Well another tournament weekend has gone by and I have again emerged somewhat humbled. As you all know, we here at IBT successfully predicted 3 out of 4 Final Four teams. What you don't know is that in the wee hours of Saturday morning some guy wanted to bet $2000 that all 1 seeds wouldn't make it and I was damn close to pulling the trigger, but the bastard wouldn't give me odds. But, I digress. And as you've undoubtedly heard, we're heading for the most anticipated Final Four in history. As was the case with our original predictions (and is even more prevalent now), there truly is no way to differentiate with these four.
All year, my top spot has wavered between Kansas and UCLA. Ever since about Christmas I have felt like they were the two most complete teams. For the longest time I felt like North Carolina was a step behind because of their defense and Memphis was probably even a step further down for a variety of reasons. But as we head to San Antonio, those disparities have vanished and the two I used to hold above the rest are actually underdogs with the lines opening UNC (-3) over Kansas and Memphis (-1) over UCLA. And to be honest, I can't disagree. With that said, as the lines suggest, a Kansas/UCLA final is not all that far-fetched. Here's an initial, off the cuff reaction to the match-ups.
Memphis v. UCLA
As you may imagine, I don't know who to pick here. My initial premonition is to take UCLA because of how much more suited they are to win a close game. I also know that Memphis has had a lot of trouble with junk defenses and/or when their dribble penetration was limited. Combine that with UCLA having some pretty solid perimeter defenders and Ben Howland having 5 days to figure them out and again we're leaning toward the Bruins.
But on the other side of that, though Kevin Love has been great, UCLA has had some trouble playing against bigger front lines – and if there's one thing Joey Dorsey is, it's big. Add in that they'll have a size advantage at every other position on the floor and again the scales tip in favor of Memphis. And though UCLA can go on some damn good runs of their own and are fairly adept at limiting those of their opponents, they have yet to face a group of athletes like Memphis.
But in the end, I think I'll lean the way of the Bruins because I thought Kansas would "out-athlete" them last year and we all remember how that went. Plus I just think they're way too good to get blown out and I just can't believe that Memphis can shoot free throws at 58% all year and then all of a sudden, when the pressure is on, make them in the clutch (and no, last weekend doesn't count because those weren't close games). The pick: UCLA 68 Memphis 63
Kansas v. North Carolina
If all you've really seen of these teams was what we saw over the weekend, you'd be crazy not to take Carolina here. (Side note: I'm a big TBL fan, but if you read the open thread from yesterday's Kansas game, you'll see that though people love to have opinions, they're rarely correct when they aren't educated. Though they're taking Kansas anyway - interesting.) Fortunately, we here at IBT have been college basketball devotees since the season started and even more so, since the Orange Bowl concluded. In short, we know that while he's a no-brainer All-American, Tyler Hansbrough isn't always unconscious facing up from 17 feet and even more importantly, that Kansas is quite a bit better than they looked yesterday. In fact, until this past weekend, we would have liked Kansas in a head-to-head game pretty much the entire season.
But they aren't playing in February, or even March, so how will this one shake out? In short, I don't have a F-ing clue. On the one hand, North Carolina is the best transition team in the country. But the other side of that is they've never played a team that could match their talent, size or depth. Specifically, they were able to play their ideal game against a MUCH less talented and not nearly as deep Louisville team, and that game wasn't decided until after the final TV timeout. Foul trouble notwithstanding, Kansas will not have this same problem. They are much better at the guard position on both ends of the floor and will have more offense and depth in the frontcourt than Louisville did. Take from that what you will.
From Kansas' perspective, they are definitely a better defensive team than North Carolina and are better able to win when they can't force their desired tempo. But the fact remains; Kansas is much better fast than they are slow, a facet with which UNC will be happy to oblige. So two questions arise from this; 1) can Kansas keep up with UNC, and 2) will their superior defense be a factor? Ideally, I say yes to both. Assuming Kansas isn't nervous again (maybe this is a big leap, but they really have NO reason to be), they have just as many shooters as UNC as they've proven on numerous occasions; most notably against Texas a couple weeks back. Secondly, and this depends on #1 being true, if the game stays close, it will eventually become a game of possessions and who can execute in the half court. In that scenario, you like to think defense prevails. Then again, if they get in a situation where they need a score and they run that ball screen handoff to Mario on the wing, my head just might explode when it doesn't work. Let's be optimistic (but of course not bias) and say next time they'll start that play and run something different from it. The pick: Kansas 88 UNC 84
The thing to keep in mind is that these picks are entirely based off my initial instinct. In the former, I didn't even address how Memphis will guard Kevin Love away from the basket and how UCLA's much shorter perimeter will defend the taller Rose and CDR. In the latter, I didn't mention UNC's prowess for offensive rebounding or how easily Chalmers should be able to score on Ellington. But that's the beautiful thing about this particular Final Four – you could analyze it all week or flip a coin and you're pick will have absolutely no more validity either way. It's going to be shit good time down in San Antonio.