One game is a grudge match between teams that know each other all too well. The other is a rare rematch between virtual strangers.
The Final Four is set. In one game Saturday, Kentucky will play Louisville in an intrastate rivalry that puts Cardinals coach Rick Pitino against the school he once coached, then later alienated by returning to the Bluegrass State to lead its archrival.
In the other semifinal, it will be Ohio State and Kansas, meeting for only the ninth time in their history but for the second time this season. The Jayhawks won the first game 78-67 in Lawrence, Kan., back on Dec. 10. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger sat out of that game with back spasms. It was the first time the teams had met since 1999-2000.
The winners will play for the national title April 2. Kentucky already has seven national titles but none since 1998, the year after Pitino left. Kansas has three championships, Louisville has two and Ohio State, better known as a football power, won its lone title in 1960 and is making its third trip to the Final Four since 1999.
Absent from this year’s ultimate 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 came 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 next 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 at home 69-62. 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.”
Led by a group of freshmen who may or may not return for a second year, Kentucky was established as an early 8.5-point favorite in the game. The Wildcats endured a brief scare when freshman Anthony Davis, their leading scorer, went down hard in the second half against Baylor with an injured knee. But it was only a knee-to-knee collision with a Baylor player and the injury isn’t expected to be serious.
“The guys told me it was knee to knee,” Calipari said of the early report from the trainers. “I said, ‘Get up, mama’s boy,’ and he was fine.”
Pitino’s team does not have as many NBA-ready stars as Calipari’s, but they are Final Four material. A series of injuries and starts and stops led to a 10-8 Big East regular season that impressed no one. But the coach kept believing and coaxing. The Cardinals won the Big East tournament and are two wins away from winning the NCAAs, too.
“I really didn’t have any lofty expectations, because we had so many injuries,” Pitino said. “We were just trying to survive during the season. We just wanted to make the tournament and start fresh.”
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,” Kansas coach Bill 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.”