Philadelphia, PA – This is a fascinating time of year, as all but four teams are making news of transition while four concentrate on the task at hand: winning a national championship.
Before From The End of The Bench goes into Final Four analysis mode, we check all of our loyal readers up on the news that has come fast and furious from around the nation this week.
Coaches leaving Kansas' nest: In news tied directly to Final Four participant Kansas, a pair of Bill Self's lead assistants are leaving for head coaching positions next season. Barry Hinson, Kansas' director of basketball operations, will leave at season's end to take over the job at Southern Illinois. The Salukis are only several years removed from powerhouse status in one of the mid-major's best leagues, the Missouri Valley Conference. Meanwhile, former Kansas star and current Jayhawks assistant Danny Manning will take over at Tulsa after the season. The current question remains, "Will this be a distraction?" The answer is unequivocally no. Self has had the pulse of this team from the outset, managing and cuddling and yelling at the perfect times, and he wouldn't have let this news leak if he thought it would be a distraction. Manning echoed those sentiments on Thursday, saying, "Right now my focus is on Kansas and its participation in the Final Four." Manning's last game as a player at Kansas ended with a national title. He would like nothing more to follow the same route as an assistant at his alma mater.
Early entry has struck the ACC's bluebloods: Every knowledgeable hoops follower thought both Harrison Barnes and John Henson were locks to enter the NBA Draft, and they didn't disappoint by announcing their intentions on Thursday. The wild card was point guard Kendall Marshall, who is projected at the fringe of the lottery, but may be the best point guard prospect around. He decided to follow his teammates on Thursday, meaning UNC's top four players (including graduating senior Tyler Zeller) will be gone next season. The Tar Heels will look a lot different with forward James Michael McAdoo (as long as he stays), returnees Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald (both off ACL injuries) and leading returning scorer Reggie Bullock joining McDonald's All- American point guard Marcus Paige and the rest of a solid recruiting class. It will definitely be a transition in Chapel Hill, but the talent, especially on the wing, is still there to vie for a top-3 spot in the league. Duke was also hit hard by Austin Rivers' draft announcement and the surprise move by Mason Plumlee, who is testing the NBA waters as of now. Duke will still be stacked with guards -- Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton -- along with Ryan Kelly and at least one of the Plumlees, 6-foot-11 Marshall, but there is little help coming from the recruiting class, leaving Duke as a question mark heading into next season. When the dust settles, North Carolina State (don't cringe Tobacco Road fans) may be the preseason ACC favorite.
Stanford's step forward: It has been a bad year for the Pac-12, which took criticism all year (present company included) for its top-to-bottom weaknesses. Yet, the league received some vindication with two members of the NIT's Final Four, including Stanford, which routed Minnesota, 75-51, to take home the title. Yes, it is the NIT, but Johnny Dawkins' attempt to build a program and a winning mindset took a huge step forward with the team's postseason success. Sophomore Aaron Bright was the catalyst off the bench with 15 points, leading Stanford to the title and its most victories (26) since 2008, the last time the Cardinal made the NCAA Tournament. Not only did Stanford end on a high note, but Dawkins also has to feel good about the team's future. Bright will be a junior next season, while fellow guard Chasson Randle will enter his sophomore season. Keep a close eye on a young, improving Cardinal team next November.
Illinois hires its new coach with egg on its face: The Illini finally found their "man," hiring Ohio head coach John Groce on Thursday. The hiring on the surface appears to be a solid one. Groce is young and energetic at just 40 years old, has Midwestern ties and has had recent success, leading Ohio to the Sweet 16 this season before falling in overtime to North Carolina. Groce was an assistant with Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State before taking the head job with the Bobcats. However, athletic director Mike Thomas didn't give the program good PR from the start, failing on his attempts to land VCU head coach Shaka Smart, Butler head coach Brad Stevens and a host of prominent African American candidates, including Alabama's Anthony Grant and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton. Groce, in the long run, may turn out to be the right guy, but for the time being he is pegged as a last resort thanks to Thomas' complete fumbling of the process.
FINAL FOUR PICKS
Kentucky 81, Louisville 68: The most important player in this game is Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng. The Senegalese-born center must avoid foul trouble against Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and company because the Cardinals have very little interior depth. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino must decide what tempo he wants to force: 1) take the air out of the basketball and try to play in the 50s and 60s or 2) press and force the Wildcats to make good decisions. The problem is that this group of young Wildcats plays like seniors, is unselfish and consistently makes the extra pass if it is the smart pass. Pitino should try playing 30-second possessions and try to frustrate the 'Cats, but that might not work either.
Ohio State 75, Kansas 72: The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is getting all of the attention, but this is the game of the night. The key will be the perimeter shooting that both teams have struggled with at times in this tournament. William Buford and DeShaun Thomas for Ohio State need to hit some early jumpers to open interior space for Jared Sullinger, while on the other end, I wouldn't be surprised if Tyshawn Taylor comes out firing to give Thomas Robinson some room to maneuver. Robinson should face Sullinger straight up and use his quickness to either score or get the Buckeyes big man in early foul trouble. In the end, Ohio State's Aaron Craft will be the difference with his defense and decision-making.
If you don't know the team I've touted as the champion since this tournament started, you should read the archives (there is some good stuff in there). Kentucky is the best team playing the best right now, and that's too tough a combination to stop.