Monday, March 31, 2008

The best Final Four ever?


Unfortunately, I'm not a college basketball historian. While I do know basic things such as every national champion and every Final Four team dating back to 1980, my overall knowledge of the game is weak.

I've heard that Walton — Bill Walton — made 21 of 22 shots in a national title game. I've read that Lew Alcindor — known to most kids as "Kareem" — won three most outstanding player awards in three years at UCLA.

I know about the triple-overtime thriller between UNC and Kansas in '57, the Magic-Bird showdown in '79, M.J.'s shot in '82, the Cardiac Pack in '83.

I've watched the replay of Syracuse-Indiana in '87 and and Seton Hall-Michigan in '89. I've Youtubed Laettner's shot in '92 many times.

I've seen live every Final Four game for at least the past 10 years...

But I don't consider myself qualified to make a statement such as, "This is the best Final Four every assembled." No, I'll leave that to the experts, the historians, the Dick Weisses of the college basketball universe.

But I will say this — the four No. 1 seeds set to tangle with each other come Saturday resemble the four most eminent teams I can recall still being alive come the NCAA Tournament's final weekend. I guess there's a reason they're all No. 1 seeds.

It's not just about the seeding, however. The reason I chose North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA to make the final weekend is because I truly believed they were the best four teams in college basketball. Sure, anything could happen — Texas had a favorable geographic draw, Tennessee was a dangerous team, Bill Self's teams had a tendency to tank in the Elite 8.

But I felt that if all four No. 1 seeds played up to their potential, none of them would lose in their first four games. And now we're here. Sure, Memphis almost blew its second-round game in the final minute because it couldn't hit a free throw. Sure, UCLA decided it'd be fun to wait until the very end to defeat No. 9 seed Texas A&M. Sure, UNC let Louisville turn a 12-point halftime deficit into a tie before pulling away. And, sure, Kansas played not to lose almost the entire 40 minutes in its 59-57 heart-pounder against Davidson.

Still, all four No. 1s survived, and we're in for a treat beginning Saturday. The games are almost impossible to pick, but I'll take a stab at them anyway:

No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 1 UCLA:
A rematch of a regional final two years ago, when the Bruins absolutely shut down the Tigers. But Memphis didn't have Derrick Rose then. Now they do. Rose proved against Texas Sunday, at least in my mind, that he's the best point guard in the country. He gets it done on both ends of the court, and he doesn't allow the Tigers to become stagnant on offense. And did I mention his ability to finish plays in transition? He'll be the difference in this game, outplaying the smaller, weaker Darren Collison.

The Tigers showed their ability to shred a zone Sunday, using Chris Douglas-Roberts and Shawn Taggart in the middle of Texas' 2-3 setup. It'll be interesting to see how the Bruins defend the Tigers. On the other end, the Tigers have to be smart against Kevin Love, who has been the Bruins' best player in March. If he gets Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier into foul trouble, Memphis will be in trouble. UCLA absolutely needs Josh Shipp to shake off his shooting slump in order to win. Otherwise, Memphis will be able to pack it in defensively, daring Shipp and his fellow guards to beat the Tigers from the perimeter.

My pick: Memphis 71, UCLA 66

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Kansas:
One thing is certain: If the Jayhawks play like they did Sunday, they'll get run out of San Antonio. I'm not taking anything away from Davidson, which played a great game, but Kansas played not to lose. Only Sasha Kaun seemed to sense the urgency of the game, making big play after big play and converting all six of his shot attempts. I do expect the Jayhawks — the likely underdog — to come out more relaxed now that they've gotten Self to his first Final Four.

Kansas will need to make outside shots, especially Brandon Rush, Russell Robinson and Sharon Collins. The trio combined to hit two of 10 from downtown against the Wildcats. Another key? Attack Tyler Hansbrough. All season, teams haven't made Hansbrough work hard enough on defense, haven't tried diligently enough to get him into foul trouble. Kansas' post players have the skills and size to go right at the probable player of the year. Whoever is being checked by Hansbrough should call for the ball.

One thing I ascertained from watching Hansbrough last weekend? He's going to get his. If he doesn't score his 20-plus points on post-up moves, he'll do it through second-chance points and his much-improved 15-foot jump shot. One thing Hansbrough still struggles with, however, is passing out of double-teams. Kansas should hit him hard with weak-side traps every time he touches the ball, forcing him to make cross-court passes. Of course, if he successfully finds an open Wayne Ellington or Danny Green, the Jayhawks could be in trouble. But it's worth the risk. Ultimately, Carolina's supporting cast will decide the game. If they keep playing like they have the past couple weeks, Kansas won't have quite enough firepower in what figures to be a high-scoring affair.

My pick: North Carolina 82, Kansas 76

Could this get any better? Roy Williams taking on his former team. UCLA trying to finally break through after two years of Final Four disappointment. John Calipari's crew trying to prove the critics — including myself — wrong. Kansas attempting to show that no superstar is needed to win it all.

It should make for some great Saturday-night drama, with CBS' coverage get better ratings than FOX's back-to-back episodes of "Cops."

Then again, I'm just a writer, not some Nielsen Ratings guru.


J-bo said...

You're one of the few people picking Memphis, but then again nobody even picked them for the final four and you were right about that. So far they're proving all the doubters wrong. I agree UNC should beat Kansas on paper, but only if Lawson's ankle tweak won't bother him and if Ellington and Green don't tank like they have been doing in many recent games (second half of Louisville game included).

Sportsattitude said...

I had NC and UCLA meeting in the final and I'll stick with my original thought before the tourney started. I think that free-throw, lack of recent big game competition will catch up with the Tigers against the Bruins...and I truly do believe UNC will mop the floor up with the Jayhawks, who were the only #1 seed I didn't see getting to San Antonio. They lucked out against Davidson.

Chris Iafolla said...

It's interesting to revisit this topic now that the final two have been decided. Like you, I considered writing a post ( about how this may have been the greatest Final Four ever. The reason most people felt that way was there was an apparent parity across the board. Any team could win and it would not have been considered an upset. As it turns out, the games were a bit of a bust and proved once again that solid guard play is the key to a long run in the tournament.

Blogger said...

+$3,624 profit last week...

Receive 5 Star verified winning picks on MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL + Anti-Vegas Smart Money Signals...