Saturday, March 24, 2007

Kansas vs. UCLA Preview

Kansas. UCLA. Phog Allen. John Wooden. Wilt Chamberlain. Lew Alcindor. Danny Manning. Bill Walton. Clyde Lovellette. Gail Goodrich. Two of the winningest—and most storied—programs in college basketball go head-to-head with a Final Four bid on the line.

Kansas was inconsistent early in the season, but they ran off eleven wins in a row to finish the year, and have played well thus far. They overcame their first-round fear by beating Niagara in the opening round—their first NCAA Tournament win in three tries. In the second round, they were back-and-forth with Kentucky for awhile, but they dominated the second half for an easy win. The Sweet Sixteen brought Southern Illinois. The Salukis’ terrific defense and slow-down offense caused Kansas problems, but several late baskets and defensive stops gave the Jayhawks a hard-fought win. Their ability to play different styles will be important going forward.

UCLA didn’t come into the Tournament with momentum, losing two in a row, which dropped them from a likely top seed to the #2 slot. However, it hasn’t mattered—as UCLA ended up in the Elite Eight for the second straight year. They dominated Weber State in the first round, but didn’t have as easy of a team with Indiana in the second round. They looked well on their way to an easy win, but they allowed the Hoosiers back in the game before pulling out the W. Against Pittsburgh in the Sweet Sixteen, the teacher vs. protégé angle was hyped up with Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, but Howland and the Bruins used their defense to control the entire game for the victory.

Kansas came into the season as a Final Four candidate, and they have shown why throughout the year. The Jayhawks are hitting their stride at the right time. KU can play at multiple speeds, and has terrific athletes and talent at both ends of the floor. They like to force turnovers and get out and run to get points in transition. This team has all the ingredients, personnel-wise. Julian Wright is one of the best all-around players in the country; he can do it all with the ball. Brandon Rush is a terrific shooter, both in the mid-range and from behind the arc. He can also defend well. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers are both solid play-makers who are also terrific defenders. Freshman guard Sherron Collins is very difficult to guard offensively. Darrell Arthur is an athletic freshman down low, and Sasha Kaun gets points on put-backs in the paint. Darnell Jackson is a banger inside who provides toughness. They are still relatively inexperienced, though.

UCLA has been a threat to repeat their trip to the Final Four since the preseason. Like most Ben Howland teams, they play terrific defense, and will never be out of a game due to that side of the floor. Moreover, the Bruins have several weapons on the offensive end. UCLA has arguably the best backcourt in the country, at both ends of the floor. Darren Collison has developed into a terrific point guard, due to his speed and quickness. Arron Afflalo is an All-American candidate, but he has struggled somewhat in the Tournament. Throw in Josh Shipp, and the Bruins are loaded on the perimeter. Inside, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can do a variety of things, and Lorenzo Mata provides rebounding and defense. Mbah a Moute made a name for himself last year in the Dance, but he hasn’t played well lately. Michael Roll provides shooting off the bench, and Russell Westbrook is a good combo guard. Alfred Aboya is a solid performer inside.

This Elite Eight game will be a contrast between two completely different styles. Kansas loves to get out in transition, getting points from all over the court due to their multitude of options. On the other side, UCLA likes to play in the half-court—only getting baskets in transition when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams play terrific perimeter defense, and there are plenty of quality perimeter players in this game. If Kansas is to get to Atlanta, they will need to play better in the half-court. They struggled against Southern Illinois’ tempo, and UCLA is similar in that respect. Kansas will also have to establish the inside game right away. Moreover, they need to control Darren Collison. Russell Robinson needs to take care of the ball at one end, and slow him down at the other. For UCLA to win, they need Arron Afflalo to start hitting shots. He is an All-America and needs to play like it. They also need to get the tempo at their pace. UCLA won’t win if it’s a full-court game. Moreover, UCLA needs to stop Kansas’ athletes, both when driving to the basket and also on the backboards. I think that the Jayhawks are going to win due to their superior athletes and their ability to play at multiple speeds. Julian Wright is going to be the key.

Prediction: Kansas 67, UCLA 64

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