by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz
The NCAA men’s college basketball season wraps up this weekend with the Final Four teams squaring off in San Antonio. Here’s what to expect when the ball goes up at 6 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, April 5:
What to watch for: Freshman power forward Kevin Love is a uniquely talented throwback who can score inside and outside. But the skill he’s earned the most acclaim for is, of all things, his outlet passing. His ability to put the ball on a platter to a streaking teammate has been underused so far this season, as the Bruins prefer to play slowly. Against up-tempo opponents like these, however, UCLA might want to seek out transition baskets to counter that firepower.
The X-factor: The Bruins are the only Final Four team that has occasionally struggled to score this season. In this tournament, they trailed Texas A&M late and blew most of a 21-point halftime lead to Western Kentucky. In both instances, they turned up their defensive intensity to win. Great offense always beats great defense, however, and there will be plenty of great offense on display in San Antonio. UCLA will have to avoid scoring droughts while maintaining defensive focus.
What to watch for: The Tigers have the tournament’s most dynamic player in point guard Derrick Rose. The freshman is all but certain to leave school after one season and become one of the top two picks in the NBA Draft, but he appears set on leaving his mark on the college game first. He’s started to look for his offense more in the tournament after spending most of the season content to set the table for his teammates. When clicking, Memphis’ offense is as good as it gets, and the Tigers have stepped up defensively in the postseason.
The X-factor: All season, critics have derided Memphis for its free throw shooting, which, at 60.7 percent, ranks them 333rd out of 341 Division I teams. However, Memphis came through when necessary in their regional final win over Texas: The Tigers made 30 out of 36 free throw attempts. Free throw shooting often decides close ballgames, and Memphis will need to continue to make theirs this weekend.
What to watch for: The Jayhawks are the most balanced team. They have quality depth in the backcourt in Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins. They’re equally deep up front, with Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, and Cole Aldrich. They play good defense – not UCLA good, but good. They shoot the three-pointer at a 40 percent clip, but they don’t rely on it to win the way some teams do. Between the lines, they don’t have a noticeable weakness.
The X-factor: Coach Bill Self is one of the best recruiters in the game, but his track record as a game coach has frustrated some fans. It took the Jayhawks 35 minutes to start exploiting their obvious height advantage in their regional final win over Davidson. The Jayhawks won’t have the talent edge this weekend that they had over Davidson, and in a game where teams are evenly matched, coaching could make the difference.
What to watch for: The Tar Heels boast Tyler Hansbrough, a junior forward who has already collected five national player of the year awards. Carolina’s offense is the most potent of the remaining teams. Led by their sophomore blur of a point guard, Ty Lawson, the Heels love to push the ball upcourt. If they are forced into a set offense, Hansbrough rarely can be denied when he gets the ball in the post or goes to the offensive glass.
The X-factor: UNC’s feverish offensive pace compensates for their defensive deficiencies. Opponents tend to get caught up in increasing their own tempo, and then rush shots and commit foolish turnovers. The Tar Heels won’t be able to rely on that though, as Kansas and Memphis also prefer playing fast, and UCLA is too experienced to let UNC dictate the pace. North Carolina has enough offense that they don’t need to be spectacular on defense, but their “D” must at least be solid.
Predictions: In the first semifinal, UCLA has drawn the most favorable of their possible opponents, as Memphis lacks the interior game to exploit the Bruins’ shallow frontcourt. In the second semi, I see Kansas keeping pace with North Carolina offensively and ultimately prevailing due to better defense.
I’ve said all year that Kansas is the best team, and I’m not changing my tune. In the final, the Jayhawks’ talent trumps the Bruins’ experience – UCLA is making its third consecutive Final Four appearance. However, the four teams are so closely matched that it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of them cutting down the nets during “One Shining Moment.”
*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about basketball.
National Collegiate Athletic Association
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by Hayden Alfano*