Wiedmer: Final Four looks great, but UNC deserved better

Wiedmer: Final Four looks great, but UNC deserved better

March 26th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - The handmade sign flashed across the CBS television feed from the Midwest Regional final early Sunday evening.

The proud work of a Kansas Jayhawk fan celebrating KU's 80-67 win over North Carolina, it read: "We're not in Kansas anymore ... We're headed to New Orleans."

And so they are, along with Louisville, Ohio State and the lone No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four - top-ranked Kentucky.

It's a storied quartet to be sure. They own 13 national championships between them and only OSU's Buckeyes have as few as one.

Beyond that, the storylines for Saturday's semis - U of L versus UK, OSU versus KU - are delicious.

Everyone may already know how much UK and U of L dislike each other, especially since Cardinals coach Rick Pitino guided Big Blue to the 1996 national title before a failed stint with the NBA's Boston Celtics led him to take the Louisville job.

But it's also worth noting that those outrageously talented '96 champs defeated a Massachusetts squad coached by current UK boss John Calipari in a Final Four semifinal that spring.

To make matters even spicier, Cal has reportedly gotten under Ricky P's skin since coming to Lexington. Whether that coolness is based on Calipari's 3-0 record against Pitino since he took over UK in the spring of 2009 is uncertain.

But when the Big Blue boss was asked to describe the two men's relationship following Kentucky's South Regional final victory over Baylor on Sunday, Cal replied: "We don't send each other Christmas cards, but if I see him public and I'm recruiting, we'll spend some time together. It's fine."

Pressed on if he would characterize their relationship as friends or acquaintances, Calipari smiled and said, "Friendly acquaintances."

Of course, it wasn't too long before Christmas that Ohio State traveled to Kansas to meet the Jayhawks without Buckeyes big man Jared Sullinger, who was injured at the time. KU prevailed that day, 78-67, but even Jayhawks star forward Thomas Robinson said afterward, "Their big fella didn't play today and it probably would have made the game turn out differently."

Added Bill Self that afternoon, "I hope we get to play them again because that means we probably would have advanced in the NCAA Tournament."

Now they've advanced all the way to the Final Four for the Ohio State rematch, which looks like a toss-up, but only if Robinson can hold his own with "Big Fella" Sullinger.

But let's just say that Cal's Cats survive the Cards and KU KOs OSU for a second time this season. Not only would UK and KU meet for a second time this season - the Wildcats prevailed 75-65 inside Madison Square Garden back on Nov. 15, but Self won his lone national title in 2008 against Calipari's Memphis team, which held a 9-point lead with just over two minutes to play.

Yet as good as this fearsome foursome is, at least one fallen No. 1 seed has great reason to mutter "What if" this morning, if not all the mornings, noons and nights until the start of next season.

Maybe Kansas upsets North Carolina even if Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall hadn't broken a bone in his right wrist last weekend. Stranger things have happened, especially given the overall fine play of KU for most of this season and the sometimes perplexing performances of the Baby Blues.

But as Heels coach Roy Williams said of Marshall after spending Sunday afternoon watching the nation's assists leader watch this one in a suit and tie: "He's our engine, our driver, the head of this thing."

And if you want to kill the monster, you cut off its head.

No disrespect to Stillman White, who committed no turnovers and handed out two assists in the two games he played this weekend, but he's no Kendall Marshall, who just may have been college basketball's best open-floor passer since Magic Johnson.

Still, you play with what you've got, and Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State had more than anyone else when they needed it most.

And what all four of those have more of than anybody else is outstanding defense.

Or as Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said Sunday, "We understood what got us to this point - playing defense. That's what's going to win this thing."

And over the past four months, no one in college basketball has played better defense than Kentucky, which is why Cal's Cats remain the favorite to claim title No. 8.