The Jayhawks seemingly have everything you look for in a team. They're athletic, skilled, big, deep and experienced. They can score from the inside or the perimeter. They like to get out and run in transition, but they're perfectly capable of winning a halfcourt game. And while they're not an exceptional defensive team, they are pretty good at that end of the court as well. Their guards can pressure the ball and they have a nice rotation of big men who can protect the paint.
North Carolina started out the season trying to win by just out-scoring everyone. The Tar Heels defense was mediocre, at best, and they played so fast that shot selection seemed to be an afterthought at times. Ty Lawson was a frequent culprit of taking bad shots, but most of the UNC players were guilty at one time or another (maybe because Tyler Hansbrough seems to shoot the ball every time he touches it). However, ever since they lost to Duke in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels seem to have found themselves. Their defense is improved, roles have been better defined and the overall level of focus is much better. The Tar Heels are playing with a purpose now and they seem to understand what they need to do in order to win. And a huge change from earlier in the year is the play of Lawson. He's still pushing the pace, but he's making better decisions and he's knocking down jumpshots. Speaking of jumpshots – Tyler Hansbrough seems to have developed a pretty good one in the last five months. He's been pretty consistent facing up in the 15-17 foot range. Which makes him all the tougher, as he was already a formidable threat posting up in the paint.
I like North Carolina to win this game, for a few reasons. The first reason is the Tar Heels have two go-to players in Hansbrough and Lawson. Hansbrough is obviously one of the best big men in the country. Lawson, however, suffered his ankle injury during the season and he became an afterthought for a lot of people when he struggled after returning. Watching him play the last several weeks, though, he's looking like he's fully recovered. He puts a lot of pressure on your transition defense with his speed, but he's even more dangerous when he is making shots from the perimeter. When he's on from the outside, it becomes a pick-your-poison kind of deal.
I don't think Kansas really has a go-to player. They have several very good players in Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson. But when it's crunch time, and they need a basket, I'm not sure the Jayhawks have that go-to guy. I think Chalmers takes a lot of big shots, but he's not the kind of player who can create his own shot against anyone. Rush is kind of streaky, and he looks pretty good when those jumpers are dropping, but he's not consistent and also can't create well off the dribble.
The second reason I like UNC is I think the Tar Heels have found their identity and understand what they need to do in order to win. Kansas is very talented, and better than most teams, but I don't have that same sense about the Jayhawks. If the score is tied with five minutes to go, my sense is UNC will know what it wants to do in order to win the game. I'm not confident that Kansas will have the same comfort level and belief in what they're doing.
Finally, I think the pace is going to favor UNC. I know Kansas can run, but I'm not sure they can run with UNC. I think your best chance of beating UNC is playing a halfcourt game and taking away their transition points. Maybe Bill Self will surprise me, but I don't see Kansas taking the air out of the ball and forcing UNC to play in the halfcourt. Kansas might run with the Tar Heels for part of the game, but I'm not sure they can do it for forty minutes.
Two months ago, if you had asked me which top five team I'd like to face in the Final Four, I would've said Memphis. But this Memphis team has improved over the course of the season and I no longer think this is a great matchup for UCLA.
Watching Memphis dismantle Michigan State and Texas, I was really impressed with the Tiger defense. As Coach Howland has said, they're long and quick, they can pressure the ball and they've got guys who can erase mistakes around the basket. The first priority for UCLA will be taking care of the ball. If the Bruins give up easy baskets in transition off turnovers, it could be a long night for UCLA.
I've written all season that I thought UCLA needed to do a better job of getting Kevin Love the ball and I think that's particularly true in this game. I can't see a scenario where Darren Collison dribbles for 20-25 seconds each possession and UCLA wins this game. Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts are not Mitch Johnson or Tajuan Porter. Collison isn't going to be breaking down the Memphis guards at will off the dribble. Love is the one big advantage that UCLA possesses in this game and the Bruins better take full advantage of him. Not only is Love their best scoring threat – he's also the best passer on the team. So running the offense through Kevin has to be a huge priority. Good things happen when Love touches the ball. He can score inside, from the perimeter, make plays for teammates and possibly even get Memphis in foul trouble. And his decision-making with the ball is as good as any player on the team.
The obvious angle in this game is controlling the pace. And while it's obvious, it also happens to be true. UCLA doesn't want a 90-80 game. Memphis has better athletes and they thrive in an open-court game. Of course, UCLA has generally been outstanding at controlling pace against these type of opponents. The Bruins did it against Memphis two years ago and again last year against Kansas. Controlling pace, however, doesn't just come from walking the ball up. The Bruins need to tighten up their offensive execution. They've had a number of games with way too many loose possessions this season. They've had turnovers, bad shots, quick shots, long stretches of the Darren Collison dribbling show…all that has to be kept to a minimum on Saturday. You simply can't give away possessions against a team like Memphis. And if the Bruins do turn the ball over, make it a dead-ball turnover. I'd rather see the Bruins get a shot clock violation than a bad pass that results in Memphis getting a dunk in transition.
One big positive for the Bruins is their depth in the frontcourt. Aboya, Keefe and Mata could all be very valuable in a game like this one. If I'm Ben Howland, I have no problem with turning this game into a brawl. The Bruins have the big men to make it a physical, tough, halfcourt game. As for the backcourt depth, well….let's just hope Westbrook and Collison can each play 35+ minutes .
After controlling the pace, I think the biggest issue for UCLA will be stopping dribble penetration. Memphis' entire offense is built on dribble penetration and stopping it is easier said than done. The first question that UCLA needs to answer is this: Can Collison contain Derrick Rose? Darren will start out the game on Rose. If he's successful limiting Rose's drives, then the rest of the Bruin defense has decent match-ups. Chris Douglas-Roberts is terrific, but Russell Westbrook has held down great players all year. Antonio Anderson might give Josh Shipp some problems, but it's not like Anderson scores 20 a game (he only averages eight). Luc Richard Mbah A Moute should be fine with Robert Dozier, as should Love with Joey Dorsey.
The biggest advantage I see for the Bruins in this game is their experience. They've been in a lot of tight games and they've had to rally from significant deficits all season. The Bruins shouldn't get rattled in the Final Four environment. Memphis, on the other hand, has had a lot of easy games in conference. If the Bruins can keep it close to the last five minutes, I think UCLA has the advantage. I'm picking UCLA to win the game, but it will take the Bruins' best effort of the season.