Wiedmer: November no gauge for March

Wiedmer: November no gauge for March

November 14th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA -- You can't say the State Farm Champions Classic college basketball event Tuesday night at the Georgia Dome was inappropriately named.

Not when Classic participants Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have combined to win 17 of their sport's 74 NCAA titles to date.

But as impressive as the crowd of 25,000 or more was for this doubleheader pitting Michigan State against Kansas and UK's defending national champs against the Dookies, they'd all much rather be playing inside this same building on April 6 in the Final Four semifinals.

"This really is like a Final Four," ESPN's Dick Vitale said early Tuesday evening. "And wouldn't these four all love to be back here in April."

Obviously. And if all those willing to pony up at least $75 a ticket for ragged mid-November hoops is any indication, the Big Peach clearly would love to have any or all of these four return for college athletics' premier event.

Especially Kentucky, which once more proved why its fanatical following turns the Dome into "Catlanta" each time Big Blue invades the place.

But do any or all of these four have more name than game at this point?

Which are pretenders and which are contenders?

And who should challenge this distinguished quartet come March?

Duke: This almost assuredly isn't Blue Devils boss Mike Krzyzewski's most talented team. He lost his best player -- freshman point guard Austin Rivers -- to the NBA's New Orleans Hornets. (Yes, even Coach K accepts one-and-done talents on occasion.)

The players who remain would appear to be a tad short on athleticism to return to Atlanta. Then again, the same thing could have been said of the Dookies in 2010, when they won Krzyzewski his fourth NCAA title.

Kansas: Last year's national runners-up to Kentucky, the Jayhawks looked like the best blend of talent, depth and experience inside the Georgia Dome in warm-ups.

Unfortunately, they didn't often play like it against the Spartans, who won 67-64 and looked much better than they had in last Friday's loss to Connecticut in Germany.

And while KU coach Bill Self's team is occasionally labeled underachievers come March, he's also reached two NCAA title games, winning it all in 2008. With three seniors in the starting lineup and a sterling freshman class, don't be surprised to see KU reach the Final Four for the third time in the last six seasons.

Kentucky: Raise your hand if you've heard the following criticism of UK coach John Calipari -- the Wildcats lack too much depth and experience to cut down the nets.

So Cal's three Final Fours and one national title in the past six years are a fluke, right?

Judging by its narrow win over Maryland last weekend, this may finally be the year that UK will be lucky to reach the Sweet 16. Or Cal's Cats could lose six SEC games and again reach the Final Four, as they did two years ago.

Michigan State: As usual with Sparty in November, you wonder which Tom Izzo team will show up come March -- one capable of propelling the coach to a sixth Final Four, and MSU certainly looked like such a squad against Kansas, or one struggling with itself as much as its opponents, which has tended to be the case the last two seasons after MSU fell to Butler in the 2010 national semis.

Of course, none of these four are the favorites to win it all this season. That expectation would be split between Indiana and Louisville, two schools less than 90 miles apart.

Florida could also return to the site of its 2007 national title. Gonzaga could be a sleeper pick. UCLA has enough talent to put two teams in the Final Four, though it may lack enough cohesiveness to reach a regional final.

So as much fun as Tuesday night was, it probably reveals little about April's Final Four.

"The thing is, when you're playing games like this, somebody's going to lose," Self said after the Jayhawks' loss. "I really thought we played pretty good for 35 minutes. But games like this are always decided in the last five minutes."

That's one thing that definitely won't change inside the Dome come April.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com