If national championship-favorite Kentucky is going to end its 14-year title drought, the Wildcats will have to out-duel a heavyweight Final Four field.
Up first for Kentucky is Louisville, the Wildcats' in-state rival that has surged since getting healthy, winning eight straight Big East and NCAA tournament games to reach its first Final Four since 2005. The winner of that game will face either Ohio State or Kansas, both No. 2 seeds with dominant big men, talented supporting casts and plenty of NCAA tournament experience.
Whereas several of the last few Final Fours have featured charming underdog stories like Butler, VCU or George Mason, this year's foursome is no stranger to college basketball's grandest stage. Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State have combined for 13 NCAA tournament championships in their programs' storied histories.
The matchup between Kentucky and Louisville will receive the most attention because it's the first Final Four game between in-state rivals since Cincinnati and Ohio State met for the 1962 national title.
Kentucky and Louisville have met 43 times since 1913 and every year since 1983, but the Bluegrass State rivals have never faced each other in a Final Four. In fact, they've only met four times in the NCAA tournament, splitting four meetings with Louisville winning the most famous one -- the 1983 "Dream Game" in the Elite Eight that essentially relaunched the rivalry.
Ohio State would surely love to see Kentucky in the national title game in hopes of avenging a Sweet 16 loss to the underdog Wildcats a year ago. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta is seeking his first national championship and sophomore forward Jared Sullinger is looking to further validate his decision last spring to defer NBA riches for a year and return to school to chase a championship.
To get to the title game, Ohio State will have to defeat a Kansas team few expected to reach the Final Four at the beginning of the season. Four starters from last year's Big 12 championship team either graduated or left early, but the Jayhawks exceeded expectations this year thanks to the emergence of national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and the improvement of Jeff Withey and Tyshawn Taylor.
There's no question Kentucky is a deserving favorite considering no NCAA tournament opponent has come within 10 points of the Wildcats so far. It will be up to the Cardinals, Jayhawks and Buckeyes to put pressure on Kentucky and see if the Wildcats' young freshmen crumble or rise to the occasion.
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