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Thoughts On Sunday & The Final Four

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After Duke fans get over the pleasure of seeing UNC lose, maybe we can also admit that, in the end, this was a very admirable team.

They could have gone down to Ohio and if things had gone not too very differently, could have beaten Kansas. Given that they were missing Kendall Marshall for the former and that John Henson injured his ankle during the latter, and was limited to 25 minutes, 10 points, just four rebounds and one blocked shot,  you know, you can't ask for much more than they got. Not really.

Not rationally.

Both limitations allowed KU to focus more on Tyler Zeller, who was held to 12 points and six boards.

James Michael McAdoo ended up with 15 points, while Reggie Bullock, Justin Watts and PJ Hairston combined for 13 points on 5-16 from the floor.

Stilman White again mostly did better than expected, finishing with seven assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes.

That touches on everybody except...well...the Black Falcon, so-called, who again failed to have a significant impact.

Seriously, what's up with Harrison Barnes? This is the guy, remember, who came out of high school touted as the next Kobe, the guy whose work ethic was legendary, the guy who went to point guard camp because he figured there might be an occasion someday when he would be needed there.

What happened to that guy? He was supposed to be a freakishly good athlete, a fairly natural one who made himself great through relentless hard work.

Didn't show up in St. Louis, certainly wasn't useful as a replacement for Marshall.

Barnes finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds in the two games, shot 26.6% overall and just 14.2% from three point range.

vs. Ohio 36 5-14 0-5 3-5 1 4 4 0 0 3 4 13
vs. Kansas 40 3-16 2-9 4-6 1 7 4 0 0 5 2 12
Totals 76 8-30 2-14 7-11 2 11 8 0 0 8 6 25
Average/Percent where applicable 38 26.6% 14.2% 64.7% 3 5.5 4 0 0 4 3 12.5

This is a team which was missing a star point guard and playing with a big man on a bum ankle. This was a pair of games and a championship, where a great player would have stepped up and taken control. That Barnes didn't, or perhaps couldn't, says a lot about the sort of player he is. We've criticized him for most of the year and argued that the rise in his fortunes coincided with Marshall's emergence.  His dismal play in St. Louis coincided with Marshall's absence. You could argue that it's perhaps coincidence, but we've seen enough. We'll be very surprised if he becomes an important NBA player.

That decision of course looms for him, as it does for Marshall and Henson and conceivably McAdoo as well.

Honestly, we'd love to see them all go, but it's only smart for Henson and possibly Marshall: not playing really underscored his worth. It might never be higher.

Kansas moves on of course, but there's no way around this: KU-Ohio State is the undercard. All the attention is going to go, quite understandably, to the Louisville-Kentucky game.

Over the weekend, Pat Forde said that the intensity and malice (our word not his) in this game will dwarf anything Duke and UNC could produce. It took a while to agree, but it's true. Duke and UNC have a civil rivalry out of necessity. We have to work and live with each other. Many of us even sleep with the enemy, if you will. There is an intimacy in our rivalry that is unique. Duke and UNC have a great deal in common once you get past sports and really are partners. You can't really say that about Kentucky-Louisville or, say, Arizona-Arizona State or Auburn-Alabama.

So the ugliness might be off the charts and the tension will be too, and most of it is going to be on Kentucky.

Because the reality is they simply can't lose this game. They'll never be forgiven if they do.

That, along with the inherent caution the Final Four produces, is going to really have an effect on Kentucky.

Rick Pitino got things started with a bit of gamesmanship when he said this: "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."

Chris Smith chimed in a bit too: "I want to play Kentucky. I’m sick of losing to them. It’s a statement game for us."

Quite true, and being familiar with a team like Kentucky helps.

Here's something else to consider as well.

How often does a team play a truly great game? And how often do they do them back to back?

What we're getting at is this: on Saturday, for much of the game against Baylor, Kentucky was just awesome. They were ridiculously good. One of the TV guys called them an NBA team and that was about right.

Certainly Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are future pros. As much as we respect Davis, we think that Kidd-Gilchrist is the key to that team.

We saw how thoroughly he outclassed Barnes earlier this year and started trying to find an analogous player. It's not easy.

Kobe? Not really. Dwyane Wade? That's closer. Maybe Scottie Pippen.

He's a unique sort of player, but what he basically is, when you get down to it, is a winner. He'll drive, he'll rebound, he'll defend the hell out of you and he'll do anything to get the ball when it's loose.

Some of the other guys on that team might flake out - Marquis Teague for one, Terrence Jones has taken some intense criticism for clocking out and Davis periodically gets into foul trouble - but it'll never be Kidd-Gilchrist.

Personalities inevitably play a role too. Pitino, whatever his faults and he has his share, has an instinct for the jugular in a big game (Duke fans know this very well).

John Calipari? He's shut up a lot of doubters. The guy has done better than anyone else in the era of one-and-done (being at Kentucky helps) and he's turned UK into an absolute juggernaut.

That said, if you're reading this site you likely understand that he's a polarizing figure and one likely reason why is that he is not always who he seems. He's smiling and genial in public, but his colleagues frequently get a different impression.

But our guess is that there's more to it than that and ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski kind of gets to it here. "Are we the favorite?" said a clearly exhausted Calipari in an empty locker room at the Georgia Dome. "Wowwww. That's a good thing, I guess...Me personally, I've been at Kentucky three years, I've said it all along: We play them one time a year and we're not in the same league. Why do you guys [UK followers] get all worked up? And then they go crazy. Are you out of your mind? It's a ball game we've got to play. When do we play? Friday? Saturday? When's the game?"

And then this: "[Calipari] nearly dug a trough in front of the UK bench with his constant pacing -- and that was with Kentucky up by 17 with four minutes left to play. Just think how he'll be against Pitino and U of L."

We're not saying he's not a great coach. Out of everyone, he's made the best adaptation to the new era. We're just saying that unlike Pitino, who relishes the cutthroat aspect of competition, Calipari is a worrier. And that can get to a team.

Finally, we're reasonably certain Ohio State will be in the Finals.  And whoever prevails, Kentucky or Louisville, they're going to have to follow an impossibly huge game with an even bigger one. That's not going to be easy.

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