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Final Four Look Ahead: Four powers, two hated rivals and one trophy


Remember when schools like George Mason, Butler and VCU used to make the Final Four?

Those were the good old days, weren't they?

They're also over.

Because now it's all power programs from power conferences -- specifically Kentucky from the SEC, Louisville from the Big East, Ohio State from the Big Ten and Kansas from the Big 12. The Wildcats, Cardinals, Buckeyes and Jayhawks have combined for 49 Final Four appearances and 13 national titles, and this is where the Big Blue Nation requires that I point out the Wildcats have more than half of those national titles.

But will they get this one?

Answer: They should. Or at least nobody else should ahead of them.

Final Four

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The Wildcats have a 42 percent chance to cut nets next Monday night, according to KenPom.com. Ohio State is next with a 34 percent chance. Then comes Kansas (17 percent). Then Louisville (7 percent). So this is the year for John Calipari. Unless it isn't. And if it isn't ... man ... I don't think he and his fans will be able to handle that.

Let's do a Final Four Look Ahead!

We had this pegged OK back in the preseason: My colleague Jeff Goodman and I sat down in October and compiled our preseason Top 25 (and one). The Final Four participants were ranked No. 2 (Kentucky), No. 5 (Ohio State), No. 8 (Louisville) and No. 14 (Kansas). So remember that next time you say preseason rankings are meaningless, because often times they provide a glimpse of what's to come.

Kentucky made the Final Four because ... the Wildcats have the best players and the best team. I could get all technical and stuff, but that's the simplest way to put it. The freshmen who should be the No. 1 pick (Anthony Davis) and No. 2 pick (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) in June's NBA Draft both play for UK, and so do at least three other future first-round picks (Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb). They're really, really, really good.

Louisville made the Final Four because ... Rick Pitino is one of the very best coaches in the history of college basketball. Is there any doubting that now? It's one thing to take the 1996 Kentucky team with nine future pros to the Final Four. It's quite another to take this team that has battled injuries all season and finished seventh in the Big East to the same place. Put him in the Hall of Fame. ASAP.

Ohio State made the Final Four because ... Jared Sullinger opted not to turn pro after his freshman season. Sometimes it really is about who stays a year longer than the mock drafts suggest they should, and the Buckeyes are among the beneficiaries of that this season. The 6-foot-9 post is averaging 18.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in this NCAA tournament. He was overshadowed much of the season by UK's big and KU's big -- and even Michigan State's Draymond Green -- but Sullinger ended up right where most projected he would.

Kansas made the Final Four because ... Bill Self turned in one of the masterful coaching jobs of his career. Yes, the Jayhawks were aided by a path that allowed them to play three Midwest Region double-digit seeds (No. 15 Detroit, No. 10 Purdue and No. 11 North Carolina State) before facing top-seeded North Carolina, which was without Kendall Marshall (broken wrist). But no apology is necessary. The bottom line is the bottom line, and the bottom line is that Self took a roster most of us didn't think was good enough to win the Big 12 to an eighth consecutive Big 12 title, and now he has that same roster headed to New Orleans. Hats off.

Haven't we done this before?

Both national semifinals are games we've already seen this season. Kansas beat Ohio State back on Dec. 10. Three Saturdays later, Kentucky beat Louisville. Let's look back at those games before we go any farther.

KU 78, OSU 67 on 12/10/11

This game was played at Allen Fieldhouse and without Sullinger (bad back), which were two undeniable advantages for the Jayhawks. Thomas Robinson got 21 points and seven rebounds, and Kansas shot 58 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3-point range while never trailing, not even for a second.

UK 69, UL 62 on 12/31/11

This game was played at Rupp Arena and hyped as much as any regular-season game because it featured two rivals and teams that were, at the time, ranked third and fourth nationally. With Jay-Z sitting courtside, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got 24 points and 19 rebounds to lead the Wildcats to their fifth win in what would eventually become a 24-game winning streak.

Four storylines of this Final Four

1. Cats and Cards

This is the first time since 1962 that two schools from the same state will play each other in the Final Four, and we could not have two schools that despise each other more. This is 100 times bigger than Ohio State vs. Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, and it's even bigger than what we'd have if we ever had Duke vs. North Carolina in a Final Four. I genuinely believe that.

2. Calipari and Pitino

The two rival coaches will say nice things about each other at certain points this week because that's what they do from time to time. But don't be fooled. They irritate each other in an unusual way -- the latest bit of evidence being Pitino's shot at Calipari back in the preseason. "Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino said. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid."

3. Sully and T-Rob

We were robbed of this matchup in December because of Sullinger's back spasms, but the basketball gods were kind enough to give us one more shot before at least one of the elite bigs (and perhaps both) turn pro. Sullinger and Robinson were National Player of the Year candidates all season, but both finished behind UK's Davis. So on Saturday they'll be playing for the right to possibly meet Davis in the title game ... unless, of course, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng is in the title game instead.

4. Thad Matta and big shadows

You'll read a lot about Calipari and Pitino this week, and Self will also get plenty of attention because he's just two wins away from his second national title. But don't forget about Ohio State's coach. Matta has built OSU into one of the nation's most consistent and successful programs. He had a championship-caliber team in 2007 that featured Mike Conley and Greg Oden and lost in the title game to Florida, and he had another championship-caliber team last season that was upset in the Sweet 16. Might this be the year Matta breaks through? Maybe.

My All-Final Four starting lineup

Louisville's Peyton Siva is terrific. So is Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Kentucky's Terrence Jones. But if I had to pick a starting lineup for an All-Star team from the Final Four rosters, I'd probably go with this:

G: Aaron Craft (Ohio State) G: Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas) F: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky) F: Thomas Robinson (Kansas) F: Anthony Davis (Kentucky)

Good spot for NBA scouts

Four of the top seven prospects that'll be selected in June (according to DraftExpress.com) will be in action in New Orleans. They are Anthony Davis (No. 1), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 3), Thomas Robinson (No. 4) and Jared Sullinger (No. 7). Terrence Jones (No. 11) and Tyshawn Taylor (No. 28) are also projected first-round picks. Louisville is the only Final Four team without a projected first-round pick.

Final thought: How big is Kentucky-Louisville?

Big enough to postpone weddings.

My buddy Jason Horowitz was hosting "College Basketball Tonight" on SiriusXM late Sunday and got a call from a guy from Kentucky who is supposed to get married Saturday right around the time the Wildcats and Cardinals tip in New Orleans. He's a big Kentucky fan. His fiancé is a Louisville graduate. So when the Wildcats beat Baylor to advance to the Final Four ...

"They looked at each other," Horowitz told me, "and said, 'We can't do this.'"

So they're just not gonna do it.

The wedding has been pushed back to April 7. Adjust your schedules accordingly.

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and college basketball insider for the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts an award-winning radio show in Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two sons and two dogs.

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