Final Four preview
After a slow start, this year’s tournament has really picked up. Looking back, the scores of the Elite Eight games were a little misleading. Memphis gave the Buckeyes a pretty good run, while that UCLA/Kansas game was nip and tuck until the Jayhawks’ wheels came off at the very end. (Remind me to never pick a Bill Self-led team to go to the Final Four again.) The Oregon/Florida game was closer than the score would indicate and G’town’s comeback against a talented (yet directionless) North Carolina squad provided some of the best moments of the tournament.
So, now we’ve got our Final Four, and we couldn’t have two better matchups. In the early game, we have the battle of two seven-footers -- one’s a freshman phenom who has been destined for stardom since he was just a pup, while the other is a battle-tested junior who has worked on his game, developing into a future lottery pick. In the late game, we’ve got a rematch of last year’s title bout and, save for Jordan Farmar, all the stars from both teams stayed in school to play for this very opportunity.
This is a Final Four with some serious star power. At least six players -- Greg Oden, Al Horford, Jeff Green, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert and Corey Brewer -- are either shoe-ins or strong contenders to be lottery picks this summer, while two grizzled vets -- Aaron Afflalo and Ron Lewis -- have been playing clutch, first round-caliber ball in the tourney. Not to mention the young guns -- Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, DaJuan Summers and Russell Westbrook -- who hope that the Final Four can serve as the ultimate coming out party.
But most importantly, this is a rare Final Four in that all four teams have a legitimate shot at winning the title. Looking at the World Sports Exchange long-term market, Florida is the favorite at +163, while at +400, UCLA is the underdog of the quartet. With the underdog at around 4 to 1 against, it’s clear that the betting public sees this as a pretty even field.
Let’s take a deeper look at each game and identify some key matchups.
#1 Ohio State (34-3) vs. #2 Georgetown (30-6)
When comparing the Buckeyes’ performance against Memphis to their play in their second-round game against Xavier, it’s hard to believe this is the same team. Had Xavier’s Justin Cage made that second free throw at the end of regulation, I’d be writing about the Musketeers, the Volunteers or the Tigers right now. But sometimes championship teams get a few lucky breaks along the way, and no one can blame the Bucks for taking advantage. Georgetown had an unlikely victory of its own in the regional semifinal against North Carolina. Down 10 with seven minutes to go, the Hoyas showed more toughness and grit during the remainder of regulation and in the extra period than the Tar Heels showed all season.
Both teams have overcome some adversity; what else do they have in common? Obviously, the 7’0” Oden and the 7’2” Hibbert stand out. These are the two best true centers in the college game. They both struggle at times with committing silly fouls, so whoever can stay on the court will have the advantage. Both players are further along defensively than they are offensively, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they both struggle to score in the post.
When looking at OSU’s recent run, a lot of credit has to go to freshman point guard Mike Conley, Jr. He was brilliant in overtime against Xavier and went for 17 points, six assists and seven boards in the comeback win over Tennessee. Meanwhile, when looking at Georgetown, the Hoyas’ backcourt of Jessie Sapp and Jonathan Wallace has to come up big. These two took a lot of flack before the tourney, when more than a few pundits said that Georgetown didn’t have the guard play to make a deep run. Sapp and Wallace shot a combined 12 for 20 from the field (including 5 of 8 from long range) against the Tar Heels, but more importantly, they held Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington to just 10 combined points on 4-20 shooting.
Then there’s the veteran leadership of G’town’s Jeff Green and OSU’s Ron Lewis. Green is an impossible matchup for the Buckeyes, so don’t be surprised if OSU plays a ton of zone, both to help on Green and to help Oden avoid any potential ball screens.
So who will win? I originally picked Georgetown over Texas A&M in this game and I don’t see any reason to go against the Hoyas even though the opponent has changed. If OSU stays focused and disciplined (especially offensively), they’ll be a very tough out, but Georgetown has a knack for hanging around for most of the game and then making a push during crunch time.
Let’s just hope that the officials don’t call the game too tightly and allow Oden and Hibbert to battle down low. After all, this isn’t figure skating.
#1 Florida (33-5) vs. #2 UCLA (30-5)
About this time last year, the Gators were celebrating their 73-57 trouncing of the Bruins en route to the school’s first title. The team’s trio of stars -- Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer -- made the surprising choice to return to school despite the fact that their respective stock had never been higher. Arron Afflalo also decided to play another year at UCLA after discovering that he was not a solid NBA first-round pick. The result? A rematch on the biggest of stages, a.k.a. pure joy for college basketball fans.
At first glance, it seems like the Gators should run away with this game. After all, they dominated the Bruins a year ago and returned every major piece of last year’s championship squad. Moreover, UCLA lost three starters -- Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman. How can they possibly compete? Well, it starts with Afflalo, who has improved just about every aspect of his game. He played brilliantly against the Jayhawks, both offensively (24 points on 10-15 shooting) and defensively, by limiting the effectiveness of Brandon Rush. Point guard Darren Collison is also a major factor. He’s lightning quick and has provided the playmaking ability that the Bruins so desperately lacked after Farmar’s departure. Finally, the Bruins possess arguably the best team defense in the nation, and that alone makes them a threat to beat anyone.
When looking at the Gators, it’s important to remember that this team got very little respect last year. Even after they reached the Final Four -- winning their first four tourney games by an average margin of 16 points -– they were still underrated. This year, they’ve had to transition from being the team that no one respects to the team that everyone wants to beat. All in all, they’ve handled themselves pretty well. Sure, Noah’s over exuberant antics wear on some, but he plays hard, and that’s what counts. Noah is part of the best front line in the nation and they have the size to dominate the Bruins inside. But, at times, the Gators lose focus and don’t feed Noah and Horford like they should, and that’s when they get into trouble. It’s important that Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey play off the inside guys, not the other way around.
I picked the Gators to win it all and they still look like a solid pick. They aren’t playing quite as well as they were this time last season, but that has more to do with the giant bull’s eyes on their backs than it does with their chemistry or ability to win. If Corey Brewer can limit Afflalo’s good looks and the Gators utilize their bigs, they should win by 8-10 points.