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March 30, 2012
Tournament Preview
The Final Four

by John Gasaway

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It has been said of the past two Final Fours that they were wonderful as spectacle and tradition and all that, but talent-wise they had little to interest NBA scouts. That is not the case this year. Perhaps four of the top six picks in the upcoming draft, as projected by DraftExpress.com, will be in action in New Orleans: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thomas Robinson, and Jared Sullinger.

Indeed this is clearly a gathering of heavyweight teams, whether you classify the contestants by talent or by seed. When your Cinderella won the Big East tournament and is coached by Rick Pitino, it's pretty clear this is not 2011 anymore.

All games played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans

(4) Louisville vs. (1) Kentucky (Saturday, 6:09 on CBS)
Doron Lamb is a walking poster that says "Ignore Assist-Turnover Ratio." His assist-turnover ratio in the SEC and NCAA tournaments combined is awful: 0.3-to-1. I don't care, and neither should you. What that remarkable ratio is really saying is: When the ball gets to Lamb it has either run its course for that possession or it's going back out top to Marquis Teague. That's descriptive enough, but it doesn't speak to what's made Lamb his team's leading scorer in the postseason. He has the reputation of being his team's most reliable three-point threat, and he is surely that. (Lamb has hit 47 percent of his shots from beyond the arc this year, and 43 percent since the close of the regular season.) But in Kentucky's past seven games he's additionally molded himself into a highly effective dual-threat wing-type weapon, one who's hit 54 percent of his twos over that span.

Offense is the salient dominance of this dominant Wildcat team at the moment. In three games against Iowa State, Indiana, and Baylor, John Calipari's team has scored 1.29 points per possession. A lot of that is sheer accumulation from a group that's committed just 30 turnovers in 211 possessions. They've also been going to the line constantly (103 attempts against a mere 165 shots from the field), and on their rare attempts from the perimeter they're hitting at a rate that is almost one-out-of-two (19-of-39). Anthony Davis is recording a good many dunks on that play UK loves to run where he dives to the tin, and Terrence Jones is pulling down 12 percent of his team's postseason misses. If Kentucky keeps playing offense this well, they will follow 2007-variety Florida into the Pantheon Coaches Don't Tell Their Teams About, the one where teams score so many points that defense becomes an afterthought.

On the other hand Louisville is in the Final Four because of their defense, plain and simple. In four NCAA tournament games they've held their opponents to 0.92 points per trip by forcing them to take a lot of threes which, as it happens, they have missed. The Cardinals have also benefited from a sizable turnover margin, as Pitino's men have given the ball away on just 15 percent of their possessions while taking the rock away from the other guys on fully 21 percent of their trips.

None of which figures to carry a lot of weight against an opponent who takes even better care of the ball than the Cards do and doesn't shoot threes, right? In theory, right. We are all about accuracy in surprise here at Prospectus, and if you see Louisville win this game you should be exceedingly surprised. Kentucky's balanced offense reflects an equilibrium within and across obscene amounts of talent, whereas Louisville's balance in that department this year has most often testified to a bunch of guys waiting for Russ Smith to check into the game. Chane Behanan had a really nice game against Florida, but it's difficult to envision Kyle Kuric making enough threes or Peyton Siva dishing enough assists to get the job done against the Wildcats. If there's a wild card (har!) anywhere to be found it could be Gorgui Dieng, who's posted an NCAA tournament block rate of 12 percent (a block rate that, significantly, has been foul-free with the exception of the Davidson game).

Pro tip for Louisville. If you're fortunate enough to be in a situation where it matters, foul Jones. He has hit just 61 percent of his free throws in UK's seven-game postseason.

(2) Ohio State vs. (2) Kansas (Saturday, 8:49 on CBS)
In the postseason Ohio State has emphasized tendencies they showed all year long on offense, and indeed they have amplified those tendencies to a successful extreme. This was already a team that loaded an inordinate number of shots and minutes onto a very small number of players, and now look.

Over the course of the BIg Ten and NCAA tournaments Deshaun Thomas has played 94 percent of his team's possessions and taken 28 percent of the Buckeyes' shots during his minutes. (With this level of playing time you can just about delete the "during his minutes" -- his minutes and his team's are virtually synonymous.) Conversely Jared Sullinger isn't afforded the luxury that Thomas has, the one where you don't get into foul trouble. As a result the big guy has to pour his production into a limited amount of playing time: he's taking 31 percent of OSU's shots during his minutes. Both players have been pitilessly effective on that side of the ball since the close of the regular season: Thomas because he's making 61 percent of his twos; Sullinger not only because he's pulling down 13 percent of Ohio State's missed shots, but also because he's going to the line seven times a game and shooting 84 percent there. (Repeat: Sullinger's shooting 84 percent at the line in the postseason. Physically he certainly looks like a guy you want to foul late. This is incorrect.) Add in proven performers like William Buford, Aaron Craft, and the newly clutch Lenzelle Smith, and you have one highly effective offense.

As for defense, OSU's been foul-free this season except of course when monitored by the strangely eager zebras who did the Syracuse game the other night. Teams in the postseason have had no trouble holding on to the ball against the Buckeyes, and they've fared pretty well from the perimeter. What they have not done, however, is get offensive rebounds.

In a classic case of good news/bad news, Kansas is in the Final Four even though their shooting in the NCAA tournament has been absolutely horrible. When the season's over and time is plentiful I will go back and check, but the Jayhawks are surely near the top of the 1985-2012 list in terms of teams that have managed to win four games while denting rims with such gusto. Bill Self's men have made just 47 percent of their twos and 24 percent of their threes in wins over Detroit, Purdue, NC State, and North Carolina. It could mean: Wow, when the shots finally start falling for KU, look out! It could mean: Wow, this team is so lucky to be here. Most likely it means both.

Tyshawn Taylor's perimeter struggles have been well documented, but also keep in mind that when Thomas Robinson sneezes on offense, the Kansas offense catches a cold. Sure enough we find that all the attention the first-team All-American has been drawing from opposing defenses has left him with a postseason two-point percentage a hair below the applicable Mendoza line: 39.7. It's a good thing Kansas has taken care of the ball over the past four games, a fact that has helped mitigate the awful shooting.

Another mitigating factor, of course, has been defense. That 10-block performance against the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16 has left Jeff Withey with an "are you sitting down?" NCAA tournament block percentage of 18. He is fated to be underrated Zoubek-style because he didn't arrive fully-formed in Lawrence and he just doesn't look particularly scary, but at the moment he is the single most effective defensive player in New Orleans. Withey's presence or absence in the game is of singular importance, and Bill Self and Thad Matta know it even if others do not.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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