Saturday, March 31, 2007

Final Four Previews
by Chris Clement and Paymon Hashemi

National Semifinal #1
The Ultimate Preview: #1. Ohio State vs. #2. Georgetown

The first national semifinal of the night has Thad Matta’s youthful and extremely athletic Buckeyes matched up against John Thompson III’s disciplined and chiseled Hoyas. It’s the type of matchup that any college basketball fan should be truly excited about. Why? Let’s take a deeper look into the Four Factors that make this a game that a can’t-miss matchup.

Georgetown is just 25 years removed from Fred Brown’s errant pass to James Worthy in the closing seconds of the ’82 title game. The Buckeyes, despite an appearance in ’99, haven’t been in a National Title game since 1968. Add to that who is coaching, John Thompson’s son, and that a Ewing, Patrick Ewing Jr., is on the court for Georgetown. The last-second shot against Vandy, with more than a little controversy attached to it, was perhaps the talk of last weekend’s games. That was the case until their 10-point comeback in the final seven minutes against the East’s top-seed, the North Carolina Tar Heels. The return to dominance, in only three short years under Thompson III, is a thing to behold out of Georgetown this season. As for the Buckeyes, they brought in the most hyped freshman in years [Greg Oden], and for the most part, delivered time and time again as a team. Their amazing comeback against Xavier, thanks in large part to the clutch shooting of Ron Lewis, was followed up by exciting games against Tennessee (included both a 20-point comeback and a last-second Oden block) and a nailbiter, of sorts, against a brash, hungry Memphis squad. Both teams earned their tickets to Atlanta and both teams, at least in the back of their minds, have to be thinking about cutting down another net before they leave.

Every game needs high-profile names, like it or not. Georgetown might have a Thompson on the bench and a Ewing on the court, but it’s all about Roy Hibbert and Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green. At 7-2, Hibbert is the latest Hoya big-man to talk about. His footwork has improved mightily over his college career and he often poses an indomitable force on the inside block, both offensively and defensively. Watching him play inside, with four fouls, against the Heels frontline last week was a thing of beauty. As for Green, his inside-outside game is among the best in the entire country. Walking violation or not, his play to beat Vandy in the closing seconds was one of pure strength and skill. He can beat you from the outside or put the ball on the court and create his own high percentage shot. Don’t underestimate what that takes on the college level. As for the Buckeyes, Greg Oden is a man among men, even at 19 years old. The 1st-team All American has avoided stints of foul trouble to make big plays on both sides of the court. Ironically, he may pose an even bigger threat when he’s off the court, as teams often panic to find the best possible offensive scheme to take advantage of the shot-blocker’s absence. Alongside him are plenty of talented players, but none more than high-school teammate and freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. Not the best shooter on the team, Conley Jr. is one of the nation’s most balanced, quickest, and poised backcourt penetraters. His vision is spectacular and he always seems to rise to the occasion, often as a calming influence, when his team needs him the most.

Winning Streaks
The Big Ten conference and post-season champion Ohio State Buckeyes haven’t lost since a January 9th visit to Wisconsin, 21-in-a-row win in fact, which included two wins over Wisconsin, two wins over Tennessee, beating Memphis, and slew of other tough conference opponents. Idle number or not, 21-wins is an impressive feat for the overall #1 team in the country. They’ve avoided several near disasters and are only stronger because of it. As for Georgetown, the Big East conference and post-season champions, have won 19 of 20 [only stumble being a 14 point loss at Syracuse, which sure does look good right now for the Orange, thank you] which included that comeback win against North Carolina (in which Thompson III never panicked), two wins against Pitt, and several other notable victories. Both of these teams are playing the best basketball of their seasons just at the right time. Neither of these coaches need to remind these guys the importance of sticking to their game plan and playing within themselves. Teams who win this much already have that luxury.

You might be surprised to hear this, but Ohio State can win without Greg Oden dominating. Georgetown has also survived with Hibbert being in foul trouble throughout big games. Not surprisingly, both big men could spend heavy minutes nursing foul trouble this game. So it’s no surprise Georgetown would look to their top player, Jeff Green, to anchor them. And he most likely will. Ditto with Ohio State, turning to their primary ballhandler Mike Conley Jr., for aid and leadership. And he most likely will deliver. Yet, it is the true role players who will decide this game. For the Buckeyes, that means that Ron Lewis needs to stroke more than a couple idle threes from behind the arc. This task is gonna be a mighty challenge when you consider Georgetown has held Vandy/UNC to 14 of 48 from behind the 3-point line in their last two contests. Jamar Butler, on a scoring rampage as of late, is going to have to hit open shots and get to the line early and often. That’ll be tough mainly due to the suffocating Georgetown defense, experts at keeping such players outside of the lane. Daequan Cook will have to often pass up deep shots that aren’t high percentage; instead, kicking it out and looking to find teammates for better opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s just too tempting to pass up rare outside opportunities, even from 23+-feet, for the hybrid-shooter. Things aren’t much easier for the Hoya role players easier. Jonathan Wallace and DaJuan Summers have enjoyed mostly-stellar shooting this tournament, but have shown a tendency at times to go cold during the season. Jessie Sapp will certainly have a size advantage over the Buckeye PGs, but will his lack of true speed come to hurt him in late stretches? Patrick Ewing Jr. has improved his play steadily throughout the year, but is he ready to do all the little things – which may include hardly ever taking a shot – on the stage his father once dominated three times in a stellar career? A lot to think about for coaches Matta and Thompson III this weekend.

In the end, I’m ecstatic for tip-off to begin. I would enjoy seeing both teams win and just want one heck of a game. Predictions can wait until Monday night. Tonight’s just about having fun. But I do have one thing to look for…

Ohio State will win if…it shoots better than 35% behind the 3-point line.

Georgetown will win if…Roy Hibbert posts a double-double in 30+-minutes of play.

Now onto the night’s second national semi-final.

National Semifinal #2
The Ultimate Preview: #1. Florida vs. #2. UCLA

In the second national semifinal, we'll have a rematch of last year's championship game. A year later, Ben Howland has officially brought UCLA back to the powerhouse ranks and Billy Donovan has three Final Four appearances and a National Championship before the age of 42. A year removed from the national title, Billy Donovan is fighting off rumors about returning to Kentucky as a head coach, where he was an assistant for Rick Pitino during their glory years in the mid-1990s. Either way, he's cashing in come next week guaranteed.

Last season, Florida's shocking championship run culminated a full-scale beatdown of storied program UCLA, 73-57. In that game, Joakim Noah and Al Horford posterized Ryan Hollins and whomever else the Bruins decided to put down all night in the blocks. Corey Brewer never let Arron Afflalo out of his sight and Jordan Farmar was deemed useless. When UCLA shot the ball, they were one-and-done.

This year, UCLA is a stronger offensive, but questions remain about their ability to score points regularly. Josh Shipp has taken up a portion of the scoring load while Darren Collison continues to be a very efficient scorer. However, his 7 turnover/1 assist game last Saturday should be something to forget about moving forward. Unlike last year's run to the Final Four, Florida has had the target on their chest all season, but this has not gotten in the way of their courage and resolve.

For Florida, one immediately thinks of the three guys who would have been drafted as lottery picks last year - Noah, Horford, and Brewer. Nevertheless, the catalyst for the Gators is none other than Taurean Green, who has been Florida's leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament. He's also rescued the Gators out of some binds, as they trailed in the second half against both Purdue and Butler. The point guard was crucial to both comebacks and eventual slayings of the Hoosier-state upstarts. Don't get me wrong, he'll do his best to include Noah and Horford early and often in order to exploit an obvious mismatch in the paint.

The Bruins feature AP All-America first team selection Arron Afflalo, who finally had *that* game against Kansas. Afflalo scored 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the field, including three from behind the arc. Also, the Bruins have the aforementioned Collison, who is undersized, but one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. He will drive, penetrate, and look to dish to the big men, but he's not afraid to get fouled. More importantly, Collison won't be afraid to take the big shots from 3-point range (46.3%). His dagger heave from behind the arc proved costly in the win over Kansas, and Bill Self will have nightmares for years on end.

Can UCLA force turnovers and turn them into points?
UCLA has proven throughout the season and during the tournament that when they can force turnovers, they will turn them into points. Kansas was made a national example last Saturday. Let's not forget the flipside of this argument. UCLA committed 24 turnovers last Saturday. If that's the case, then Florida will be game-planning for Monday with a half left to play. As for Florida, they kept Oregon in the game on Sunday by committing a bevy of careless turnovers. UCLA needs to turn Florida over early and often.

v. Purdue 15 turnovers
v. Butler 11 turnovers
v. Oregon 18 turnovers

Three pointers?
Florida from behind the arc
v. Purdue 5-18
v. Butler 8-19
v. Oregon 11-24

If Taurean Green begins to hit threes like he did in the Butler and Oregon games, UCLA has very little room for error. Meanwhile, Lee Humphrey is back to his old self, hitting 7 threes against in the regional final. For UCLA, they'll need Shipp and Roll to hit open shots in order to take pressure off of Collison and Afflalo, who will have their hands full. It should be noted though that Florida's increasing reliance on the deep ball may be their Achilles' Heel because UCLA is a better rebounding team than their size indicates.

UCLA production on the frontline
The real media is hyping Noah and Horford, and you can't really blame them. I watched last year's championship game and they seemed to dunk on every other possession. This year, they're not as dominant, but both are very good, especially Horford down the stretch. I would argue though that UCLA's frontline is stronger defensively than last year; moreover, they know their role. 4 guys (Mata, Mbah a Moute, Aboya, Keefe) with 20 fouls - provide help-side defense, rebound, box out, and be in position to attack the rim off of dribble penetration. There is no equivocation whatsoever.

Point Guard Leadership
If Florida wins the national championship on Monday night, look no further than the point guard. Brewer's been off, Humphrey was off until the regional final, Noah's been ordinary, and the bench has been non-existent. Green has hit the streak three-pointers and settled down the Gators whenever the opposition has gone on runs.

UCLA will win if... they cause 20 turnovers and hit open shots in the second half

Florida will win if... they stick to their guns and limit UCLA to one shot on every possession

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