The game, as is wont, has been analyzed to death over the preceding week and the national pundits are generally split about the outcome of the contest. That's as it should be, considering that both teams are certainly deserving of their Final Four berths and both teams have been at or near the top of college basketball's collective psyche for the entire season.
Unlike the second semi-final game between North Carolina and Kansas, the UCLA/Memphis affair is a true contrast in styles. I'm sure you've all heard, seen or read this over the past few days, but it bears repeating: the Tigers want a fast-paced game while the Bruins want to slow down things to a manageable pace. It is there that the strategic outcome of the game should be decided. But, as is usually the case in games as high-profile as this one, the tactical outcome of the game should very well be decided by the personnel match-ups, each team's bench, the relative strengths of each head coach and the obvious "intangibles."
Much has been made of the way Memphis looked in destroying Michigan State and Texas, but let's get this out of the way now -- both the Spartans and the Longhorns were great match-ups for the Tigers. MSU is tough but significantly lacked the athleticism to stay with Memphis, and remember that this was the same Spartan team that lost to Penn State and only scored a few touchdowns at Iowa, while Texas had the athleticism but lacked the real toughness and style necessary to get Memphis to play out of its comfort zone. Add to the fact that Texas point guard, D.J. Augustin played a very unintelligent game and you had the recipe for the mini-yawner that the South Regional Final turned out to be. While Memphis can certainly beat the Bruins, UCLA has the athleticism and the toughness to force some things on the Tigers and possibly take them out of their comfort zone.
When looking at style its obvious that you have a team that wants to get out in transition (Memphis), and a team that wants to control the pace (UCLA), although the Bruins take advantage of transition opportunities whenever possible. Statistically that means the Tigers want the game in the 80s or above while the Bruins want the game in the 60s or at most the 70s.
First, let's look at which team stands a better chance of controlling the tempo. UCLA has shown a bad tendency at times this year to get "sped up" when playing in certain games. That has less to do with the style of the opponent and more to do with the Bruins simply being too "amped" for the game. This is the Bruins' third straight trip to the Final Four and outside of Kevin Love, who is no ordinary freshman, every key player on the Bruin roster has had multiple trips and experiences in this setting. The obvious inference is that the Bruins won't get rattled by the pressure and attention that this game will provide. Memphis, on the other hand, has no experience in this setting. It should be noted that they did a marvelous job of winning what was essentially a road game in their win over Texas. But the glare of the Final Four is something different. They haven't seen this kind of attention yet this season and the Tigers tend to be a more emotionally wound-up team to begin with. Facts are facts, and theses facts state that the Bruins will be less awed by the surroundings and thus have more of their collective focus on the task at hand. That isn't to say that Memphis won't play a focused game, but the odds are that the Bruins will be more focused. A more focused team has a much greater chance of implementing their collective will on a game. So when it comes to which team stands a better chance of controlling the tempo, the advantage lays with the Bruins.
Another fact to consider is the history of these two styles in big games -- slow versus fast. A focused team playing a controlled tempo has dictated the pace with "faster" teams in a like situation more often than not. While this may have nothing to do with what is going to transpire on Saturday, the reality is that the Bruins have proven that they can play at a faster pace and in a more transitional style, while the Tigers have struggled in games where the pace has slowed down (see USC and Tennessee…yes, Tennessee was controlling the pace once their offense got into the halfcourt). Again, advantage UCLA.
Memphis likes to play an offense that Sports Illustrated has written about, called the "dribble-drive motion." It basically means that Memphis likes to spread the floor enough so that each player (outside of post man Joey Dorsey), has the ability to take his man one-on-one to the basket. The driver has the ability to penetrate all the way, pull up for a jumper, pass to the opposite low block if defensive help comes from that side, or kick out the ball for an open three-point shot. To defend this, a team has to be good in rotation on defense, slow down the dribble penetration and be physical. It helps also if Memphis is missing from behind the arc. Dribble penetration has caused the Bruins problems this year, as has slow defensive rotation. The dribble drive has only been a pain in UCLA's rear end, though, when they have faced ultra-quick guards. As good as Derrick Rose is at the point for the Tigers, he doesn't possess the kind of quickness that caused Darren Collison issues earlier in the season. Plus, it's obvious that Collison is a lot quicker and healthier now than he was two months ago. There are some other issues that Collison will face that I will comment on in a bit, but the quickness issue shouldn't be a problem. The defensive rotation is an altogether different proposition. UCLA's ability to defensively rotate effectively and quickly will be determined by what we have written about all year -- intensity and focus. This is the big ‘X' factor. Which UCLA team will "show up"? We'd all like to think that they team that played against Xavier will be the team that we all see on Saturday, and based on the body language of the Bruins after the Xavier win, that's probably true, but we just don't know.
Let's look at the personnel match-ups. These are what I believe are going to be the individual match-ups during the game: The nation has been talking about the point guard match-up in this game, so let's get right to it: Memphis will start fantastic freshman Derrick Rose (6'3" 190 lbs.), while the Bruins will start junior Darren Collison (6'1" 165 lbs.). Much has been made over the course of the past two weeks regarding Rose's ability to drive through his man into the lane. Notice that I said through his man and not by his man. Rose's ability to penetrate is based more on his strength than on his quickness. This isn't to say that Rose isn't quick; he is, but he doesn't possess the kind of "jitterbug" quickness that Collison has had trouble with this season. The question then becomes whether or not Collison possesses the strength necessary to keep Rose from getting into the paint at will. One thing about Collison, and you can see it when Collison goes to the hoop on the offensive end, is that he is very strong for his size. At the very least he should be able to battle Rose as the Memphis freshman tries to impose his physical will on the UCLA junior. Helping Collison in his battle with Rose will be UCLA's collective rotation. I've stated before that UCLA's rotation has been slow at times this season, but that has more to do with the secondary rotation and not with the step up of immediate help as an opponent dribbles into the lane. While Rose is long enough to shoot over Collison, should Rose get into the lane, he will be facing the prospect of shooting over Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Kevin Love or Alfred Aboya or James Keefe or Lorenzo Mata-Real. Rose isn't long enough to shoot consistently over that kind of size. However, the key will be Collison at least making Rose work hard to get into the lane because if Rose is able to penetrate at will, then it will be a long afternoon for the Bruins because Rose is good at finding open shooters once he gets into the lane. If Collison does need a break then expect Russell Westbrook to guard Rose and that match-up would be much more difficult for Rose. Finally, the experience factor must be taken into account. Rose hasn't really faced someone like Collison yet this year, and Collison has faced Arizona's Jerryd Bayless (an eerily similar player to Rose). The closest would be Connecticut's A.J. Price, but Price isn't the defensive player that Collison is and while Rose played well against Price and UConn, he didn't exactly light it up that night either. Collison is in his third straight Final Four and the second where he is the starting point guard for UCLA. That definitely counts for something. Rose also struggles more in a halfcourt game that isn't free-flowing. If the Bruins can dictate the tempo, then Rose will be more apt to be frustrated and that's where his game can actually end up costing the Tigers possessions as he gets frustrated. Rose isn't lighting the world on fire from behind the arc, averaging only 34% on his threes. Further, Rose is very right-hand dominant and doesn't shoot near as well when he is going to his left. Expect the Bruins to force him left as much as possible.
The second guard for the Tigers will be junior Antonio Anderson (6'6" 210 lbs.). He will more than likely see Bruin junior Josh Shipp guarding him. The reason that Shipp will be on Anderson is because Anderson is almost exclusively an outside threat as evidenced by his low free-throw attempt total. Anderson's 90 attempts is easily the lowest total of any of the Memphis starters. Anderson has a definite advantage in length over Shipp and he is an inch taller than his Bruin counterpart but Shipp has a big advantage in strength. Anderson has also shown that he isn't a big fan of physical contact. That shouldn't be a big deal when Anderson is on offense, and he is quick enough to prevent Shipp from driving by him on the other end. Where this should come into play, however, is in the rebounding game. Shipp is a good rebounder for his size and he knows how to box out. Anderson, who doesn't like to be physical anyway, has shown a tendency to go over the top of players for rebounds. Against Shipp that's a recipe for foul trouble. While this match-up won't decide the outcome of the game like the Rose/Collison match-up might, it could very well make the job of winning a lot easier for UCLA if Anderson becomes a non-factor.
The second of the "Big Three" match-ups is Tiger junior Chris Douglas-Roberts (6'7", 200 lbs.), probably facing off against UCLA's Russell Westbrook. Like the Rose/Collison match-up, CDR will have a size/length advantage against the Bruin sophomore. However, like Collison, Westbrook is much stronger than his size and to add to the strength factor, CDR's game is predicated on finesse moves; CDR isn't as strong as his size. CDR has an array of penetration moves that he utilizes to good effect to get to the hoop. His signature move is a floating runner that he will launch from as far as 14 feet away from the basket. That floater will be difficult to defend for Westbrook because CDR is long enough to shoot over him with that floater. CDR is also a good (45%) three point shooter, so it's clear that Westbrook will have to body up to the Tiger forward. That may actually be a good thing. CDR doesn't like defenders being physical with him, although he'll play through it, and Westbrook will be physical. About the closest thing that Westbrook has seen to CDR this season has been USC's O.J. Mayo. CDR is more experienced and a better team player, but in terms of one-on-one match-ups, Mayo is the more polished of the two. Westbrook has shut down Mayo, Davidson's Stephen Curry (who says without hesitation that Westbrook is the best defender he's faced this season), Washington State's Derrick Low, Arizona State's James Harden…you get the picture. While only Mayo, and somewhat Curry, can say they belong in the same conversation as CDR, the point is that Westbrook is used to being told by Coach Ben Howland: "There's their best player, now go shut him down." Look over Memphis' schedule and show me any team that has a player with Westbrook's combination of athleticism and strength that CDR has had to face yet this season. The point is that he hasn't. That isn't to say that this isn't a real tough match-up for the Bruins, but Westbrook gives them a real shot at limiting CDR over the course of a game. This match-up is really one to watch. When either Collison or Shipp need a rest, expect Luc to guard CDR for small amounts of time. Luc absolutely has the size, quickness and experience to stay with CDR. But because of the size of Memphis' two post players and Luc's limitations at the ‘3' on offense, Howland can't afford to play Luc at the ‘3' for extended minutes.
At the ‘4' spot in the frontcourt, Coach John Calipari will start junior Robert Dozier (6'9" 215 lbs.), while UCLA will counter with Luc. Dozier's game is a lot like Luc's in that he can score down low but can also take the occasional jumper. Dozier's offensive game is more polished than Luc's, but Luc is a much better defender, as Dozier is more apt to try and block shots than he is to move his feet against an opponent. They both rebound well. The key here will be which Luc shows up. If it's the one that played with the sprained ankle and looked disinterested or a step slow, then the Bruins will be in real trouble as Dozier can force the Bruins to do things they don't want to do and it will force Howland to use his bench more than he planned. However, if the "Luc 1.0" version shows up then this is an advantage for UCLA. Dozier will have to constantly be moving on defense just outside the paint to keep Luc off the boards and it's against players like that where Dozier has been frustrated. It also helps that Luc is a pretty cool customer while Dozier is a bit of a head case in that he can go into a mini-funk for a few minutes if things aren't going right for him.
Finally, the last of the "Big Three" match-ups and the one where UCLA has a clear advantage is Memphis center Joey Dorsey (6'9" 265 lbs.) facing UCLA's Kevin Love. Love is the most skilled big man that Dorsey will have faced yet this season (anyone who thinks that Georgetown's Roy Hibbert is anywhere near Love at the college level is fooling themselves). Dorsey is player that is relatively flat-footed, when it comes to lateral movement, and one who relies on his size and strength to bother his opponent. He will be facing a player who is at least as big as he is, who is much better laterally and possesses and array of post moves that will definitely bother Dorsey. In short, Dorsey will need help. If help does come, then Love will show why he is arguably the best passing big man in the country. But the key here is getting into Dorsey's head. If you thought that Dozier goes into funks when he gets frustrated, Dorsey will actually kill his team's chances for winning if he pulls one of his game-long brain cramps, and that kind of funk by Dorsey is a real possibility. Dorsey has made a career habit of playing poorly in big games, as evidenced by his meltdown last year against Ohio State and Greg Oden. Love should drive Dorsey a bit crazy with his ability to do things on both ends of the floor and stay cool. Not enough has been made about Love's ability to show grace under pressure. Love also has shown a propensity for getting opponents' big men into foul trouble and Dorsey has shown a real knack for getting into foul trouble. There is a real chance that this match-up will be so heavily weighted in favor of the Bruins that it ends up being the key determining factor in the game's outcome, especially if Love starts hitting one or two outside shots and pulls Dorsey away from the basket.
Off the bench, Calipari can bring one guard, one wing and one post player. Earlier this week Calipari suspended back-up point guard Andre Allen for the entire weekend. Allen's loss may hurt the Tigers more than you might imagine. He is just about tied for with Rose in terms of assists per minutes played. He played almost 15 minutes per game, thus keeping Rose fresh and ready for the end of tight games. Finally, he has the best turnover-to-assist ratio on the team. With Allen out, Calipari has no other real point guard to take Rose's place should the Tiger star frosh get tired or get into foul trouble.
The guard coming off the bench is sophomore Willie Kemp (6'2" 175 lbs.), while the wing is sophomore Doneal Mack (6'5" 175 lbs.). I group them together because they essentially play the same game: three -point shooting. They collectively have 56 free-throw attempts on the year even though they average almost 30 MPG between the two of them. While their games are one-dimensional, they are very dangerous shooters who could change the outcome if the Bruins relax when they are in the game.
The post player off the bench is sophomore Shawn Taggert (6'10" 230 lbs.), who is a real inside/outside threat, making 41% of his threes this season. He would offensively present Love and company with more of an offensive challenge, but he is a drop-off defensively from both Dozier and Dorsey, and especially Dorsey if Taggert has to guard Love.
Howland has a very deep frontcourt bench in senior Mata-Real, junior Aboya and sophomore Keefe. They actually represent a deeper and more experienced frontcourt than anything Calipari can throw out on the floor. Think of this scenario: Luc needs a rest and Howland can replace him with Keefe or Aboya, depending on the needs at the time. Howland can even insert Mata-Real to play with Love. It does create match-up headaches for the Tigers and gives all the Bruin bigs a chance to rest for a moment or two.
The coaches couldn't be more different. Calipari is one of the game's best recruiters while Howland is one of the best, if not the best, teacher of the game. Alright, so Calipari has more overall "talent" on his squad. Now that both teams are in the Final Four, the question is what will they do with that talent. There is a precedent for predicting who will get the better of this match-up. Calipari was clearly outcoached by Howland two years ago in the West Regional Final. Granted, Calipari has a better team this time around, but so does Howland. Also, Calipari has a new offense compared to the more traditional motion he ran two seasons ago. Howland, however, has had a week to prepare for the dribble/drive motion. Finally, Howland is much better at making in-game adjustments than is Calipari. Even the Tiger coach has admitted that he's more of a rah-rah player's coach during games. Now, if Calipari has a great game plan then it may not matter what in-game adjustments Howland makes, but if the game is close in the middle of the second half, this coaching match-up will have a large impact in dictating the outcome of the game.
Finally, there are the intangibles, and quite frankly there are only two that will have an impact. First is the fact that this is UCLA's third trip here, while Memphis is here for the first time since the 1980s. The Bruins won't be, or at least shouldn't be, overwhelmed by the spotlight. On the other hand, Memphis, which is a highly emotional team anyway, stands a very good chance of getting caught up in the pressure and the glare.
Second, when the Bruins defeated Xavier, it was pretty clear that UCLA to a player was acting like this wasn't a big deal…there were two more games left to win. Memphis, on the other hand, acted like they had finally accomplished something. It was almost as if Memphis was giving a collective sigh of relief that they had finally made the Final Four. That may allow them to be looser when the tip comes, but it also means they are much more likely to be less focused than the Bruins.
When looking at the style of the two teams, it's probable that both teams will have their way with regard to tempo over the course of the game, having it ebb and flow. For the Bruins, it will be a matter of making sure they cut down on their turnovers, keeping them to a minimum. This will frustrate Memphis, who is a team that relies on transition to score a lot of their points and to get their "mojo" going. In terms of personnel match-ups, without, of course, taking account of things like foul trouble or injury, the Bruins clearly win one (Love/Dorsey), while at best having a push on any of the other four match-ups. The other four Bruins on the floor will have to be playing at or near their best. For instance, Westbrook will have to be under control from the get-go -- no driving into charges on the fast break. Josh Shipp will have to be sure not to over-dribble into the lane and Collison will have to know what Augustin did wrong in the South Regional Final when he over-penetrated to the hoop and allowed his shots to be blocked and/or altered by the presence of the Memphis bigs. Both Collison and Westbrook must hit some mid-range jumpers. In terms of who has the better bench, it's basically a wash depending on whether backcourt depth or frontcourt depth is more needed in this one. As is true with most of life, the game probably won't go Memphis' way or the Bruins' way entirely. It will be somewhere in between. That means the last two pieces -- coaching and the intangibles -- should have a big say in the outcome of this game. Until he proves otherwise by doing it, Calipari isn't a match for Howland, and it's pretty clear that the Bruins hold the experience/intangible advantage. This is where I can see Memphis' free-throw shooting coming into play. If the Bruins can control the tempo, and with the glare of the spotlight causing added pressure to the Memphis players, their legs and heads can become heavy, i.e., they could think too much about free throws and start missing them in bunches. Whether Calipari wants to admit it or not, free-throw shooting has been an issue this year for the Tigers and things like that tend to rear their ugly head in games like this.
Expect a close game either way. In fact, it really has the makings of a true classic. However, if it goes the way I have written about and nothing crazy happens…