Monday, April 7, 2008

Memphis or Kansas? Don't bet your house on either


Saturday is why — to borrow a commonly used TV phrase — "March is so great."

OK, so it actually was the 5th of April, but if it's "March Madness," then we'll make the April Showers hold off until we hear "One Shining Moment" tonight.

But with sincerity, what happened Saturday is a reason why non-basketball fans tune into the NCAA Tournament (besides, of course, to fill out a bracket or six).

The unexpected happened. Heck, the very, very, very unexpected happen. First, Memphis made Kevin Love look like a 10th grader, dominating UCLA's big man with Chris Douglas-Roberts throwing down the exclamation-mark slam over the Bruins freshman. In the nightcap, all hell broke loose as Kansas jumped to a 40-12 lead over North Carolina, the favorite to cut down the nets tonight.

A 28-point lead in the first half? After watching the Jayhawks look anemic in their 59-57 squeaker over Davidson in the Elite Eight, I didn't give them a great chance of beating Carolina — and I definitely didn't expect them to blow the Tar Heels out, which they didn't.

The Heels' comeback to within four points was nearly as impressive as Kansas' introductory cause-turnover-pass-layup session, but the Jayhawks recovered their mojo in time to finish Carolina with a pair of alley-oops.

Now, we anticipate a great championship showdown between the Tigers and Jayhawks. Memphis is looking for its first national title. Kansas is trying to win for the first time since 1988 and get Bill Self his first title to convince him to stay in Lawrence as the boosters at Oklahoma State try to lure him away with big bucks.

Your guess is as good as mine. Here's my take:

The reason I love the Tigers is because they have too big-game players who can be counted on to show up and play well. Roberts, the 6-foot-7 junior, and freshman leader Derrick Rose run the show for the Tigers, which has to make John Calipari very comfortable.

Before the tournament, there was debate in terms of who the country's best point guard was. Um, that's been resolved — it's Rose in a landslide (and I'm not just picking him because my sister's named Rose). Not only is he a strong 6-3 with an NBA body — despite eating too many gummy bears and sugar straws, according to CDR — he plays with a poise that belies his age. He's also a very strong defender, and rarely does he not convert a transition opportunity.

Douglas-Roberts scores his points so quietly, you look up at the scoreboard and he's got 17. His in-between game will be a huge asset against Kansas, because he'll pick up his dribble and loft a Detroit-playground floater before the Jayhawks' quick defenders can get a hand on the ball. Additionally, Kansas' top scorer Brandon Rush will likely guard CDR and have to expend a lot of energy on the defensive end.

Do Kansas' guards remind you of a team's guards that defeated Memphis? Yep, that's right: Tennessee's backcourtmen. And the Volunteers are the only team that took down the 38-1 Tigers. Kansas' guards are so quick, it won't be easy for the Tigers to get the usual penetration that makes their dribble-drive offense thrive. Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson are all good at staying between their defender and the basket. A big key will be how the refs call the game. The more they let touch fouls go, the better chance Kansas has to win.

On the other end, it's pretty amazing how people have kept overlooking Memphis' defense. The Tigers play extremely hard on the defensive end and do a good job, especially against post-up players (see Love, Kevin). That could be a problem for Darrell Arthur and Co., however, if they can get Joey Dorsey in foul trouble — which isn't that difficult to do — one inside player might be able to have the kind of game Sasha Kaun had against Davidson.

The real key player for Kansas, though, is Rush. When he plays well, his team follows suit. When he struggles, like he did for much of the Davidson game, the Jayhawks have a hard time scoring.

If you want a statistic to keep a close eye on, watch the fast-break points. There will be plenty of running up and down the court, but how many easy layups will each teams get? Whoever can do a better job of getting back on defense and fouling hard to prevent layups and three-point plays will have an advantage. I give a slight edge here to Memphis because it's stronger and more athletic than the smaller Jayhawks.

Ultimately, as unpredictable as this tournament's been, one constant has been the play of Memphis. With the exception of small portions of their second-round game against Mississippi State, the Tigers have been stellar, playing strong defense and attacking any opposing defense that is thrown at them. Whether a team has played man-to-man or zone, Memphis has been able to exploit it. Calipari deserves some credit for this.

Self could come off as a genius if he takes a risk, however. If you look all the way back to mid-December, Tim Floyd of USC employed a triangle-and-two scheme against Memphis that had the Tigers throwing up difficult shots — ultimately bad misses — from all over the court. Granted, Rose is a much more mature point guard now, but still it would be worth a look by the Jayhawks. Put Rush on CDR, put the 6-1 Robinson on Rose, and see what happens.

One thing I can promise, though — neither team will run out to a 40-12 lead. This game will be much closer, much more competitive... I think.

And when CBS puts the finishing touches on "One Shining Moment," it will be the Memphis Tigers parading around the Alamo Dome telling everyone who cares to listen, "Do you believe in us now?"

Prediction: Memphis 76, Kansas 72


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