Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Blood Versus Blue Blood: Memphis Faces Kansas on Championship Monday

So much for this being the greatest, most competitive Final Four ever. One would think that four number one seeds who had only lost nine games collectively in the regular season could combine to produce two closely contested National Semifinal games but that did not prove to be the case: UCLA stayed close for a half before Memphis ran over, around and through the Bruins in a 78-63 win, while Kansas hit North Carolina with a 40-12 run to start their game and then let the Tar Heels creep to within four points before delivering the knockout blow in an 84-66 victory.

What did we learn from these two lopsided contests? First and foremost, speed kills--particularly when the fast guys are also big. UCLA simply could not contain Derrick Rose (25 points, nine rebounds, four assists, 7-16 field goal shooting) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (28 points, 9-17 field goal shooting), who went wherever they wanted to go and did whatever they wanted to do. As CBS' Billy Packer put it, Rose "plays under control but with speed and power." Packer also noted that Russell Westbrook (22 points on 10-19 field goal shooting) looked like he would fit in nicely in Memphis colors but the rest of the UCLA team simply could not match up with Memphis' big, fast guards. The Bruins wanted to play a slow paced game but they could not get defensive stops or control the boards and therefore could not impose their tempo on Memphis. Call this the "38 special game," because Memphis set an all-time NCAA single-season record by notching win number 38. Curiously, the three previous teams that won 37 games did not win championships in their record-setting seasons.

For most of the first half of the Kansas-North Carolina game it looked like the Tar Heels were running around in cement shoes while the Jayhawks were on roller skates--or that Kansas was actually played seven on five. North Carolina, the top seeded team in the entire tournament, trailed 38-12 at the 7:32 mark of the first half and Packer flatly declared, "It's over." It seemed a bit early for such a definitive statement but his sentiment was quite understandable considering how completely inept North Carolina looked. Kansas pushed the lead to 40-12 but then, as Jayhawks Coach Bill Self put it after the game, they "went brain dead." Inexplicably, Kansas players started jacking up shots from all angles and their defensive intensity noticeably dropped off. Part of this undoubtedly stemmed from fatigue but it also seemed like they thought that the game was over and they could just do whatever they wanted to do. The Tar Heels closed to within a very workable 15 point margin before a last second Sherron Collins jumper made the halftime score 44-27.

Packer said that the first three minutes of the second half would prove to be vital. Kansas certainly looked sharp on the first possession, crisply executing a play that resulted in a Mario Chalmers layup. After three minutes, Kansas still led 52-36. The Tar Heels had finally figured out how to score but they still were not getting many stops and, as Jim Nantz helpfully noted, North Carolina could not afford to trade baskets. Then, all of a sudden, the next five minutes turned into the Danny Green/Wayne Ellington show. Green nailed a three, then he made a two point jumper, then Ellington made a jumper and Kansas' lead had shrunk to 54-44 with 14:10 left. Neither team scored for nearly two minutes, as players from both squads took ill advised shots. Packer observed, "Both teams are not making good judgments when they've got an advantage on the break." Earlier in the game, he repeatedly mentioned that North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough is not a shotblocker but that he is good at taking charges; Hansbrough took three charges in the first half and Packer was mystified that Kansas' players did not understand that they should simply stop crashing into him and instead shoot pullup jumpers that Hansbrough would not be able to block.

After the brief lull by both teams, Ellington sandwiched a couple baskets around a Hansbrough putback and North Carolina only trailed by four, 54-50. The Tar Heels had answered Kansas' 40-12 opening salvo with a 38-14 bombardment of their own. This looked like it had all the makings of the greatest comeback (or greatest choke, depending on your perspective) in Final Four history but Brandon Rush--who scored a game-high 25 points--made a nifty driving layup and North Carolina never got closer than five points the rest of the way. When the Tar Heels tried a half court trap in an attempt to force turnovers or goad Kansas into shooting long jumpers, the Jayhawks patiently broke the trap with one pass and then--following the classic dictum that Hubie Brown always preaches--found the open man under the basket with the second pass out of the trap. Ellington cooled off and the rout was again on for Kansas.

What we are left with now could be called "New blood versus blue blood": the Memphis program has a limited Final Four history but is undergoing a revival under John Calipari, while the Kansas program has a rich, deep tradition that dates all the back to James Naismith. I expected North Carolina to win the championship, so you can take this prediction with a grain of salt, but now I think that this is Memphis' year.

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