The University of Kentucky’s underclassman-laden lineup has a 52 percent chance of giving coach John Calipari his first college basketball national championship, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
The Wildcats, whose top five scorers are freshmen or sophomores, are the 5-7 favorites at the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s tournament. A bettor would have to wager $140 to win $100 on Kentucky, which also entered the tournament as the oddsmakers’ favorite.
Ohio State has a 25 percent chance of winning the championship, Kansas is at 15 percent and Louisville has an 8 percent chance, according to R.J. Bell, founder of Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
“This team has been steady all year,” Calipari said yesterday on a media conference call. “They’ve had rivalry games, they’ve had teams that came out of the gate, they’ve had people that try to play us physical. They’ve withstood all that stuff and I feel good going in.”
The Wildcats, with a 36-2 record, are 8.5-point favorites against state rival Louisville in the first national semifinal game on March 31 in New Orleans. The point spread makes Kentucky the biggest favorite at the Final Four since 1999, when Duke was an 11-point favorite against Michigan State.
Ohio State is favored by 2.5 points against Kansas in the other semifinal, also on March 31.
The winners advance to the April 2 championship game.
Kentucky, led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, is two wins from its eighth championship. Only the University of California, Los Angeles, with 11 NCAA titles, has won more.
Davis, the Wildcats’ leading scorer during the regular season, has averaged 14.5 points and 11 rebounds in Kentucky’s four tournament victories. Kentucky’s three starting freshmen and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are all averaging at least 13.5 points a game in the tournament.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Kentucky’s defensive intensity may be more impressive than its offensive balance.
“To prepare for Kentucky we need three weeks,” said Pitino, who coached the Wildcats to a national title in 1996 and took over at Louisville in 2001. “I don’t know of any young team that can play that well at the defensive end.”
Gunning for Kentucky
Calipari, 53, who has 545 career wins and is in the Final Four for the fourth time, said he knows the other three schools will be gunning for his squad.
Kentucky ended Ohio State’s season a year ago with a two-point victory in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats beat Kansas 75-65 in the second game of this season for both schools and knocked off Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31. It was part of a 24-game winning streak for Kentucky, a run that ended with a loss to Vanderbilt in the final of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“Every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl,” Calipari said. “We ended Ohio State’s season last year. We opened up the season by beating Kansas. You don’t think they want a piece of us? We beat Louisville earlier in the year. They’re going crazy to beat us. Everybody we play is that way.”