Friday, April 4, 2008

Memphis vs. UCLA Preview

For a complete preview of the Final Four, click here.

If you haven’t heard – and if you’re reading this site, I’m pretty sure you have – this is a historic Final Four. It is the first time that all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, making for an outstanding semifinals and finals. Furthermore, each of the four teams in the Final Four all reached at least the Elite Eight last season, with UCLA making the semifinals for the third consecutive season. The Bruins will face off against Memphis in a rematch of the 1973 title game in which Bill Walton went 21-for-22 from the floor in a UCLA win. Will we see another superhuman individual effort – from either team?

Memphis' Road to the Final Four

Memphis, despite having 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 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. In the Elite Eight, the Tigers had to face Texas in Houston, which immediately put them at a disadvantage. But Derrick Rose outplayed D.J. Augustin at the point, and Memphis advanced in convincing fashion.

UCLA's Road to the Final Four

UCLA, the top seed in the West Region, has not been overly impressive for most of the NCAA Tournament – yet is still one of the favorites to win the national title. The Bruins opened the Tournament with an easy win over Mississippi Valley State, holding the Delta Devils to just 29 points. In the second round, Texas A&M looked like it might pull the upset as the Aggies led by as many as 10 points in the second half. However, UCLA fought back and got the win on Darren Collison’s lay-up with nine seconds left. UCLA was in control of its Sweet Sixteen game against Western Kentucky even when the Hilltoppers made a run late in the game. In the Elite Eight, the Bruins finally put their foot to the pedal and showed why many are picking them to win it all. They dominated Xavier from the outset, and won by 19 despite getting just three points from the bench.

Memphis Team Breakdown

Memphis came into the season as my preseason No. 1, and did nothing all season that made me regret 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 and Doneal Mack provide depth. Andre Allen is suspended for Saturday. 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.

UCLA Team Breakdown

UCLA has been near the top of the rankings all season, mainly because the Bruins have one of the best point guards in the country (Darren Collison), one of the best big men in the country (Kevin Love), and arguably the best coach in the country (Ben Howland).Collison is lightning-quick at both ends of the floor, and can change games with his defensive tenacity and penetration abilities. Love is dominant in the low-post, and is very difficult to stop due to his strength inside. The athletic Russell Westbrook is one of the best defensive players in the country; he constantly gets into passing lanes to intercept passes. Shipp has struggled lately, but he is a very good shooter and scorer. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can do a little of everything, but has tended to turn the ball over too much in the NCAA Tournament. James Keefe has stepped up in the NCAA Tournament; he, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real provide depth inside.

Match-up Analysis

While this may not be as up-tempo and fast-paced as the other Final Four match-up, it is certainly going to be equally as competitive. UCLA would rather play in a half-court game, while Memphis loves to pressure the ball and get up-and-down the court. Both teams are outstanding defensively, and each squad can score in a variety of ways offensively. Will UCLA get back to the national title game after falling in the semi-finals last season? Or will Memphis continue its unbelievable season into the championship game?

The key for both teams is going to be their ability to handle the other team’s defensive pressure. UCLA doesn’t press full-court, but it has aggressive guards that play the passing lanes and create steals. On the other hand, Memphis loves to pressure the ball for 94 feet, creating chaos and turnovers all over the floor. Whichever team wins that battle will have an immediate edge. For Memphis to avoid only its second loss of the season, it will first have to handle Kevin Love down low. Joey Dorsey is an excellent defensive player down low, but he tends to get in foul trouble. If he stays on the floor, he may have the strength and athleticism to cause problems for Love. They will also have to keep Russell Westbrook and Josh Shipp from getting open looks on the perimeter. If one or both of those players gets hot from the outside, it could mean trouble for the Tigers. Offensively, Memphis has to have a third option step-up. Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts are likely going to get theirs, but someone else will have to be a factor. Robert Dozier is a possibility, but an x-factor could be Shawn Taggart off the bench. He will be a match-up problem for the Bruins.

On the other side, if UCLA is going to advance to the title game, it will have to get points offensively. It sounds simple, but the Bruins might be the least explosive team left in the Tournament. Furthermore, they need to get the tempo in their favor. Although UCLA has athletes that can play transition basketball, it does not want to run with Memphis. Defensively, Darren Collison and Westbrook are outstanding defenders who might be able to slow down Rose and Douglas-Roberts offensively. If they do that, Memphis will have to find other guys to step up and UCLA will be in better shape. Offensively, UCLA needs to get the ball to Love early and often. Earlier in the season, the Bruins didn’t get the ball to him enough – against Memphis, he needs to touch the ball on nearly every possession. If he can get Dorsey into foul trouble, it could be a long day for Memphis. Furthermore, Shipp needs to start hitting shots. He has struggled in the NCAA Tournament despite a solid performance against Xavier, and would be a major boost if he can hit some threes.

In the end, I think that UCLA’s ability to control tempo and score both inside and outside consistently will be the difference. Collison and Westbrook are quick enough defensively to give Rose and Douglas-Roberts problems, and I’m not sure Memphis’ supporting cast will provide enough production to make up the difference. Love will be a huge factor down low, and might be the key advantage for the Bruins.

Prediction: UCLA 75, Memphis 71

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