Wiedmer: Cats-vs.-Hoosiers has Final Four feel

Wiedmer: Cats-vs.-Hoosiers has Final Four feel

March 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA -- His team trailing No. 1 Kentucky by three thin points at halftime Friday night, Indiana coach Tom Crean walked to the locker room telling his Hoosiers, "We're all right. We're all right."

He had no reason to think otherwise in this South Regional semifinal showdown of two of the nation's most storied programs. Not only was Indiana shooting an otherworldly 58 percent against a UK team that hovered near the top of the nation's field-goal-percentage ranks all season, but the Hoosiers had stunned Big Blue in December.

Beyond that, just as has happened on IU's homecourt, UK freshman sensation Anthony Davis had sat out most of the first half in early foul trouble.

So why wouldn't they be all right?

And when the Hoosiers followed that shimmering first-half performance by hitting at least five layups in the first six minutes of the second half, it was clear that Crean knew something about taming Cats.

Yet Kentucky didn't enter this game with a 34-2 record because it can't play a little. Using its athleticism and talent, Big Blue briefly pulled in front by 13 points with nine minutes to play.

Yes, IU came right back, pulling within eight on a Christian Watford 3-ball. Watford, after all, had hit the buzzer-beating triple that had beaten UK by a point.

(If you're a Big Blue fan, why is it that the most famous losses in your history always seem to involve a guy named Christian?)

And the Hoosiers didn't stop there. They clawed as close as five as 24,500 fans rose to their feet, a Final Four feel to a Sweet 16 game.

Certainly the venue helped. Knowing the unmatched passion of Big Blue Nation, the Georgia Dome opened the upper level Monday, increasing capacity to nearly 25,000. Every ticket in the place was sold by Friday afternoon.

But it's also the presence of these two traditional giants. The Hoosiers and Wildcats have won 12 national titles, UK having won seven.

And for players such as IU point guard Jordan Hulls -- who grew up right there in Bloomington, Ind. -- or Kentucky senior Darius Miller, who was raised a little more than an hour from UK's campus in Maysville, Ky., this is all they dream about. They want to play for Big Blue or the Crimson and Cream.

They want to play in games like this. And playing as it did in this eventual 102-90 victory -- a victory punctuated by the Cats hitting a preposterous 35 of 37 free throws -- Kentucky just might play its way into championship No. 8 if gets past Baylor on Sunday.

And if it does, this may be the game they talk about 20 years from now.

This tournament always begins focusing on the little guys, hopeful that another Butler or Virginia Commonwealth can make another storied run to the Final Four.

And there's no question that the shocking upsets of No. 2 seeds Duke and Missouri in the opening round by No. 15 seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State, respectively -- the first time in history two No. 15 seeds had accomplished such a feat in the same year -- was fun.

But look at today's West and East Regional finals and what do you see?

You see royalty. You see only royalty. Syracuse and Ohio State to decide the East and Louisville versus Florida in the West are pairings of former NCAA champions -- the Orange and Buckeyes owning one title each, while the Gators and Cardinals have a pair of trophies each on their mantels.

Moreover, the Florida-Louisville game pits pupil against teacher, Gators coach Billy Donovan having played for Louisville boss Rick Pitino before coaching under him at Kentucky.

In something of a rarity in those types of pairings, Billy D's stats are actually slightly better than Ricky P's where it matters most -- championships won, Donovan having guided the Gators to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, one of only two active coaches to have accomplished that feat, the other being Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

But whatever happens today or in Sunday's South and Midwest finals, college basketball hasn't looked this "all right" for a long time.