Saturday, April 4, 2009

Final Four underdogs can win thanks to the 3-pointer


Let's not kid ourselves. No one is surprised that UConn and North Carolina are in Detroit today for the Final Four.

That's what we were projecting back in October. And three weeks ago before the NCAA Tournament, although many of us (yep, this guy included) thought Memphis might spoil the Huskies' bid.

The other pair of teams left in the Big Dance, however, weren't exactly favorites to make it this far. Not Michigan State, which had flown under the radar all season after getting blown off the floor by the Tar Heels in early December in the same venue — Ford Field — in which they'll play Saturday.

The Spartans had to continuously silent doubters after that, game by game until they "upset" No. 1 seed Louisville last Sunday. Now, playing just 90 miles from East Lansing, they're underdogs once again.

But not as big underdogs as the Wildcats of Villanova, who have to take on the mighty Heels — the team almost given the title before the season even began. Who, outside of Philly, is picking the 'Cats to advance to their first title game since 1985?

Um, no one.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves in predicting a battle of the big boys Monday night in Motown. Yes, UNC and UConn are the better, more talented teams. They "should" win.

But they might not. I, for one, wouldn't be surprised one bit.

After all, there's a big equalizer for the pair of underdogs.

The 3-pointer.

Look at the Tar Heels' four losses to date. When they were shocked at home by Boston College, the Eagles made nine 3s. Wake Forest was a terrible outside shooting team, but it shot 6-for-14 from the perimeter.

The main reason Maryland came back from a huge second-half deficit to upset the Heels? The Terrapins made 13 of 30 from behind the arc. And Florida State was 8-of-20 from downtown in its ACC Tournament win (although UNC was without its best player, Ty Lawson).

The bottom line is this: If Villanova makes its outside shots, it can win this game.

A lot was made after the Heels' 72-60 win over Oklahoma last Sunday to win the South region about how much of an improved defensive team they are. And don't get me wrong — they are better on that end of the floor than they were in January, when the Demon Deacons' Jeff Teague penetrated at will against the Heels.

They're better at guarding the basket, especially with freshman Ed Davis playing a bigger role. I'll give them that.

But they're not any better at guarding the 3-point arc. The bottom line to take from last weekend is this: Oklahoma's guards didn't show up to play. They missed wide-open 3 after wide-open 3, bricking their first 15 from deep.

A few made 3s, and that could have been a different game.

Villanova might not have a Blake Griffin to garner defenders' attention, but it will get plenty of open looks. That's because the Wildcats have a pair of guards in Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher who can penetrate the lane and create open outside shots for teammates.

Now, the Wildcats will have to step up and make 3s.

If they make 10 or more, I think they'll win the game. I'm not kidding.

The same can be said for the Spartans, who have an even better chance of pulling the upset.

Their biggest weapon might not look like a 3-point shooter, however. No one would expect, from looking at 6-foot-10 Goran Suton, that he'd have a smooth stroke from the perimeter.

But that's exactly what he demonstrated in the Spartans' masterful domination of Louisville last Sunday. Against the Cardinals' 2-3 zone, Suton three times stepped outside the paint and swished 3s.

He got open looks because defenders were uncomfortable guarding him 20 feet away from the basket. Suton's 3s sparked Michigan State's game-clinching run in the second half.

A benefactor was Durrell Summers, who connected on back-to-back 3s during the spurt. He's not short himself, at 6-4, and elevates over his defenders to shoot. Another dangerous weapon for underdog Sparty.

If Michigan State does what it did against Louisville — when it shot 8-for-16 from 3-point range — it can beat the Huskies. If Suton pulls his defenders away from the basket and makes 3s, UConn will have its issues.

Of course, there's another factor: If the favorites make just as many 3s, they could take away that advantage.

But the underdogs, to me, play much better defense on the perimeter. Consider what the Wildcats did against Duke, a good 3-point shooting team. They forced the Blue Devils into 5-of-27 shooting from behind the arc. They rattled them.

Don't expect the Heels to get a whole bunch of open 3s.

The Spartans are quietly, possibly the best defensive team in the country. They've only given up 70-plus points once since mid-January. And they rebound well.

Those attributes, along with a handful of 3s, could land them in the national title game.

Where they could face Villanova, believe it or not.

Am I predicting two surprises? I wouldn't go that far.

But I wouldn't be shocked, not at all, if we see an upset or two tonight.

Thanks to the great equalizer, the 3-point shot.


OldEnglish said...

Jake, I have 'Nova in the final game on my bracket and I'm not from Philly! Too bad I don't have any money riding on it--I'd be making out.

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