We all remember George Mason’s run to the Final Four two years ago. And we all remember how boring the 2006 Final Four was, too. So even though the nation rooted for Davidson to beat Kansas on Sunday to represent the little guys in college basketball, it’s probably better that the country now gets to see the top four teams battle for a national championship. There may not be any underdog stories in San Antonio this weekend, but with as even as these four teams are, the 2008 Final Four could be a true classic. Instead of whining about how all the favorites rolled through the first four rounds, enjoy the high-quality basketball that will be played on Saturday and Monday. The nation’s best players and coaches will be on display in this year’s Final Four. Three of college basketball’s most historically successful teams will be playing as well, and while Memphis isn’t in that elite group, John Calipari certainly has built a powerhouse in Conference USA. We’ve got history in San Antonio- all four top seeds advanced to the Final Four for the first time, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.
Game One: Memphis vs. UCLA
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Memphis: The Tigers faced a bit of a challenge in the second round against Mississippi State, but they rolled once they reached Houston. Building a 30 point halftime lead against Michigan State was impressive. Destroying Texas from the opening tip in the Elite Eight was an even more remarkable performance.
UCLA: The Tigers received a fight from Mississippi State but still led comfortably for the last seven minutes or so, before allowing the Bulldogs once last chance to send the game to overtime. That was a close call for John Calipari, but he didn’t go through nearly the same experience as Ben Howland did in the second round. The Bruins trailed Texas A&M for the majority of the second half, and it took Darren Collison’s clutch performance to advance to the Sweet 16. Once it got to Phoenix, UCLA nearly blew a huge lead against Western Kentucky but held on and then defeated third-seeded Xavier fairly easily in the next round.
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Freshmen Sensations: When the season began, everyone was eager to see the young guys, including UCLA’s Kevin Love and Memphis’ Derrick Rose. From an extremely deep freshmen class, these two players were the only ones to lead their teams to a Final Four, and both have played critical roles on their respective teams. It’s hard to believe this, but Rose actually seemed to fly under the radar for most of the season. He put up strong numbers, but his stats were not at the same level as some of this year’s other freshmen mega-stars. Nevertheless, he’s not flying under the radar anymore after outstanding play in the NCAA tournament, and he has been one of the most important factors in Memphis’ success this season. Love averaged a double-double and got a little more attention from the nation, but like Rose, he’s also one of the main reasons for his team’s 35-3 record. The impact these two freshmen will have on Saturday’s game is enormous.
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Rose vs. Collison: Hopefully Darren Collison didn’t watch Memphis’ win over Texas last Sunday. If he did, he might have been intimidated by Derrick Rose’s unbelievable performance in every facet of the game. Rose scored 21 points, dished out nine assists, grabbed six boards and completely dominated D.J. Augustin on defense. Collison will have a hard time defensively stopping Rose, and he has an equally tough task scoring against Rose. But while Rose deserves all the praise I’m giving him, let’s not forget Collison is a pretty good player himself. In fact, he and Rose can both be considered two of the nation’s best point guards. Now it’s time to see which guy can lead his team to the National Championship game.
MEMPHIS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Weaknesses: Should I go there? Should I mention Memphis’ poor free throw shooting? The fact that the Tigers actually shoot less than 60 percent from the line is a real concern, and I even wrote a column about this problem in early February. But Memphis’ free throw woes have been so overanalyzed by everybody that it’s simply a repetitive subject to bring up. Plus, the Tigers were exceptional from the line against Texas, making 30 of 36. Still, free throw shooting can be a problem and Memphis also lacks a sharpshooter from behind the arc. But for everyone’s sake, I’m going to stop there. Nobody needs to be subjected to the “Memphis can’t make free throws” argument for the 250th time in the past three weeks.
Strengths: Luckily for John Calipari, his team might not be able to make free throws all the time, but it can definitely do pretty much everything else on the basketball court. Memphis has insane athleticism at every position and an incredibly deep bench. So much for UCLA’s vaunted defense; the Tigers play outstanding defense too, and they block shots and create turnovers. On offense, Memphis plays its style perfectly, attacking the rim often with a frenetic pace. Memphis does a great job forcing opponents to play full-court games with it, and if UCLA has to run to keep up with the Tigers, it will be in trouble.
UCLA’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Weaknesses: Since Ben Howland’s teams are always tough-minded, hard-nosed and physical, it’s odd that UCLA plays mentally weak at certain times. The Bruins are virtually unbeatable when they play a full game without a letdown. Usually, UCLA falls asleep at some point during the game and either has to catch up to pull out a win (like against Texas A&M) or wake up to avoid blowing a huge lead (like against Western Kentucky). Against Xavier, the Bruins did play 40 minutes of great basketball, and look at the result: a blowout victory. That’s what obviously needs to happen on Saturday against Memphis.
Strengths: UCLA may be prone to letdowns, but personnel-wise, it doesn’t have many weaknesses. Even though the Bruins would prefer to play a slower style of basketball, they can get out in transition if they need to. And just because UCLA is all about defense and executes its halfcourt offense somewhat methodically, that doesn’t mean the Bruins don’t have athleticism and can’t score. Kevin Love is a dominant force down low and Darren Collison runs the offense to perfection. Russell Westbrook provides the eye-opening dunks, and even though Josh Shipp has simply played awful in the NCAA tournament, he is capable of scoring as well. Switching to the defensive side, UCLA makes games look ugly. That is exactly how Ben Howland wants it, and his team carries out this idea very well.
WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO
The pace of the game will play a big role in who wins. If this game turns into an up-tempo battle, Memphis’ huge advantage in depth off the bench will make it hard for UCLA to keep up. As far as individual players go, Josh Shipp has to do something for his team. Up to this point, he’s been nothing short of terrible. To his credit, he played very well against Western Kentucky, but that doesn’t make up for his unacceptable performances against Texas A&M and Xavier. He averaged 36 minutes in those two games, and somehow found a way to score zero points against A&M and five points against Xavier. When Shipp is producing, he gives UCLA an offensive weapon on the perimeter and provides a secondary scoring option.
The rebounding margin is also another huge part of Saturday’s game. Memphis has won the rebounding battle in all four of its tournament games, and during the season this was a strength for the Tigers. But think back to that Feb. 23 loss to Tennessee. The Volunteers dominated Memphis on the glass and handed the Tigers their only loss of the season. By limiting Memphis to one shot and picking up second chance points from offensive rebounds, the Bruins could give themselves a great shot to advance to the National Championship.
Game Two: Kansas vs. North Carolina
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Kansas: The Jayhawks basically lucked out. As expected, they beat Portland State and UNLV in the first two rounds, but then benefited from an upset filled region in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Instead of playing a four or five seed, Kansas drew a weaker Villanova team, and instead of playing a two or three seed in the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks got to play 10th seeded Davidson. Of course, Davidson proved itself to be about as good as a top seed and nearly knocked off Kansas. Still, Bill Self may have finally reached the Final Four, but the highest seed his team faced in the first four rounds was an eight seed.
North Carolina:When the brackets were first revealed, I thought North Carolina was placed in by far the toughest region. The Tar Heels had no trouble with the East region for the most part. After blowing through its first two games, UNC did have to face the region’s other top seeds, unlike Kansas. But Washington State did not put up much of a fight, and while North Carolina did have some trouble with Louisville, it seemed firmly in control throughout the game.
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Roy’s back: This was an easy choice. Roy Williams is finally playing Kansas, the program he spurned five years ago by taking the North Carolina job after saying he was staying in Lawrence. After 15 seasons with the Jayhawks, Roy Williams headed to Chapel Hill, after telling everyone he was going nowhere- and that didn’t sit well with Kansas fans. Just imagine how much it would hurt Jayhawks fans if their once-beloved Roy got back to the National Championship (he’s already won one with UNC) by defeating Kansas in the national semi-final. That would be pretty tough to take.
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Brandon Rush vs. Marcus Ginyard: As North Carolina’s shut-down defender, Marcus Ginyard can make life miserable for the players he guards. Brandon Rush is Kansas’ top scoring threat, and while he is one of the Big 12’s better offensive players, he draws a tough match-up against Ginyard. Rush’s size and versatility is one of his strengths, but Ginyard can negate that with his own 6 foot 5 stature and lock-down defensive abilities. Rush will have trouble beating Ginyard off the dribble and may have to rely on his outside shot for points.
NORTH CAROLINA’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Weaknesses: North Carolina has been prone to defensive lapses this season. Louisville shot 50 percent from the floor last Saturday, but the Tar Heels have shown improvement from last season in this area. Scoring will never be a problem for this team, so all North Carolina needs on Saturday is an average defensive effort against Kansas. The perimeter shots also haven’t been falling for the Heels in the past two games, as UNC shot a modest 5-15 from behind the arc against Washington State and just 3-11 from three-point land against Louisville.
Strengths: The Tar Heels’ most obvious strength is their All-American big man Tyler Hansbrough. He carried his team to a victory against Louisville when the Cardinals made a late charge, and he will certainly be the best player on the court against Kansas. North Carolina also destroys opponents on the boards, and especially dominates the glass on offense. The Tar Heels can lengthen possessions and get second chance points, and the rebounding battle will be an important part of Saturday’s game. Also, Roy Williams loves his teams to play fullcourt basketball, and his team plays this style almost to perfection. Ty Lawson is the perfect fit at point guard for this team. Trying to stop UNC in transition is nearly impossible.
KANSAS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Weaknesses: Teams in the Final Four don’t have many glaring weaknesses. If any of these four teams did have any huge weaknesses, they probably wouldn’t be in San Antonio right now. UCLA’s mental lapses, UNC’s defense, and Memphis’ free throws are legitimate concerns, but they are mostly nitpicks. Kansas doesn’t even have any nitpicks. The one weakness the Jayhawks have might just be their greatest strength, which is their balance. There’s no go-to scorer, which can be considered a bit of a problem.
Strengths: In the end, Kansas’ balance has to be considered one of its greatest assets. While Bill Self doesn’t have a Tyler Hansbrough to turn to late in games, he still has the nation’s most unselfish team. Brandon Rush can beat you, or Mario Chalmers can beat you. Darrell Arthur can beat you, too. So can Darnell Jackson and Sherron Collins. Kansas’ offense is extremely efficient, but the Jayhawks defense is also stifling. Russell Robinson may not put up gaudy stats, but he plays outstanding defense, along with the rest of the Kansas backcourt.
WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO
Kansas does need to stop North Carolina in transition, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks should walk the ball up the court. This will be a fun, up-and-down game between two teams that love to run. Rebounding is a key in this game, because while Kansas’ halfcourt defense will give UNC all kinds of problems, it must be able to limit the Tar Heels to only one shot per possession. Even though it seems obvious, these two teams need to knock down shots. A cold shooting night by either team could severely damage its chances to win.
As far as intangibles go, this will most likely be a very close game. It could come down to the last possession. Kansas has not played many close games this year and almost blew a comfortable two-possession lead late in the game against Davidson in the Elite Eight. North Carolina, on the other hand, did a great job of withstanding Louisville’s charge at the end of the game. These two teams are so even that this game comes down to execution. Late in the game, this becomes even more important.