x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A Bluegrass showdown, and all that other jazz, in the Final Four

A long-standing college rivalry will only get even more intense when Kentucky and Louisville meet in the Final Four.

Indiana and Cody Zeller, left, could not get past Kentucky and Anthony Davis, right. The Wildcats face state rival Louisville in the Final Four at New Orleans on Saturday.
Indiana and Cody Zeller, left, could not get past Kentucky and Anthony Davis, right. The Wildcats face state rival Louisville in the Final Four at New Orleans on Saturday.

Think Kentucky against Louisville is a big deal during the regular season?

Try the Final Four.

The cross-state rivals will meet in the semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, the most important match-up ever between the schools that are located about 65 miles apart in the Bluegrass State.

They meet annually during the regular season - the Wildcats won 69-62 on New Year's Eve this season - and have played four times in the NCAA Tournament.

But never in the Final Four.

"We know it's going to be a great game," Kentucky's Darius Miller said.

Kentucky reached the semi-finals with an 82-70 win over Baylor on Sunday, after the Cardinals had advanced by beating Florida 72-68 on Saturday.

John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, said he planned to tell his team to not listen to the hype and that Louisville are merely a roadblock on the way to that goal.

"I'll tell them to get off the message boards, get off Twitter and Facebook," Calipari said. "We're going to New Orleans to play a basketball game. Forget about this tournament. Let's go be as good as we can be as a team."

But it is impossible to get away from the extra significance this game has for both programmes.

Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach, led Kentucky to a national title in 1996. Then he left for the NBA, only to the return to the college ranks at the Wildcats' rival school, sparking plenty of animosity.

Calipari, who has been at Kentucky for three seasons, was asked about his relationship with Pitino.

"It's fine," Calipari said. "I mean, we don't send each other Christmas cards. But I see him in public. Or in recruiting, we'll spend some time together."

Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shrugged when someone asked about playing Louisville.

"I'm just worried about us," he said. "I don't worry about anybody else."

Anthony Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are the latest freshman stars in Calipari's one-and-done system, two players who will likely be off to the NBA before they really know their way around the campus. Two years ago, John Wall led Kentucky to the regional final. Last season, Brandon Knight helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four.

Those players are now in the NBA. Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis likely to be following shortly.

Calipari is also getting plenty of contributions from those who hung around beyond their first year.

Terrence Jones, a sophomore forward who passed up the draft at the end of last season, scored just one point in the opening half against Baylor, but in the end his fingerprints were all over Kentucky's dominating performance: nine rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals.

"It's kind of hard to play us," Davis said. "We're very long and very athletic. It makes it tough on the other team."


On the other side of the bracket is a team that no one was giving a chance early in the season.

Back in December, when Kansas were struggling, simply making the NCAA Tournament would have been considered an achievement.

Look where the overachievers are headed now.

Kansas are on their way to the Final Four, thanks to a clutch performance by Tyshawn Taylor, some stifling defence and the Jayhawks' unshakable belief that they were better than anyone gave them credit for.

Taylor broke out of his scoring slump and the Jayhawks handcuffed the top-seeded North Carolina for almost six minutes at the end of an 80-67 victory over the Tar Heels on Sunday.

Kansas will face Ohio State in their first Final Four appearance since winning the 2008 national championship.

Ohio State reached the semi-finals with a 77-70 victory over Syracuse on Saturday.

"This would have been a year, if we got to the second weekend [of the tournament], most Kansas fans would be happy," said Bill Self, the Kansas coach.

"But that's not how those guys think. They think this is their year, and I'm certainly not going to tell them anything different."

Taylor scored 22 points and was all over the court in the last four minutes with a three-point play, a steal, two rebounds and an assist. Playing with four fouls, Jeff Withey had two blocked shots in the final two minutes to help keep the Tar Heels down.

Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run, holding North Carolina without a basket in the final 5:46. The clock was still ticking when Self and North Carolina's Roy Williams met for the obligatory handshake

"I don't know if I ever enjoyed coaching a team more than this one," Self said.

"I love them. We fight, it's combative sometimes, all those things. But I love coaching these guys."

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