Sunday, March 30, 2008

Memphis vs. Texas Preview

In the only regional final featuring a No. 1 vs. a No. 2, expect nothing less than an outstanding game. Memphis and Texas were both near the top of the rankings for most of the season, and both have been discussed in the Final Four conversation for a couple of months now. Which one will get there? It will be decided Sunday afternoon.

Memphis, despite have just one loss all season, did not get the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was placed in the second-most difficult region. The Tigers opened the Tournament with a blowout win over Texas-Arlington in a game that was never close. Against Mississippi State in the second round, victory was not assured until the Jamont Gordon’s three-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim. Missed free-throws late in the game nearly cost the Tigers. The Sweet Sixteen match-up against Michigan State was not nearly as competitive. The Tigers jumped out to an early lead and took a 30-point margin into halftime.

Texas might have received a No. 1 seed had it defeated Kansas in the Big 12 title game, but a regional final in Houston was a great consolation prize. The Longhorns began their quest for a Final Four with an easy first-round win over Austin Peay. Like Memphis, Texas had trouble in its second-round match-up against Miami (Fl.). It looked like the Longhorns might cruise to an easy win, but a late flurry by the Hurricanes put a scare into Texas. The Longhorns escaped by three. Their Sweet Sixteen battle against Stanford was expected to be a very competitive contest, but the Longhorns finished the game on a huge run and turned a one-point lead into a 20-point win.

Memphis came into the season as my preseason No. 1, and did nothing all season that made me regreat that pick. The Tigers are one of the deepest and most explosive teams in the country, and they have talent all over the roster. Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts form one of the best perimeter tandems in the country. Rose is a fantastic freshman point guard who can take over games, while CDR is a dynamite scorer who is difficult to defend. Antonio Anderson can do a little of everything on the perimeter, while Willie Kemp, Andre Allen and Doneal Mack provide depth. Up front, Robert Dozier is another player who is difficult to match-up with because of his size and skill set. Joey Dorsey is one of the best rebounders and defenders in the country, but only when he stays on the floor. He often struggles because of foul trouble. Shawn Taggart has developed as the season has progressed, and is now very solid off the bench.

Heading into the season, Texas faced several question marks regarding how it was going to replace Player of the Year Kevin Durant. So far, it has answered every one of those questions. It all starts in the backcourt, with arguably the best point guard in the nation, D.J. Augustin. He is very difficult to keep out of the lane and is fearless when driving to the basket. A.J. Abrams is a standout three-point shooter who can get hot from deep, while Justin Mason can help in a variety of categories. Up front, Damion James has been a huge factor in replacing Durant; he was one of the best forwards in the Big 12 all season long. Connor Atchley can stretch defenses with his size and shooting ability. Off the bench, Gary Johnson has provided a boost up front since being cleared to play because of a heart condition. Dexter Pittman was a bit player during the regular season, but played a key role in the win over Stanford.

With a berth in the Final Four on the line, expect an up-and-down game filled with lots of points and exciting back-and-forth basketball. Both teams have outstanding perimeter groups that can carry their respective teams if necessary, and both teams have match-up problems in the frontcourt. If Memphis is going to continue its dream season in San Antonio, it is going to have to keep Augustin out of the lane. Texas’ offense struggles to score when Augustin is contained and confined to the perimeter. Offensively, Rose needs to take care of the ball and get the Tigers’ offense going against Augustin. He has to hold his own. Furthermore, Memphis needs to take advantage of its size edge down low. Dorsey is stronger and more physical than anyone in the Longhorns’ lineup. On the other side, Texas needs to hit its perimeter shots. Memphis has shot-blockers and athletes in the lane, and the Longhorns will have to drag them away from the basket by hitting open shots. Defense will be the key, though. Rick Barnes might utilize a zone to force Memphis to shoot jumpers instead of allowing Rose and CDR to penetrate against man-to-man defense. James and Atchley will also have to step up down low. Atchley is not strong enough to outplay Dorsey, but he will have to put a body on him so Dorsey can’t get easy second-chance points. James will need to be his usual relentless self on the glass. The match-up between the smallish but quick Augustin and the strong and physical Rose at point guard is going to be great to watch.

In the end, I think Memphis has the talent and experience to beat Texas in its own state. Rose should be able to force Augustin into a tough night because of his strength and size, and I don’t think Texas has the bigs down low to keep Memphis off the glass. Memphis’ depth and defensive pressure will wear Texas down, and the Tigers will head to the Final Four.

Prediction: Memphis 77, Texas 72

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