Monday, April 2, 2007

National Championship Preview: Florida vs. Ohio State

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The game everyone has been talking about since March Madness started. Florida and Ohio State were arguably the two best teams in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament, and they have proved that over the past five games. One may not think that the Gators and Buckeyes are the two best teams in the country, but they have been the best this month—and ultimately, that’s what matters. This is the perfect climax to what has been one of the most competitive NCAA Tournaments in some time. Enjoy the conclusion to the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here

Florida, the #1 seed, has not played to their potential thus far in the NCAA Tournament. However, it seems that the Gators have a switch that they turn on down the stretch to pull away. They dominated the second half against Jackson State in the opening round after trailing for most of the first half. In the second round, the Gators were down again to Purdue, but the experienced players made plays late in the game to get the victory. Against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, Florida had an athleticism and talent advantage again, but they needed more clutch performances to advance. They faced a very hot team in the Elite Eight in Oregon. However, the Ducks got in foul trouble and essentially ran out of bullets down the stretch, enabling Florida to advance. In the Final Four, they faced UCLA in a rematch of last season’s title game. Unfortunately for the Bruins, the result was much of the same. The Gators dominated UCLA on the inside, and used their rebounding and post prowess to simply wear down the Bruins en route to a relatively easy victory. UCLA got in foul trouble early, and Florida took advantage. Florida has more experience than Ohio State, and the Gators just look like they are always going to win—they have that swagger about them. They need to come out strong against the Buckeyes, though.

Ohio State, a #1 seed, had not been overly impressive so far in the NCAA Tournament prior to their Elite Eight game. They dominated Central Connecticut State in the opening round, but needed overtime to beat Xavier—and probably should have lost in regulation. OSU survived due to missed free throws by Justin Cage (and a possible intentional foul by Greg Oden) and a deep three by Ron Lewis at the end of regulation. Against Tennessee, the Buckeyes came back from down by 20 to beat the Volunteers by one on two Mike Conley free throws. However, against Memphis in the Regional Final, the Buckeyes got off to a good start and hit their free throws down the stretch to win going away. They had an advantage in the post and they went to it, getting the Tigers in foul trouble early, which hurt Memphis big-time in the second half. The Final Four featured a much-anticipated big man battle between Oden and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert. Hibbert may have won the individual battle, but Oden got more help from his teammates, enabling the Buckeyes to advance. OSU went to a very good 2-3 zone, which confused Georgetown and essentially shut down Jeff Green. Furthermore, despite Oden being in foul trouble for the first half, the Bucks constantly went at Hibbert, forcing him into foul trouble early on as well. Ohio State will need to forget about their blowout loss to the Gators in December—both teams are far different than they were at that point.

5 Key Questions

1. Will Greg Oden stay out of foul trouble? The Buckeyes have been able to beat teams despite their star player sitting out for much of games. He picked up two quick fouls in less than three minutes against Georgetown, but Ohio State still pulled out the victory. They won’t be able to do the same thing against Florida. Joakim Noah and Al Horford are the best post tandem in the country, and they will dominate Ohio State inside if Oden is on the bench—they might be able to control the paint either way, but that’s beside the point. Oden is one of the best centers in college basketball, and has shown the ability to dominate at both ends. He needs to be on the floor for Ohio State to win.

2. Can Ohio State’s frontcourt match-up with Florida's trio up front? The Gators have the best post duo in college basketball in Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Noah is versatile and can do many things, and Horford is an absolute beast at both ends of the floor. Throw in one of the best all-around players in the country in Corey Brewer, and Florida is loaded. Ohio State has Greg Oden, but they start essentially four perimeter players, with Ivan Harris and Ron Lewis manning the forward spots. Neither is big enough to defend their counterparts, but they will have to contain the frontcourt of Florida for Ohio State to have a chance. They did a good job against Georgetown, but they will need more of the game.

3. Will Florida be able to hit enough outside shots in the half-court offense? Ohio State had a size disadvantage against Georgetown, but they used a 2-3 zone to essentially force Georgetown to become a three-point shooting team with Roy Hibbert in foul trouble. The Hoyas shot only 7 for 21 from behind the arc, which was key in the game. If Ohio State goes to a zone in an attempt to guard the bigs for Florida, the Gators are going to need to knock down their perimeter shots. They have shot 43% from long-range in the past three games, but only 33% in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament. Lee Humphrey is a terrific shooter, and Taurean Green and Corey Brewer are efficient from behind the arc. They will need to hit their shots.

4. Whose bench will come up bigger?/Which team will have the unsung player that makes a difference? 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. Both teams can go fairly deep down the roster. UCLA's Daequan Cook can do a variety of things and Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger could be important if Oden gets in foul trouble. Florida's Walter Hodge and Chris Richard have been key players off the bench. Richard would start for nearly every other team in the country. In terms of starters, Florida’s Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey have been relatively unheralded much of the season, and could play key roles. Ohio State’s Ivan Harris can stretch the defense from the power forward position, and Jamar Butler was an all-Big Ten point guard before moving off the ball this season.

5. Who will be the go-to-guy to step up down the stretch? Neither team got to this point by riding one player. Florida is the most balanced team in the country, while Ohio State has plenty of options both inside and outside. When these two teams need a basket with the clock winding down, they have several players to go to for points. For the Gators, Corey Brewer can score in different ways, making him difficult to defend. Joakim Noah and Al Horford are tough to guard. However, Taurean Green might be their go-to-guy. He controls the ball and can shoot the three, or penetrate the line. For Ohio State, Mike Conley is their go-to-player. He is a terrific ball-handler, and can get into the lane on anyone. Ron Lewis has been clutch in many games this year, and Greg Oden is one of the best players in the country. If this is a close game—which it should be—the go-to-players could be crucial down the stretch.

Team and Player Breakdowns

Ohio State was one of the most hyped teams in recent memory coming into the season due to the arrival of one of the best freshmen classes of all time, and, of course, Greg Oden. The Buckeyes are very good offensively, with options all over the court. They don’t turn the ball over very often, and can score inside and outside. OSU is very difficult to defend due to their ability to get points in a variety of ways. Defensively, the Buckeyes are underrated. They have great shot-blockers down low, enabling the perimeter players to get out on the opponent and force tough shots.

Greg Oden came into school as one of the most hyped players ever, drawing comparisons to Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, and seemingly every great big man of all time. However, his debut was delayed due to an injured right wrist. He is still not fully recovered, meaning that he has been dominating opponents with his off-hand. Think about that for a second. Oden is one of the best post defenders in college basketball, and is in the top five nationally in blocked shots. He is also a terrific rebounder, both offensively and defensively. Oden is efficient on the offensive end, and has the ability to score with both hands. He is an excellent finisher, but does lack a variety of post moves at this point in his career. His ability to find the open man once he sees a double-team needs to improve as well. Nonetheless, Oden is a future franchise player in the NBA. Starting next to him is senior Ivan Harris. The 6-7 lefty is more of a perimeter player, and is one of the better three-point shooters on the team. He is a decent rebounder who does not turn the ball over very often. He provides a veteran influence in the starting lineup, but does not really have a set role for the Buckeyes. Coming off the bench up front is JC transfer Othello Hunter. He kept Oden’s seat warm in the post while the freshman was recovering from injury, but he has made an impact even with Oden’s return. He can rebound very well, and is a good shot-blocker. Matt Terwilliger also sees double-figure minutes off the bench. His time has decreased since Oden’s return, but he provides rebounding and a little of everything.

The perimeter group for Ohio is deep and versatile. Freshman point guard Mike Conley has been overshadowed by Oden, but he is one of the best newcomers in the country. He is extremely quick with the ball, and is a terrific playmaker. He can get into the lane on nearly any defender. Conley is also a very good defender, and gets into passing lanes well due to his length and quickness. He takes care of the ball, and is among the conference leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. However, he is not a very good shooter, allowing defenders to sag off of him. Lining up next to him is junior Jamar Butler, last year’s starter at the point. He was one of the best point guards in the country heading into the season, but has taken a backseat to Conley and now plays on the wing. He is a very good three-point shooter, and provides a steadying influence on the court. He leads the team in minutes played, and hardly ever turns the ball over. He is also an excellent free-throw shooter. On the wing, Ron Lewis is a very good scorer. He can score in a variety of ways, and is very adept at getting to the free throw line. He is not a great three-point shooter but he knocks down enough to keep defenders honest. He is very clutch, and has become more of a go-to-guy this year. Lewis is also a solid defender and rebounder. Two freshmen provide depth off the bench, in David Lighty and Daequan Cook. Cook can score in many ways and is a decent rebounder, while Lighty provides athleticism and strength.

Florida was the preseason favorite to win it all by most people. After heading into last season as not much more than a bubble team, the Gators entered this season with a bull’s-eye on their backs after last year’s National Championship. However, aside from a little stretch late in the year, Florida has handled the adversity very well.

It all starts in the frontcourt, where the Gators have one of the best frontlines in recent history. All three starters are potential lottery picks and are also ranked in the top five at their respective positions. Joakim Noah is the energy source of this team, due to his all-out style of play. He is an extremely difficult match-up due to his size, speed, and athleticism. Noah is an outstanding shot-blocker with a non-stop motor that is a dominant inside force and will only get better. Al Horford goes unnoticed at times lining up next to the passionate Noah. However, he is a terrific rebounder and a very good defender. He has a developing offensive game, and is one of the most efficient scorers in the country. Horford might be the best big man on this team—which is saying something. Small forward Corey Brewer is one of the most versatile players in the country and is a very good defender. He is athletic and is adept at getting into the lane and finishing. He is an absolute nightmare to guard due to his size and length. He is also a terrific defender, playing the passing lanes with vigor. Off the bench, senior Chris Richard provides excellent low-post scoring and rebounding. Two freshmen, forwards Marreese Speights, contribute if the big men get in foul trouble.

The backcourt is also one of the best in the country. Point guard Taurean Green improved as the season went on, and developed into one of the best at his position in the country. He can score and pass very well, and is also a good long-range shooter and defender. He is overshadowed oftentimes by the frontcourt, but he is a terrific player in his own right. Two-guard Lee Humphrey is an outstanding three-point shooter who is becoming one of the most clutch gunners in all of college basketball after hitting several important three-pointers to help the Gators last March. He is also an underrated defender. Walter Hodge is a solid combo guard who is quick and talented. He provides depth off the bench for the Gators.

Match-up Analysis

Mike Conley vs. Taurean Green: They are two of the best point guards in the country. Conley can get into the lane on anyone, while Green has experience and a well-rounded game. Advantage: Even

Jamar Butler vs. Lee Humphrey: An interesting matchup. Butler moved off the ball this season and can knock down shots, while Humphrey is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Advantage: Florida

Ron Lewis vs. Corey Brewer: Both players are versatile and athletic. Brewer, though, is an outstanding defender and has been a very good go-to-guy for Florida. Lewis is clutch and can score in many ways; he will have his hands full defensively, though. Advantage: Florida

Ivan Harris vs. Joakim Noah: This is where Florida has the big edge. Harris is mostly a perimeter player, but he will have to come up big defensively. Noah is one of the best players in the country, and can do everything. Advantage: Florida

Greg Oden vs. Al Horford: This is arguably the best match-up of the day. Oden has more hype but he has struggled against players that can match his talent and size. Horford is one of the best players in the country. Advantage: Even

Ohio State Bench vs. Florida Bench: While not very deep in terms of numbers, these are two of the best benches in college basketball. Ohio State has several options off the bench, including wings Daequan Cook and David Lighty and big men Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger. Florida’s Chris Richard is a load inside and Walter Hodge is quick on the perimeter. Advantage: Ohio State

Thad Matta vs. Billy Donovan: Both coaches have done a very good job this year of keeping their teams focuses. Matta moved Greg Oden into the lineup without chemistry problems, while Donovan has not allowed his team to get complacent on the road to another championship. Donovan has been mentioned as a possible successor to Tubby Smith at Kentucky, while Matta has come up with some very good game-plans this season. Advantage: Florida

Who's Going to Win and Why

This game is going to be a classic. After Saturday's Final Four contests, I sure hope it is. It is the first 1 seed vs. 1 seed title game since 2005, and that game was very competitive. Both teams are very talented and have been tested all season. Ohio State has lost only three games—all to #1 or #2 seeds on the road. Florida had a rough stretch near the end of the regular season, but they have regained their focus. I’m expecting a terrific battle.

If Florida is going to pull off the repeat title, they are going to need to do several things. Obviously, they have to get Greg Oden in foul trouble. If he is on the bench, they will have an easy time getting points inside. They also can’t allow him to dominate the paint. Al Horford and Joakim Noah also have to take advantage of their edge inside. Oden can only guard one of them, and the other will have 6-7 Ivan Harris on them. That’s a mismatch. Corey Brewer has to shut down Ron Lewis, and not allow him to get going from the outside. He also has to play within the offense and use his big-time size advantage to get points. On the perimeter, Lee Humphrey is going to need to hit some outside shots for Florida in case Ohio State goes to a zone. The point guard match-up is going to be unbelievable. Taurean Green can do many things, while OSU’s Mike Conley is going to be a lottery pick one day. Whoever wins that battle will give their team a boost on their way to victory.

For Ohio State to pull off the upset, they need to play one of their best games of the season. The big key for them is the inside game. Al Horford and Joakim Noah are capable of dominating on their own, and Greg Oden is prone to foul trouble. If he has to spend extended amounts of time on the bench, Florida will absolutely destroy the Buckeyes inside—like they did to UCLA in the semifinals. Ivan Harris will need to come up big defensively, and will also need to stretch the defense with his ability to step out and knock down shots. Oden will need to dominate and play to his potential. On the perimeter, Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler will have to play excellent defense. Lewis can’t allow Corey Brewer to get points in transition, and he also will have to have a big game offensively. Butler will have to find Lee Humphrey wherever he goes, because Humphrey is capable of getting the Gators on major runs. I’ve already touched on the point guard battle, but it is more important for Ohio State to win that match-up. Conley is the most important player on the Buckeyes, and he has to control the game.

This game is going to come down to the final minutes. Both teams are loaded all over the court, and they have proved their worth all season. However, it looks likely that Florida will become the first team to repeat since the early 90s Duke teams. They have a big edge inside, even if Oden is able to play 27-30 minutes—which I don’t see happening anyway. Moreover, the Gators have too much size and experience for Ohio State to match them. Ohio State will be back next year, but expect Florida get another national championship.

Prediction: Florida 70, Ohio State 64

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