Rarely does the Final Four lend itself to recent trends and matchups. College basketball teams change each season, and stats and figures from years ago hold about as much weight as the runway in a fashion show.
However, basketball bettors get a gift from the Gambling Gods this March with both Final Four games pegged as rematches of non-conference regular season meetings.
Ohio State tangled with Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 10, with the host Jayhawks winning 78-67 as 1.5-point home favorites. State rivals Kentucky and Louisville rang in the New Year with a 69-62 Wildcats win in Rupp Arena, with UK failing to cover the 10-point spread on Dec. 31.
All four programs have improved by leaps and bounds since those meetings. And while much of what happened during those December dates can get tossed in the trash, there are some important notes bettors should keep in mind when sizing up the odds for this Saturday’s national semifinal games.
Here’s what to take and what to leave from the first matchups between the Final Four contenders:Kansas Jayhawks 78, Ohio State Buckeyes 67 – Dec. 10, 2011Take it: Sans Sullinger
The Buckeyes were without All-American center Jared Sullinger due to back spasms in their first meeting with the Jayhawks. Ohio State’s offense flows through the post and without the stud sophomore sucking in the defense, their sets looked lost.
The Buckeyes shot just under 39 percent and went to the foul line only 18 times. Ohio State has been to the stripe 69 times in the last two games with Sullinger going 18 for 22 from the foul line in that span. Leave it: Kansas shooting
The Jayhawks were on fire versus OSU, shooting 58 percent from the field and 9 for 17 from beyond the arc. Kansas took advantage of Sullinger’s absence, getting 21 points from Thomas Robinson, and finding lots of room for shooters and passing lanes because the Buckeyes couldn’t cheat up without their big man in the middle.
Kansas isn’t shooting well in the tournament, hitting only 40.6 percent of its buckets. It's been especially dismal from beyond the arc, going 16 for 68 (23.5 percent) from distance. The Jayhawks shot 46 percent versus North Carolina, but a lot of those came on layups in transition.Take it: Tyshawn toughs it out
Tyshawn Taylor took on the top perimeter defender in college basketball with just one leg back in December. It will be interesting to see what happens when the healthy KU guard tangles with OSU’s Aaron Kraft this weekend.
Taylor scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and committed seven turnovers, playing on a torn meniscus and sprained right MCL on Dec. 10. But he also dished out 13 assists and got to the foul line six times. Taylor, who struggled in the first three games of the NCAA (and is 0 for 17 from 3-point land), showed up when KU needed him most, scoring 22 points in the Elite Eight win over UNC. Kentucky Wildcats 69, Louisville Cardinals 62 – Dec. 31, 2011Leave it: Old acquaintance be forgot
Covers Expert Ted Sevransky drew attention to the fact that this game was played at noon on New Year’s Eve, in his Final Four writeup
this week. Not only did a distracted Wildcats squad shoot just 29.8 percent from the field and commit a season-high 20 turnovers, but also burned backers bad.
Kentucky, ahead by 13 points with 10 seconds left, started daydreaming about ringing in 2012 with the co-eds instead of closing out the Cardinals. The lack of focus led to one of the worst beats of the season.
Kentucky, a 10-point favorite, watched as Russ Smith buried a 3-pointer then got the ball back on a steal and drained another trey at the buzzer to trim the lead to seven, forcing UK backers to change their New Year’s resolutions from “stop smoking” to “stop betting on Kentucky.” That blown cover was part of a 0-13-1 ATS skid for the Wildcats that spanned nearly two months.
Take it: Wildcats Windex
Kentucky dominated the glass in its previous meeting with Louisville, out-rebounding its state rival 49-28, including 14 offensive boards. The Cardinals were beaten on the glass by Florida and New Mexico State, but somehow outworked Michigan State – the best rebounding team in the country – by two rebounds.
The Wildcats average more than 36 rebounds per game in the tournament – 10.5 of those on the offensive glass. Kentucky forwards Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are a handful for Louisville’s four-guard set, and were responsible for 40 of UK’s 49 boards back on Dec. 31.Leave it: No Russ, No Muss
Russ Smith has shown up in the biggest games of the season for Louisville. He scored 19 points and sparked a late rally against Florida to get the Cardinals into the Final Four. And, back in December, he dropped 30 points on perhaps the best defensive team in college hoops. Smith, a 6-foot sophomore who comes off the bench, went 10 for 20 (including 3 for 8 from 3-point range) to keep UL in the game. He was the only Louisville player in double figures.
But, as much as Smith can help the Cardinals, he can hurt them. He was careless down the stretch versus the Gators, committing two of his four turnovers in the final 2:25 of the game and can sometimes be a blackhole when he gets his hands on the basketball. For a guy who plays just under 21 minutes a game, he uses a team-high 32.5 percent of UL’s possessions. The Cardinals can’t afford wasted possessions versus Kentucky, which over the past two games is averaging 1.35 points every time it touches the ball.