Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball, and Kansas, the second-winningest program, will do battle on Monday night for the NCAA Championship. Let's break down the day and evening here in the Big Easy.
- The attendance of 73,361 for tonight's games was the second largest Final Four attendance ever. However, the configuration of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the event limited the number of decent seats to just a few thousand. Our seats, in the lower bowl, were configured in a way that we were far away from the court. If the NCAA wants to have this event in a dome, the best fan experience is the former seating alignment where the court is pushed to one side of a dome and temporary bleachers are used on the other side.
- This morning I wrote that the matchup which would decide the Kansas-Ohio State game would be Tyshawn Taylor and Aaron Craft. Craft controlled the game in the first half by shutting down Taylor's ability to get Kansas into any sort of efficient half-court offense and he did a good job of quarterbacking Ohio State's nine-point halftime lead. But, Craft made a critical ballhandling error at the end of the first half, which resulted in a Kansas basket, and was frustrated by Taylor's ball-hawking in the second half.
- Taylor's feed to a streaking Travis Releford, for the late first half basket, ended up being the difference in the KU two-point victory.
- Releford had his most complete game since mid-season. He held OSU's Deshaun Thomas to nine points on 3-14 shooting; offensively, he scored 15 points including four important free throws down the stretch.
- Kentucky fans were, by far, the biggest group in attendance. The Louisville fans seemed to make the most noise. Overall, I'd estimate the crowd at roughly 40% Kentucky, 25% Louisville and 20% Kansas. Ohio State had the least fan presence in the Dome as well as around the French Quarter today.
- Both Bill Self and Thad Matta kept two key players in the game with three fouls, and paid for it. KU's Elijah Johnson picked up a third foul relatively early in the second half and stayed in the game. He got his fourth foul and had to sit for an appreciable stretch midway through the half. Matta then had the same issue happen with Thomas.
- Ohio State had a couple of key brain cramps late in the game. First, Craft tried to intentionally miss the second free throw with just a few seconds left to play but committed a lane violation. Then, OSU didn't foul, with 2.5 seconds to play, when they still had a chance for a last second shot.
- In 2008, I walked out of the Alamodome euphoric after Kansas convincingly beat a very good North Carolina team in the semi-finals. I was confident of KU's chances to win it all on that following Monday against Memphis. Tonight, I walked out simply shaking my head in wonderment at how this Kansas team keeps finding a way to win. The formula for Kansas during this tournament has been to fall behind early and then, slowly, creep back into the game by turning up the defensive pressure. They did it in beating Purdue and North Carolina State, and then shut down North Carolina in the second half to advance to tonight's Final Four semi-final. Against Ohio State, KU's defense forced the Buckeyes into 33.9% shooting and out-rebounded OSU by 11.
So now we're down to two--Kentucky, the odds-on favorite to win it all, and Kansas, the team which keeps finding a way to win and who has yet to allow an opponent, in the tournament, to score over 67 points. The Wildcats are early 6.5 point favorites and the ESPN talking heads are already predicting a UK victory.
I can't wait.