Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Look Ahead to 2006

Congratulations are in order for the 2005 National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels, but what about next season? As soon as "One Shining Moment" ended, true college basketball fans were still high off of the Final Four and wanted more basketball. What better way to quench your thirst for college hoops than to take a look at possible teams that can make a run in the 2005-2006 season.

Connecticut: The Huskies are the favorite to win their second title in three years. Even without Charlie Villanueva, UConn will be stacked. Marcus Williams is one of the best point guards in the country, while Josh Boone and Rudy Gay will continue to dominate foes in the frontcourt.

Duke: The Blue Devils, who were very thin this season and seemed to wear down in the Tournament, will bring in the reinforcements next season. Preseason player of the year JJ Redick and Shelden Williams will form a great inside-outside combo, and freshman Josh McRoberts could be a great newcomer.

Villanova: I was high on this team all the past season, and they should be better next year. Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, and Mike Nardi will be the best backcourt in the country, while Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser should finally be healthy up front.

Kentucky: A team that got better as the season rolled along will be a favorite in 2005-2006. They lost their heart and soul Chuck Hayes, but return much of the deep rotation that carried them this past year. Kalenna Azuibuike, Rajon Rondo, and Randolph Morris will form a solid trio.

North Carolina: This is assuming there is not a mass exodus in Chapel Hill. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams are all pondering going pro. If they happens, they won't make the tournament. However, if two of them stay, combined with some great role players, the Tar Heels will be back in business.

Oklahoma: All five starters will return for the Sooners, who had a surprising Big 12 Title this past season. Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout will be a load down low, while Andrew Lavender and Terrell Everett could form a very underrated backcourt.

Michigan State: Yes, the Spartans lose a senior group that seemed like they were there for about 13-14 years, but they return what could be one of the best trios in the country. Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager, and Paul Davis are going to be difficult to deal with.

Texas: My pick for the Big 12 Championship next season could make a Final Four run. Freshman of the year Daniel Gibson will have another year under his belt, while PJ Tucker and Lamarcus Aldridge return from suspension and injury, respectively.

Wake Forest: The Deacons are going to be the 2005 version of the 2004 Duke team. They will have a stud backcourt with Chris Paul and Justin Gray (think Redick and Daniel Ewing), as well as a legit post player in Eric Williams (think Shelden Williams).

Gonzaga: After a surprising second round loss in the tournament, the Bulldogs will make a Elite Eight run next season. Adam Morrison is an All-American, while JP Batista and Derek Raivio form an excellent inside-outside duo.

Boston College: If Craig Smith stays, he and Jared Dudley will form one of the best 1-2 frontcourt punches in the country.
Louisville: Taquan Dean and Juan Palacios, along with the return of Brian Johnson, will keep the Cardinals near the top.
Florida: Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh form a great backcourt, while to-be sophomores Corey Brewer and Al Horford return up front.
West Virginia: Mike Gansey will be one of the best scorers in the Big East, while Kevin Pittsnogle and the rest of the shooters also return.
UCLA: Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo will each have a year under their belt, and should win the weakened Pac-10.
LSU: Brandon Bass (if he comes back) and Glen Davis are a dominant post tandem, while Tasmin Mitchell could be the freshman of the year.
Iowa: Hawkeyes will have one of the best trios in the Big Ten in guards Jeff Horner, Adam Haluska and forward Greg Brunner.

Monday, April 4, 2005

Illinois vs. North Carolina

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The two best teams in the country, Illinois and North Carolina, are going to face off tonight for the right to be called the “NCAA Champion.” This is the game that everyone has been discussing since Christmas. People have been debating about a dream match-up between the Fighting Illini and the Tar Heels, and now it is actually going to be played out on the court. It should be the perfect climax to the greatest sport in the universe, and will conclude the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here:
Illinois struggled for much of their first-round game against Fairleigh Dickinson, but were just too talented for a #16 seed in the end. Their second-round match-up vs. Nevada was not as close as the score indicated. The vaunted star of the Wolf Pack, Nick Fazekas, had no impact on the game at all. During the round of 16, the Cinderella of the tournament, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, had their run ended by the Illini. The pressing style of the Panthers played right into Illinois’ game, who won by a decent margin. The next game against Arizona was one of the best games of the tournament, and had one of the top comebacks you will ever see. In what was an even game throughout, Arizona began pulling away, led by their dominance in the paint. The Wildcats were up 15 with 4:08 remaining. It all fell apart from there. They turned it over and took bad shots on nearly every possession, and Illinois went on a 20-5 run to end regulation and send it into overtime. Arizona had a chance to win at the end of overtime, but ran a horrendous final play and lost by one. The Final Four turned out to be a much easier game for the Illini than most had anticipated. Louisville stayed close for a half, but could not hit their shots in the second half and lost by a 15-point margin that was not indicative of the game.
North Carolina demonstrated why many people considered them the most dangerous team in the country with their domination of Oakland in the first round and Iowa State in the round of 32. Neither team could contend with the Tar Heels’ multitude of weapons. In the Sweet 16, Villanova gave UNC a very tough game. Up by 12 in the first half, the Wildcats were in the game until the final minute, where a questionable travel call on Allan Ray and some timely free-throw shooting allowed the Tar Heels to escape by one. Prior to the Elite Eight match-up against Wisconsin, most thought that the Badgers would slow the game down and hope that UNC would struggle. However, Wisconsin hung right with North Carolina throughout the game and put up with their running style. Clutch three-point shooting and a dominant game from Sean May were keys in the Tar Heels eventual victory. The national semi-final contest against Michigan State was similar to the other semi-final game—close for a half turning into a blowout in the second period. UNC was down by 5 at halftime but gave the Spartans a clinic in the next half to make the game a 16-point rout.

5 Key Questions:
1. Can James Augustine and co. slow down Sean May? If Augustine, Jack Ingram, Nick Smith and the gang can hold May below 30 points and 20 rebounds, the Illini would be in better shape. Once May begins to dominate, it will open the floor for the rest of the Tar Heels. It is imperative that the big men from Illinois make life difficult for May. Channing Frye showed that Illinois is vulnerable on the interior.
2. Will North Carolina play good enough defense? Illinois and their motion offense can make lazy teams look silly on defense. That could be a problem for the Tar Heels; they tend to take possessions off on the defensive end of the floor and can be lazy at times. If they think that defense is a time for rest, the Illini are going to shred the North Carolina defense. Their passing is phenomenal and they always seem to have wide-open three pointers.
3. Will Rashad McCants become the next victim of Deron Williams? Williams has shut down two of the best offensive players at the collegiate level in the past two games, Salim Stoudamaire and Francisco Garcia. That is the reason that Illinois is still playing at this point. If he can do the same thing to McCants, it will take away a key element of the Tar Heel offense and will allow the Illini to focus on defending May on the interior.
4. Whose bench will come up bigger?/What team is going to have a bigger unsung player? This may not seem as important as the other ones, but it is. In the championship game, players are going to have to step up in order for their team to win. Some of those unsung players are going to come off the bench. In the Final Four game, UNC sixth man extraordinaire Marvin Williams did next to nothing. He is going to need to pick up his game in the title game. Jack Ingram could be the man that steps up for the Illini off the pine.
5. Who is faster with the ball—Dee Brown or Raymond Felton? Okay, this one is not as crucial as the aforementioned four, but it is interesting, nonetheless. Watching both of them the entire season, I have continuously wondered who is faster with the ball in his hands. Tonight will be the game to settle it, once and for all. On the serious side, if Brown can stay with Felton, the UNC fast-break will be slowed and the Tar Heels are going to be forced to play half-court offense, something they would rather not do.

Player Breakdowns:
In the backcourt, Illinois will have a slight advantage, as a result of the simple fact that their three guards are outstanding when combined with each other. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head all can take it to the basket, play defense, and shoot the three. Williams has seen his stock rise more than any other play in the tournament thanks to his wonderful defense in the past two rounds as well as his unflappable leadership and control of the game. When the Illini need a basket, they usually go to Williams. He can create for himself and for others. Brown is ridiculously quick with or without the ball. He has deep range and can penetrate the lane against bigger players. He is one of the best players in the country in transition. On defense, he can alter the course of a game with his quick hands and anticipation ability. Head is the best offensive player on the team. He had six threes against Louisville, several with a hand in his face. He is also able to slash to the basket with ease. Moreover, when healthy, Head is a very tough defender. Rich McBride comes off the bench to provide three-point shooting. On the other side of ball, North Carolina counters with an outstanding backcourt of their own. Raymond Felton is the most important player in college basketball to his team. Without him, the Tar Heels fall apart. He gets their fast-break offense going and has turned into the most consistent three-point shooter on the team after struggling with his shot during his entire career. Felton also starts the defensive pressure in the half-court for UNC. Rashad McCants is an unbelievable offensive talent. He has the ability to shoot the three or take it to the basket around most defenders. In addition, he can post up smaller defenders to get easy baskets. Jackie Manuel is one of the best defenders in the country, and was named to the ACC All-Defensive team. He usually locks up the opponents best perimeter scorer. Melvin Scott has stepped up as the first backcourt reserve during the Tournament when Felton has gotten into foul trouble. He can handle the ball and is a senior veteran that can hit the three if needed. David Noel is a solid swingman off the bench that can defend and rebound. He is also a high-flyer on the fast-break.

Up front, North Carolina holds a substantial advantage. Sean May is the best post player in the country, hands down. He can dominate any defense thrown at him, and has stepped up when needed most, including big games against Duke and Wisconsin. May has developed into an essentially unstoppable big man. His soft hands make him nearly impossible to guard. Moreover, he is a beast on the glass. Jawad Williams is very versatile for a 6-9 forward. He can block shots well, and steps out and shoots the three with the ability of smaller players. He had a big game in the Final Four, and might be getting his stroke back after a bit of a slump. Marvin Williams is a jaw-dropping talent that might be the best pro prospect at the collegiate level. Oh, two more things—he is a freshman and does not even start for the Tar Heels. He steps up when needed, though. He can do everything on a basketball court—shoot the ball, post up, rebound, defend, etc. Illinois has been exposed down low at times, but can still hold their own against most teams. Roger Powell is a versatile forward who was huge in the second half against Louisville. He can rebound well, and shoots the three consistently. His quickness in the post makes him difficult to guard. James Augustine has developed into a solid player in the paint for Illinois. The lefty has some nice post moves and can score when he gets the ball close to the basket. He is the best rebounder that Illinois has, and he can step out and shoot the 12-15 footer with consistency. Jack Ingram has become the #1 option off the bench for coach Bruce Weber. He is a very good three-point shooter for his size and has a knack for hitting clutch shots. Nick Smith has seen his minutes go down with the emergence of Ingram. However, he can still shoot the ball astonishingly well for a 7-footer but he does not like to bang down low.

Match-Up Analysis:
Raymond Felton vs. Dee Brown
- Two of the fastest players in the country go head to head. Advantage: Even

Rashad McCants vs. Deron Williams- Williams could shut down McCants, but McCants will also have to play some defense. Advantage: Illinois

Jackie Manuel vs. Luther Head- The best defender that the Tar Heels have will have his hands full with Head. Advantage: Illinois

Jawad Williams vs. Roger Powell- If both players play like they did in the Final Four, this could turn out to be a very good match-up. Advantage: Even

Sean May vs. James Augustine- Augustine is going have to slow May down somehow, something no one has been able to do yet. Advantage: North Carolina

UNC Bench vs. Illinois Bench- Other than Ingram, Illinois does not have much consistency off the pine. UNC, on the other hand, has Marvin Williams and a couple of other solid players. Advantage: North Carolina

Roy Williams vs. Bruce Weber- Williams has more experience in the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four than Weber, but he has not won the big one yet. Advantage: North Carolina

This is going to be a classic. Both teams are fairly even, with Illinois have the better backcourt, but North Carolina countering with the superior frontcourt. This game is going to come down to the defense of North Carolina and how much Sean May will dominate for UNC. If North Carolina does not take plays off, they can stop Illinois and their outstanding passing offense. On the other hand, if Illinois can get back on defense and slow down the fast-break of UNC, the Tar Heels are going to be forced to play a half-court game, something they are not entirely comfortable in. Inside, Sean May is going to get his--that’s a guarantee. But James Augustine and the rest of the Illini big men are going to have quiet him just a little so that the perimeter of the Tar Heels does not open up. I feel that Deron Williams is going to put the clamps on Rashad McCants, which will force other Tar Heels to step up. In addition, I don’t feel that North Carolina plays good enough defense to stop Illinois on the offensive end. In what should be a high-scoring game, I think that Illinois has too much of both offense and defense for North Carolina. The Illini will be the 2005 NCAA Champions after winning the National Championship.
Prediction: Illinois 83, North Carolina 81

Saturday, April 2, 2005

North Carolina vs. Michigan State

At first glance, this may seem like a match-up between two completely different clubs. However, going into the season, both teams were under the microscope. Neither squad had fulfilled their potential, and the pressure was building to get it done. "It" was a Final Four berth. Both Michigan State and North Carolina accomplished that. The Tar Heels were expected to be here--a #1 seed and an ACC Championship would merit that sort of consideration. The Spartans, on the other hand, did not look very good throughout most of the season. However, they picked it up towards the end and are now looking at a shot at the National Title game.

Both teams have a very good perimeter game. North Carolina starts with Raymond Felton, arguably the most important player to his team in college basketball. If they don't have him, the Tar Heels fall apart. He gets the fast-break started with perfection, and has become a scorer when necessary. Rashad McCants may be the best offensive player in the country, when he is on his game. He can shoot the three and take it to the basket. McCants also has a nice post-up game against smaller players. Jackie Manuel is a superb defender, and gets the task of guarding the opponent's top outside scorer. Melvin Scott provides senior leadership and three-point shooting off the bench. He has shown the ability to step in for Felton at times, as well. Michigan State is talented and deep in the backcourt. Shannon Brown has developed into a go-to-scorer for the Spartans. He can shoot the ball and drive, and is one of the best finishers in college basketball. His partner on the wing, Maurice Ager, is another outstanding finisher. He lead the team in scoring and is tough to guard when he drives the baseline because of his athleticism. Freshman Drew Neitzel stepped into the starting lineup late in the season, and the Spartans took off. He does not score much, but he runs the offense efficiently and starts the fast-break. Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert may be the best duo off the bench in the country. Both seniors and former starters, they provide loads of offense when they come into the game. Torbert is a great athlete, while Hill is a top notch three-point shooter.

In addition to having solid outside production, the Spartans and the Tar Heels also have great frontcourt players. North Carolina has the best post player in the country in Sean May. He can dominate any game, as evidenced by his multitude of super games late in the season, including a 26-point, 24-rebound showing against Duke and a 29-point game vs. Wisconsin. Jawad Williams is ridiculously versatile. He can shoot the three with ease, take it to the basket, and post up. His athleticism and offensive game make him a tough match-up. The Tar Heels also have the best NBA prospect in college basketball--and he does not start. Marvin Williams can do it all on the court. The freshman also has a knack for making clutch plays. David Noel is another solid defender and rebounder off the bench. Michigan State has one of the toughest match-up problems in the nation in Alan Anderson. At 6-6, he may be undersized, but is also too quick for most bigger players to handle. One on one, he is unstoppable. Paul Davis has finally lived up to his potential in the latter part of the season. He is going to need a huge game for the Spartans to win. Defensively, he can rebound well and block shots. In addition, he dominated Kentucky in the overtime, continually grabbing offensive boards that lead to points. Matt Trannon is very athletic, and is a tremendous leaper. He provides good rebounding and defense off the pine, backing up the post players.

This has the potential to be a very exciting match-up between two high-scoring teams that like to get up and down the floor quickly. However, if Michigan State wants to do that against North Carolina, they are going to get destroyed. The Tar Heels are unbeatable in a fast-paced game. The only way that the Spartans have a chance to win the game is if they make UNC play defense every possession. I don't see that happening. UNC is too talented for Michigan State. Moreover, look at the point guard match-up: Raymond Felton vs. Drew Neitzel. Case closed.

Prediction: North Carolina by 8

Illinois vs. Louisville

This game should the better of the two match-ups tonight. Both teams compare very well, and it will go down to the wire. Louisville has looked very impressive in each of their wins, including a come-from-behind victory over West Virginia, a game in which they were down by 20. Illinois did not dominate any of their games thus far, but showed a lot of resolve in their unbelievable win over Arizona, where they were losing by 15 with 4 minutes left, and ended up winning in overtime by one. Expect this one to be one of the top games of the tournament.

On the perimeter, the battle of the backcourts should be outstanding. Illinois is home to the top perimeter trio in the country, and showed it during the Arizona game. Deron Williams has demonstrated why he is the most important player on the Illini, and also the best. He can create for himself and others. Luther Head is a great scorer and is a very good defender when he is healthy. Dee Brown was only a second team All American, and is probably the fastest player in the country, end to end. He can change games with his quickness and has the ability to hit the deep three. Rich McBride provides shooting off the bench. Louisville will counter with the best shooter remaining in the tournament in Taquan Dean. He has been outstanding shooting the ball lately, and stepped up with a big game against West Virginia. Larry O'Bannon took over down the stretch in the Elite Eight, single-handedly carrying the Cardinals into the Final Four. He has developed into a great scorer. Francisco Garcia fouled out with four minutes left against WVU, but that might be the only thing that he has done short of perfect in the tournament. He has arguably been the best player in the country in the past four games. He will pose serious match-up problems for Luther Head with his height and length. Brandon Jenkins is a great defender and the best ball handler for Louisville off the pine.

The frontcourts for both teams are vastly underrated and overshadowed by their premier perimeters. Illinois has gotten wonderful inside play from James Augustine, who has developed into a very good post player that can dominate if he gets the ball close to the basket. He has been one of the more impressive players this tournament. Roger Powell has a nice inside-outside game, but has lost some confidence in his perimeter shot. He can still come up with some key baskets, though. Jack Ingram has become the top player off the bench. He can hit threes and rebound well. Nick Smith provides minutes and some shooting from his seven foot frame. Louisville has two very different players that mesh perfectly. Ellis Myles is the leader of the Cardinals, and dominates the glass, both offensively and defensively. He is the inside presence that they were missing a year ago. Juan Palacios is the lone freshman starter in this game, but could play a major role. He can run the floor and hit the three, but he also has trouble catching the ball. Otis George is a good rebounder off the bench.

Both teams are playing very good basketball, and Louisville might be playing their best of the season. Illinois still may have some momentum after their great comeback, but the Cardinals also are coming off a great turnaround in their Elite Eight game. Illinois might have the quickness advantage in the backcourt, but Garcia is going to a very tough match-up for either Williams or Head, although Williams did fine on Hassan Adams on the final play of the Arizona game. The inside tandems for both teams are going to have to come up big, and whoever wins the rebounding battle could end up victorious. I think that the ability of Louisville to match Illinois in the three-point category, in addition to having Francisco Garcia and better rebounders, will carry them to the title game.

Prediction: Louisville by 4

Final Four Rankings

Best Backcourt:
1. Illinois
2. Louisville
3. North Carolina
4. Michigan State

Best Frontcourt:
1. North Carolina
2. Michigan State
3. Illinois
4. Louisville

Best Bench:
1. North Carolina
2. Michigan State
3. Louisville
4. Illinois

Best Go-to-Player:
1. Francisco Garcia, Louisville
2. Alan Anderson, Michigan State
3. Deron Williams, Illinois
4. Rashad McCants, North Carolina

Best Three-Point Shooter:
1. Taquan Dean, Louisville
2. Dee Brown, Illinois
3. Raymond Felton, North Carolina
4. Maurice Ager, Michigan State

Best Inside-Outside Combo:
1. North Carolina
2. Illinois
3. Louisville
4. Michigan State

Best Trio:
1. North Carolina
2. Illinois
3. Louisville
4. Michigan State

Best Second Option:
1. Sean May, North Carolina
2. Luther Head, Illinois
3. Larry O'Bannon, Louisville
4. Shannon Brown, Michigan State

Best Coach:
1. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
2. Rick Pitino, Louisville
3. Roy Williams, North Carolina
4. Bruce Weber, Illinois

Best Point Guard:
1. Raymond Felton, North Carolina
2. Deron Williams, Illinois
3. Taquan Dean, Louisville
4. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State

Best Scoring Guard:
1. Rashad McCants, North Carolina
2. Dee Brown, Illinois
3. Shannon Brown, Michigan State
4. Larry O'Bannon, Louisville

Best Wing:
1. Francisco Garcia, Louisville
2. Luther Head, Illinois
3. Maurice Ager, Michigan State
4. Jackie Manuel, North Carolina

Best Forward:
1. Alan Anderson, Michigan State
2. Jawad Williams, North Carolina

3. Roger Powell, Illinois
4. Juan Palacios, Louisville

Best Post Player:
1. Sean May, North Carolina
2. Paul Davis, Michigan State
3. James Augustine, Illinois
4. Ellis Myles, Louisville