Monday, April 7, 2008

National Championship Preview: Memphis vs. Kansas

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The game everyone has been talking about since March Madness started. Memphis and Kansas were clearly two of the top teams in the country all season long, and they have each proven that over the past five games. One may not think that the Tigers and Jayhawks are the two best teams in the country, but they have been the best the past couple of weeks – and ultimately, that’s what matters. Hopefully, this will be the perfect climax to a Big Dance that has lacked for exciting games in the last few rounds. Enjoy the conclusion to the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here

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. The Final Four came next, as did UCLA. Many expected the Bruins’ outstanding defensive duo of Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook to slow down Memphis’ perimeter game, but Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts combined for 53 points as the Tigers jumped out to an early lead which they extended in the second half. Memphis’ overall athleticism and size advantage at various positions across the court was really the key to the game for the Tigers. Furthermore, their ability to get fast-break opportunities and not allow the Bruins to set their defense was a major factor, as was UCLA’s inability to get star big man Kevin Love the ball enough. Memphis is the first team to win 38 games – they want one more, though.

Kansas had not been the most dominant one seed for much of the NCAA Tournament, but it won three of its first four games by double-digits and demonstrated why it deserved a top-seed. The Jayhawks opened the Tournament with an easy win over the champions from the Big Sky, Portland State. Against UNLV in the second round, it was a relatively close game for most of the contest, but Kansas pulled away down the stretch for a 19-point victory. The Sweet Sixteen brought a No. 12 seed in Villanova. This time, Kansas jumped out to an early lead in the first half and never looked back en route to a 15-point win. The Elite Eight brought Cinderella team Davidson, and the Wildcats nearly knocked off Kansas. A back-and-forth game was not decided until Jason Richards’ last-second three was off the mark. KU won by two, which advanced it to the Final Four for the first time in the Bill Self era. The Jayhawks’ struggles to beat Davidson put many people on the North Carolina bandwagon heading into the two teams’ Final Four battle – a contest that had storylines abound in the days leading up to the game. However, Kansas was a completely different team than anyone had seen all season, as it jumped out to a 28-point lead in the first-half before North Carolina slowly began chipping back. The Tar Heels eventually cut the lead to four, but they seemingly ran out of energy and couldn’t get over the hump. Kansas then went on a run of its own to put the game out of reach. The Jayhawks have one more hurdle to leap.

Five Key Questions

1. Can Kansas’ guards slow down the high-scoring Memphis backcourt? Heading into its game against UCLA on Saturday, the key match-up was obviously UCLA’s perimeter defense against the duo of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Many thought Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook could contain them; that was completely off-base. Rose constantly got to the basket on whoever was guarding him, while CDR was able to score in a variety of ways. The Jayhawks have a group of very good defensive guards, including Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers. However, both are 6-1 – the exact aspect of Collison that Memphis took advantage of. Brandon Rush has the height and length to give Douglas-Roberts problems, but Kansas needs to keep Rose out of the lane.

2. Will Joey Dorsey and the Memphis big men stay out of foul trouble? For much of the season, foul trouble has proven to be a problem for the Tigers, especially on the interior. Dorsey is one of the best interior defenders and rebounders in the country, but he has a propensity to get into early foul trouble. Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart both struggle in that area as well. However, the three did a solid job of staying on the floor against Kevin Love and UCLA. Dorsey and Taggart both picked up three fouls, but the trio combined for 79 minutes of floor time. Darrell Arthur leads a deep and talented Kansas frontline; Memphis needs its big men – especially Dorsey – to be on the court.

3. Will either team be able to consistently knock down three-pointers? Although both teams are extremely balanced and can score in a variety of ways, both inside and outside, each squad needs to be able to hit its three-pointers in order to win the game. Both teams shot just 33 percent from behind the arc in their semifinal wins, but the winner will have to do better on Monday night. On the season, Kansas hit nearly 40 percent of its attempts, while Memphis – who shot almost 200 more threes than Kansas – knocked down just 35 percent from deep. Both teams love getting up and down the court, and transition threes get momentum going in a hurry. However, both teams need to be able to hit them in a half-court setting as well.

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. Memphis might be the deepest team in the country, and Shawn Taggart has been a huge factor in the NCAA Tournament. He is a tough match-up due to his size, athleticism and length down low. Three-point marksman Doneal Mack could make a difference too. On the other side, Sherron Collins is one of the best sixth men in the nation – he played 30 minutes against North Carolina. He is tough to defend. Cole Aldrich was a factor against the Tar Heels; he and Sasha Kaun need to make plays inside.

5. Who will be the go-to-guy to step up down the stretch? Neither team got to this point by riding one player. Memphis has options galore up-and-down the roster, but it relies on two players when it counts. Derrick Rose is one of the most difficult point guards in the country to defend because of his size and strength, while Chris Douglas-Roberts might have been the best pure scorer at the Final Four. One of those two will get the ball down the stretch. For Kansas, this category is even more important. The Jayhawks were arguably the most balanced team in the country, but they never established a go-to-guy. Brandon Rush can score in different ways; Mario Chalmers can shoot clutch threes and get to the basket; and Sherron Collins might be the best one-on-one player they have. One of them will have to step up at the end of the game and get a basket.

Team and Player Breakdowns


Memphis was ranked as the preseason No. 1 in several polls, including mine, and the Tigers did not disappoint those that pegged them as the top team in the country. They jumped out to a 26-0 record before falling at home to Tennessee late in the game – a loss that might have spurred on their run to the title game. The Tigers love to get out and push the pace all game, creating offense with their defense and pressuring teams into turnovers. They limit second-chances, which propels their fast-break, enabling them to get transition points and momentum.

Memphis has one of the best perimeter duos in the country in freshman point guard Derrick Rose and junior wing Chris Douglas-Roberts. Rose is a premier point guard although he tends to make freshmen mistakes at times. He came into college as an extremely highly-rated lead guard and has been one of the best playmakers in the country. He is nearly impossible to keep out of the lane when he wants to penetrate because of his size, strength and quickness. Rose can shoot the ball from the perimeter, but is much more efficient when driving to the basket and creating for himself and his teammates. Douglas-Roberts became one of the better scorers in the nation with his ability to finish in a variety of ways. The Tigers had lacked a go-to scorer at the start of the year, but CDR clearly stepped into that role. He was arguably the best pure scorer at the Final Four due to his offensive versatility. He can shoot the ball from deep, knock down a mid-range jumper or take his defender to the basket. He can finish with both hands and has an arsenal of acrobatic finishes. Antonio Anderson contributes in different ways, whether it is distributing and handling the ball, or knocking down three-pointers. He can also defend on the perimeter and gets transition baskets regularly. Doneal Mack is a very good three-point shooter who can get hot in a hurry from behind the arc. Willie Kemp started at point guard last season and sees minutes off the bench at both guard spots. Andre Allen was suspended for the semifinals for violating team rules and will likely miss the title game as well.

Up front, Memphis isn’t as deep but it still has plenty of talent and options. Robert Dozier has shown flashes of his potential but has not been consistent throughout the season. He can score in a variety of ways, by posting-up defenders or driving to the basket from the top of the key. Dozier is somewhat inconsistent offensively but he is clearly talented enough to have a big game at any given time. Joey Dorsey might be the best interior defender-rebounder combination player in the country. He is an outstanding shot-blocker who can change games with his ability to defend. He also averages almost 10 rebounds per game, but has had trouble with fouls for much of his career. Offensively, he shoots over 65 percent from the field but isn’t a consistent option. For example, he had 15 rebounds in the semifinals but also finished with zero points. If he stays on the floor, his size and strength make him tough to tangle with down low. Shawn Taggart is a very solid scorer and rebounder who has shown flashes of his skill. He has come on very strong in the NCAA Tournament, demonstrating an ability to finish around the rim as well as stepping out and attempting a couple of jumpers. He is athletic and long, and can make plays inside.


Kansas was in most people’s top-five heading into the season, and played like one of the best teams in the country all season long. KU started the season at 19-0 before struggling somewhat and losing three of its next seven. It hasn’t lost since. The Jayhawks are clearly one of the most talented and balanced teams in the nation, which makes them difficult to defend offensively despite their lack of a true go-to-guy. Defensively, they force turnovers with their outstanding perimeter defenders and get transition points.

It all starts on the perimeter for the Jayhawks, who have one of the most talented and deepest backcourts groups of anyone in the country. Brandon Rush is an outstanding scorer who can get points in a variety of ways, but sometimes lacks aggressiveness. He has the ability to knock down deep perimeter shots, but is at his best when taking defenders off the dribble and shooting mid-range jumpers. His length enables him to get to the basket finish around the rim as well. Sometimes, though, he tends to be too unselfish and defers to his teammates too often. Mario Chalmers is one of the best two-way players in the country. He can score from the perimeter consistently, and has proven that he can make clutch shots when given the chance. Chalmers can also get to the basket off of penetration. Defensively, Chalmers has quick hands and racks up steals very quickly. The third starter, Russell Robinson does not appear as often as the other two do in highlight reels, but he plays as much of a role as they do. He is one of the best defenders in the country, and has forced scorers from coast-to-coast into difficult nights from the floor against the Jayhawks. He is also a very good floor leader and can score in bunches if needed. Even though he comes off the bench, Sherron Collins might be the most talented and explosive of them all. He is very strong and can get into the lane on anyone in the nation, and he has the athleticism to finish above the rim. He is not afraid to take a big shot and has the ball in his hands at key times.

While the Jayhawks’ perimeter group gets most of the headlines, don’t sleep on the frontcourt. Darrell Arthur is one of the more talented forwards in the country, and has shown flashes of his potential throughout the year. He has been called a first-round, or even lottery, pick by several scouts, but needs to become more consistent and dominant to reach that lofty goal. He has a nice variety of inside moves, but he gets into foul trouble at times and is also not very aggressive down low. Darnell Jackson really improved this season, and became an offensive threat inside instead of just a banger who can get rebounds and garbage points down low. His development has been one of the keys for this Jayhawks team this year. Sasha Kaun started last year, but has come off the bench this season. He is experienced and can contribute in a number of categories down low. Cole Aldrich is a talented big man who needs some seasoning to truly become a consistent factor. However, he played very well against North Carolina and is a solid defender, rebounder and finisher.

Match-up Analysis

Derrick Rose vs. Russell Robinson: This is going to be one of the key match-ups of the game. Rose was the best point guard in the country over the past few weeks, but Robinson is a lockdown defender who will try to contain him. Advantage: Memphis

Antonio Anderson vs. Mario Chalmers: Both players can do a variety of things on the court, and will be factors. Anderson is the consummate role player, while Chalmers is a playmaker at both ends of the floor. Advantage: Kansas

Chris Douglas-Roberts vs. Brandon Rush: What a match-up on the wing. Both players are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, with Douglas-Roberts utterly unstoppable lately. Rush is developing into a go-to-guy, but he will have his hands-full with CDR. Advantage: Memphis

Robert Dozier vs. Darrell Arthur: Two very talented players that don’t always play to their potential. Dozier can do a variety of things, while Arthur might be the key for Kansas. He needs to get the ball in position to score, and then execute inside. Advantage: Kansas

Joey Dorsey vs. Darnell Jackson: Another interesting match-up. Dorsey is extremely strong down low, but Jackson will not back down from him and has the ability to hold his own inside. Jackson is a solid offensive option; will Dorsey do anything at that end? Advantage: Memphis

Memphis Bench vs. Kansas Bench: Both teams are deep on the bench, and can really bring difference-makers into the game off the pine. Shawn Taggart is the main man for Memphis, but Doneal Mack can shoot and Willie Kemp can handle. Kansas’ Sherron Collins is outstanding, but Sasha Kaun is a former starters and Cole Aldrich has been solid lately. Advantage: Even

John Calipari vs. Bill Self: Both coaches have done great jobs this year, when it comes to juggling ample amounts of talent and keeping chemistry a positive instead of a negative. Calipari continues to be able to get “non-BCS” teams to the Final Four, while Self finally got the monkey off his back and advanced to the Final Four. Neither coach has won a championship before, but Calipari has done a great job of exploiting the right match-ups lately. Advantage: Memphis

Who's Going to Win and Why

This game is going to be outstanding. After Saturday's Final Four contests, I sure hope it is. For the second year in a row, it is a No. 1 vs. a No. 1 – although that was a foregone conclusion given what the Final Four was comprised of. Both teams are obviously extremely talented, with future pros up and down the respective rosters, and have been tested all season. The two teams have combined for just four losses all season, and neither team wants to drop another one. I’m expecting a terrific battle.

If Memphis is going to continue its dream season, it will need to do several things in order to get the win. First, it will need to get big games from Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts again. Both players were unbelievable in the semifinals and have really carried the team over the past couple of weeks. They need to continue to be aggressive and get off to good starts. Furthermore, a third option will have to step up. If those two get bottled up or at least slowed down, someone else has to be able to contribute offensively. Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier are candidates. As for free-throw shooting, as long as Rose or CDR have the ball late, it won’t be a factor. Defensively, Joey Dorsey needs to stay on the floor. He was a major factor against UCLA and Kevin Love, and has the ability to dominate the boards at both ends of the floor against Kansas. The Jayhawks struggle to rebound the ball at times; Dorsey needs to take advantage of that, but he can only do that if he stays out of foul trouble. Furthermore, the Tigers need to force turnovers and get easy baskets. Kansas had 19 turnovers against North Carolina, and can be prone to careless passes. Memphis needs to take advantage of that, so they can push the pace and get transition offense.

On the other side, Kansas also has to do a variety of things if it wants to win the national championship. The key will be its defense. The Jayhawks have plenty of individual defensive talent on the perimeter – but so did UCLA, and we all saw what happened when they tried to guard Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Slowing those two down should be number one on the priority list for KU. Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush have a tough assignment. The Jayhawks also need to rebound the ball and limit second opportunities for Memphis. Kansas has struggled at times to grab defensive boards, but it needs to make sure to rebound and not allow Memphis to get multiple chances at points. Furthermore, competing for offensive boards slows down Memphis’ transition game. Offensively, Kansas has to get the ball down low to Darrell Arthur and the other big men early and often. Arthur got several touches at the outset of the North Carolina game, and converted for baskets inside. However, the Jayhawks’ guards sometimes forget about him in the paint and he does not get involved in the offense. Kansas also needs to take care of the ball and not give Memphis easy baskets. The Tigers’ thrive on turnovers and mistakes, and the Jayhawks had a problem with that against North Carolina. They can’t have a repeat of that.

As a stark contrast to the previous two Final Four games, I have a feeling this game is going to come down to the final minutes. Both teams are loaded all over their rosters, and they have both been excellent since the outset of the season. However, I’m going with the team I picked No. 1 at the beginning of the season – Memphis. Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts have been unstoppable lately, and they have the scoring ability to overcome Kansas’ defensive pressure, while Joey Dorsey will control the inside. Too many turnovers and not enough outside shots late in the game will be Kansas’ downfall as John Calipari will get his first national championship.

Prediction: Memphis 78, Kansas 74

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