Men's Final Four Preview

Daniel Novinson and fellow analyst "Michigan Nick" are back with five questions to help preview tomorrow's Final Four in Detroit. Do either underdogs have a shot in UNC-Villanova or Connecticut-Michigan State? Is Blake Griffin really that good, and which of the players on the big screen this weekend are future NBA stars in the making? Read on!

No Stanford, alas, but it's the Final Four. We've suffered through a year of Dickie V and Billy Packer on the TV, and it hasn't been any prettier at Maples. We deserve this, and so without any further ado, here are five questions to get you in the mood for tomorrow...

1. Daniel: Nick, Blake Griffin had a great game statistically against Tyler Hansbrough and UNC (23 points, 16 rebounds), but, at least to my eyes, he appeared outplayed. In particular, his inability to pass out of a double team (facing 23 minutes' of double teams, he tallied just one assist, while racking up three turnovers) and some dumb fouls defensively reminded me of watching the Lopez twins their freshman year. Am I being too harsh on Griffin? Should he still the number-one pick in the draft, and will he? Does Hansbrough's stock rise after his performance?

Michigan Nick: You are definitely being way too harsh on Griffin.  He has done nothing but make his stock rise in the tournament.  He had his worst game against UNC, but he was still 9-of-12 from the field. Shooting 75 percent was unbelievable when you consider the attention that Griffin was receiving.  You are right that his passing out of double and triple teams was pretty bad, but he will not have to worry about that next year.  It will be awhile before he starts receiving that kind of attention in the pros.

The most worrisome part of Griffin's game has been his defense.  It's hard to criticize a guy for blocking 1.2 shots a game, but with Griffin's size and athleticism, that's a little bit on the low side.  He made a couple of stupid fouls in the UNC game, but he has been very good at avoiding fouls this year, committing only 3.1 per 40 minutes.  The free throw line is another trouble spot for Griffin; he shoots below 60 percent, which means he gives away a lot of points considering how often he gets to the line.  Overall, searching for flaws in Griffin's game is a pointless exercise, he might be the most surefire NBA prospect since LeBron.

The tournament has not been so kind to Tyler Hansbrough.  Going 2-of-4 for eight points against OU might have sealed his fate.  Hansbrough is a late first-rounder with a low ceiling.  Everybody knows his strengths (draws fouls, shoots well from the line, nice mid-range jumper, grit/heart/hustle) and weaknesses (unathletic, slow, undersized).  The OU game confirmed the suspicion that Hansbrough is not effective against NBA-level athletes.  If Mark Madsen [careful, Nick] and Malik Rose have a place in the NBA so does Hansbrough, but he is a 7 or 8 guy on the roster.

2.  Michigan Nick: How will Nova stop UNC's offense?

Daniel: Prayer? (Although, on second thought, I think Florida has sufficiently blurred the line  between sports and religion.) All available evidence strongly suggests that UNC simply can't be stopped. KenPom rates UNC's offense the tops in the country, with their accuracy from the free-throw line (77 percent, 10th), three-point line (38 percent, 34th) and two-point line (52 perecent, 52nd) all high among Division I's 344 teams. Vegas predicts UNC wins Saturday, 79-72, with the total of 159 shattering the UConn/MSU total of 134. Villanova's defense is only 15th best in the country overall, the weakest of any of the Final Four teams, and their field goal defense is weaker yet.

For Villanova to win then, they're going to have to outscore North Carolina – which is possible any given game, but it's not a smart way to bet. ‘Nova is going to need replicate their 22-of-28 shooting performance from the 1985 Title Game, because the Tar Heels are that good offensively. 

3. Daniel: We've got two clear favorites in UConn (-4 against Michigan State) and UNC (-7.5 against Villanova) in their national semifinal matchups. I'm assuming you're picking UConn and UNC? Me too. Anyways, neither team's been seriously tested this Tournament, with UConn winning each game by at least seven and UNC winning each Tourney contest by double-digits. If you had to pick one upset, which one would you take, and what does that underdog need to do to pull off the shocker?

Michigan Nick: Yeah, it looks like it's gonna be UConn-UNC.  If I had to pick an upset it would be Nova over UNC, but I really don't think it's going to happen.  Nova is solid at every aspect of the game, but not spectacular at anything.  Nova's only chance is if Scottie Reynolds or Dante Cunningham gets on fire, NBA Jam-style. Anything short of that will probably result in a blowout.  MSU has even less of a chance against UConn.  The Spartans' modus operandi is rebounding the basketball, but they won't have a big edge on the boards against a team with elite rebounders in Thabeet and Adrien. It would be hard to pick anyone other than UConn and UNC, but crazier things have happened. 

4. Michigan Nick:  How will Hasheem Thabeet fare against the big bodies of MSU, and does it even matter?

Daniel: Thabeet is much taller and more athletic than MSU's Goran Sutton, but Sutton's probably more wily and has a higher basketball IQ. Honestly, I waffle on Thabeet. On the one hand, I all but call him Darko Milicic in one of my questions in this preview series. Then again, I have to think that conventional statistics severely underestimate his impact, as he's a defense-first player. How do you quantify the role of a Robin Lopez type, who singlehandedly lowers opponents' field-goal percentage by 10 percent? Plus-minus stats and blocks are both woefully inadequate. You can't really capture that effect with today's box scores, and the statistical revolution in basketball this upcoming decade (see the New York Times Magazine's Moneyball-esque article on Shane Battier) figures to center upon giving players like Thabeet their due credit.

So call me an agnostic on Thabeet, but I know this: UConn's just too good. The statistics show Michigan State can't do much other than rebound. The Spartans rate in the top 10 overall on both offense and defense because of superlative rebounding – their rebounding percentages of 41 percent offensively and 73 percent defensively both also rate in the top 10. Thus, rebounding has carried the Spartans this far, as Michigan State does not rate in the top 35 in any of KenPom's other 14 categories.

UConn, unfortunately for the Spartans, is no slouch on the boards either, however, checking in at 10th offensively and 51st defensively in offensive rebounding percentage. Thus, Michigan State is simply not going to rebound that well against UConn, as Nick said. Unfortunately for the Spartans then, the Huskies are in the top five nationally in four other key defensive metrics: block percentage, two-point percentage allowed, overall effective field goal percentage allowed, and free throw attempts per field goal attempts (a measure of how frequently the other team gets to the line), where they're best in the nation. So UConn has the edge in just about every non-rebounding statistic, they have the edge at just about every position on the court, in my opinion, and so I think it could be a long night for the Green and White. 

5. Daniel: I know you're an NBA guy. Which of the players left standing has the brightest NBA future? (For what it's worth, mock drafts have Thabeet at No. 2, with Lawson, Ellington and Hansbrough in the bottom of the first round, which has me screaming "Darko Milicic "all over again.) Who on the other 61 NCAA teams has upped his stock the most?

Michigan Nick: Hasheem Thabeet stands head and shoulders above the rest in a weak Final Four draft.  The Dikembe Mutombo comparison is apt; a dominant shot-blocker and defender without any offensive skills.  Thabeet's offense is terrible, but is defense is good enough to compensate.  He is the extremely rare seven-plus footer who combines great shot-blocking timing to go along with his height and length.  He also stays out of foul trouble (3.1 fouls committed per 40 minutes), which is key for a player who is primarily a shot-blocker.  The other guy to keep your eye on is Stanley Robinson.  Jim Calhoun described him as more athletic than Rudy Gay, and he has the size to be effective in the NBA.  He doesn't have a lot of polish, but his athleticism could make him a solid first or second option of the bench in the League.

On UNC, Ty Lawson is getting the most attention.  Chad Ford said he might sneak into the mid-first round in his latest chat.  Lawson's shooting ability has really boosted his stock this year.  We have already discussed Hansbrough, and all the Dickie V ranting in the world won't make him go higher than the late-first.  Wayne Ellington is looking like a late-first/early-second type, your generic smooth two-guard who is the most replaceable player in the NBA.  Ed Davis is actually getting a lot of love from the scouts, he is projected as a top-five pick in 2010.  It's hard to judge him because he barely gets any burn, but it would be interesting to see where he would land in this year's draft if he declared.  My favorite player is future second-round pick Danny Green, mostly for his dancing ability  (starts about 25 seconds in).

Dante Cunningham and Goran Suton might sneak into the second round, but there is not too much to get excited about on MSU or Villanova.  The biggest riser in the tournament and latter part of the season may have been DeMar DeRozan.  NBA scouts and execs don't just like him for his name: he actually started to show some production towards the end of the year. He has great size and jumping ability.  DeRozan was a projected top-ten pick before the season started, and he might have crept back into the lottery with his late-season play.

Stay tuned for the second half of our Final Four preview as we count down to the Saturday tipoffs in the 313.

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