely viewed as the toughest conference in basketball this year, but settled for a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs after losing the conference tournament final to Michigan State. It wasn’t the first or last time critics underestimated Thad Matta’s team this season.
“People were asking, are we mentally tough enough, are we physically tough enough, can we do this, can we do that?” Sullinger said. “I relayed those questions back to the team. We did some soul searching, and now we’ve taken this to a whole other level.”
Sullinger scored 19 points Saturday in Ohio State’s 77-70 win over Syracuse to make the Final Four.
Tyshawn Taylor scored 22 points Sunday in an 80-67 win over North Carolina to lock in the matchup against the Buckeyes. The Jayhawks reached the Final Four for the first time since 2008, when they won it all after rallying from nine points late in the title game to beat Memphis (and Calipari, before he moved to Kentucky) in overtime.
Taylor finished with 13 assists in the Dec. 10 game against Ohio State despite playing with an ailing knee.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, had to do without Sullinger. Playing their first road game of the season, they lost by 11 to drop to 8-1.
Seems like quite a long time ago.
“We caught a break the first time when Jared didn’t play, and we were kind of finding ourselves,” Self said. “We knew they were a team that could make a run and win a national championship. They have so many pieces that are so good. It starts with Jared.”