NCAA Men's Final Four Set To Play Saturday
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And then there were four. The Final Four in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament is set. On one side of the bracket it's an interstate rivalry, as Louisville faces Kentucky. The winner of that game will battle the victor of the contest between Ohio State and Kansas.
Kansas and Kentucky are marquee names in college basketball, of course. But as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, their paths this year could not be more different.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: One reason why sports are more satisfying than political debates, year-end top 10 movie lists, or marital arguments, is in sports there is a scoreboard. But while the scoreboard issues the ultimate verdict, it doesn't always tell the whole truth. Take last night's contests. Kansas beat North Carolina by 13 points and Baylor succumbed to Kentucky by 12. Yet the Kansas-Carolina game scintillated, whereas the closer Kentucky-Baylor game was actually a tension-free blowout. Here, in fact, was the game's most dramatic moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GREENE: Doesn't sound like much. It's actually 24,000 Kentucky fans exhaling as Anthony Davis, the probable national player of the year, picked himself up off the court after clutching his knee. The team was up 20, Baylor would not be coming back, but happily for the teeming throng of Wildcat partisans, Davis would. And with that, the Wildcats qualified for their 15th Final Four. As good as Kentucky seems to be, Baylor coach Scott Drew says they're a little bit better.
SCOTT DREW: Well, I think in coaching you get done playing a team and the first thing you think is, are they what you thought? This team's actually better than I thought. I don't think we played our best game. But again, Kentucky is really, really good.
PESCA: As Baylor was left to wonder how many NBA teams could shut down Kentucky for 40 minutes, Kansas and North Carolina were locked in a furious battle. The half-time score saw both teams at 47 points and the game announcers calling this perhaps the most exciting game of the tournament. Although offensive onslaughts might delight fans, they draw the ire of coaches like Kansas's Bill Self.
BILL SELF: First half, we didn't guard anybody. It was a horse contest. And they're not the type of team you want to get in a horse contest with.
PESCA: Before the tournament, there was a perception that North Carolina, though deserving of the one seed, seemed to lack grit. This game gave lie to such talk. Center Tyler Zeller winced through pain; forward John Henson, his wrist bandaged, soldiered on; and Stillman White, the third-string point guard, pressed into service when the starter broke a wrist, was simply error-free.
Back and forth the second half went, Kansas streaking, Carolina answering. Carolina briefly taking the lead, Kansas coming back. With a little over three minutes left, Kansas was up by one. Then after a Jayhawk three-pointer and lay-up, Travis Releford threw down a dunk to put the game out of reach. Marv Albert on CBS tried to be heard over the screaming crowd in St. Louis.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)
MARV ALBERT: Releford ahead of the field. Releford extends to a 76-67 lead...
ROY WILLIAMS: It was a game of runs, and we didn't answer the last one.
PESCA: North Carolina's Roy Williams knows to coach elite basketball is to end the season on a crushing low or a ridiculous high.
Onto New Orleans, where on one side of the bracket you have Ohio State and Kansas, two plausible championship contenders. On the other is Louisville and Kentucky- the team that has gone, in the eyes of most fans, from solidly credentialed to practically incredible. You can't beat Kentucky in a battle of skill, but perhaps they're vulnerable in a battle of wits.
If there is a dry erase board out there with the squiggles and marks that hold the key to thwarting the Wildcats, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is probably the one wielding the marker. In six days we'll find out.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, Atlanta.