And so the NCAA Tournament has come down to a Final Four of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State.
All are worthy of being in New Orleans. The biggest surprise of the four is Louisville, but the Cardinals served warning they were ready to play deep into March when they won the Big East Tournament. In fact, the Cardinals are the only team in the Final Four who won their conference tournament, as the other three lost in the championship game.
All four teams are obviously hot as they have won four NCAA games over the past two weeks. So who is the hottest of the hot?
We’ll attempt to answer that with the final installment of The Hot List.
The Hot List usually takes a weekly look at the top 10 teams in the nation in terms of our college basketball last five games ratings. We have tweaked it a bit this week to include just the teams playing in the Final Four.
Last week, The Hot List predicted a Final Four of Baylor, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio State. Only Ohio State made it past the round of 16, and unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the Hot List pick to win it all in New Orleans.
Also, before we unveil The Hot List one last time in the 2011-12 season, let’s add this public service announcement to coaches who want to build a Final Four team — emphasize defense. Kentucky (#1), Louisville (#3) and Kansas (#6) are all in the top six nationally in opponent effective field goal percentage, while Ohio State is 56th.
1. Ohio State (31-7, 4-1 last five)
Overall ranking: #2
Key stat: 77.6 defensive rebounding percentage (#2)
Key recent performance: W 77-70 (n) vs. #3 Syracuse (3/24)
Next game: (n) #4 Kansas (3/31)
Key information: Perhaps the biggest reason Ohio State got past Syracuse in the Elite Eight was its ability to get to the foul line. The Buckeyes attempted a school-record 42 free throws and made 31, the second-most in Ohio State history. The Buckeyes have shot 831 free throws this season while their opponents have attempted 585. Ohio State is 15th in the nation in opponent free throws made per 100 possessions (15.809) and 20th in fewest opponent free throws attempted per offensive play (20.6 percent)
2. Louisville (30-9, 5-0 last five)
Overall ranking: #10
Key stat: 42.9 opponents’ effective field goal percentage (#3)
Key recent performance: W 57-44 (n) vs. #5 Michigan State (3/22)
Next game: (n) #1 Kentucky (3/31)
Key information: Playing off Linsanity, Louisville coach Rick Pitino calls sophomore guard “Russdiculous.” To beat the Wildcats, the Cardinals will likely need a Russdiculous performance like Smith provided in the win over Florida in the Elite Eight, when he scored 19 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out two assists in 22 minutes off the bench.
3. Kentucky (36-2, 4-1 last five)
Overall ranking: #1
Key stat: 42.2 opponents’ effective field goal percentage (#1)
Key recent performance: W 82-70 (n) vs. #8 Baylor (3/25)
Next game: (n) #10 Louisville (3/31)
Key information: Kentucky has a plethora of weapons but sophomore guard Doron Lamb has taken over in the NCAA Tournament. In four games, Lamb has averaged a team-high 16.8 points and also knocked down 9-of-15 three-point field goal attempts.
4. Kansas (31-6, 4-1 last five)
Overall ranking: #4
Key stat: 43.4 opponents’ effective field goal percentage (#6)
Key recent performance: W 80-67 (n) vs. #6 North Carolina (3/25)
Next game: (n) #2 Ohio State (3/31)
Key information: While Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor rightfully get most of the headlines for Kansas, junior center Jeff Withey has become a game changer on defense. He had 10 blocked shots in a win over North Carolina State in the Sweet 16, and has 20 blocks in four NCAA games. Withey is eighth in the nation with 1.39 blocks per foul and second among players in the Final Four behind Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (2.351).