New Orleans is the site of one of the most famous rematches in boxing history — Sugar Ray Leonard’s 1980 welterweight victory, in which he turned the tables on champion Roberto Duran, who quit while famously saying, “No mas.” So maybe it’s appropriate that the NCAA Final Four features two rematches in Saturday’s semifinals between four of college basketball’s heavyweights.
Bitter intrastate rivals Kentucky (36-2) and Louisville (30-9) meet in one semifinal, and you can be sure there will be no quit in either of those foes, whose rivalry is enhanced by a personal grudge match between Wildcats coach John Calipari and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino that goes back decades. Kentucky beat Louisville on New Year’s Eve in Lexington, but the 69-62 score reflects the trouble the Wildcats had against Pitino’s pressure defense.
The other semifinal matches Big Ten regular-season co-champion Ohio State (31-7) against Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas (31-6). The Jayhawks scored a 78-67 home victory Dec. 10 over the Buckeyes, who were missing All-American forward Jared Sullinger because of back spasms.
In a tournament that began with 15th seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State knocking off second-seeded Duke and Missouri, respectively, it almost seems like an upset that only the power conferences will be represented at the Superdome. Butler made it to the final game the previous two years and defeated Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals last season, but there are no rags-to-riches stories this time around.
Here’s a look at what to expect:
As much as Wildcats fans loved Pitino when he defeated Calipari and UMass in the national semifinal en route to the 1996 title is how much they hate him for going to the school down the road from Lexington when he left the NBA. On paper, Calipari’s fantastic freshmen, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with sophomore forward Terrence Jones look unstoppable.
The Cardinals are limited offensively, and to stay in the game, they must get a major contribution from freshman Chane Behanan, along with veterans Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric. Unlike past Pitino teams, Louisville isn’t very good from three-point range, but its pressing defense carried it to the Big East Tournament title on the way to New Orleans, and shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng’s 3.2 blocks per game rival the 4.6 Davis averages.
Just as the Jayhawks were fortunate not to face Sullinger the first time around, they got past a more talented North Carolina team in the Midwest Regional when the Tar Heels were without point guard Kendall Marshall because of a fractured wrist.
Sullinger is over back and foot problems that bothered him earlier this season, so KU can expect the Buckeyes’ best shot.
It should be a battle royale between All-American forwards Sullinger and Thomas Robinson of Kansas, but Robinson's primary source of scoring help is guard Tyshawn Taylor, though Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey played well against Carolina. But Ohio State has a stronger, more versatile starting lineup. Forward Deshaun Thomas works well on the inside with Sullinger, and Big Ten defensive player of the year Aaron Craft might lock up Taylor, as he did in holding him to nine points the first time.
A Kansas win could lead to another rematch in the championship game of the Jayhawks’ early-season loss to Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. But Ohio State’s inside presence will get the Buckeyes to the championship game and produce the best matchup to challenge No. 1 Kentucky.
Calipari is the king of recruiting, but he’s 0-1 in NCAA title games in three trips to the Final Four. In Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones, he finally has the right combination of “D,’’ toughness and scoring to fill the championship void on his resume.