For the first time in Tournament history, all four #1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four. This development should lead to one of the most competitive, well-played weekends in recent memory. Obviously, the big storylines have been about Roy Williams playing his former team or the battle of big-time point guards. But, I think the big story for tonight's games will be the play of Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love.
On the surface, Memphis seems to have a big edge in athleticism and speed. Their perimeter players, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose are a much more potent combo than the Bruins' Josh Shipp and Darren Collison. Shipp has been struggling since February, scoring in double-figures just six times. Collison is more than capable of heating up on offense, but UCLA will likely need Shipp's production so the Tigers don't double off onto Russell Westbrook or Collison. CDR and Rose have been nothing short of amazing in the Tournament, and it will be up to Westbrook, one of the game's premier defenders, to shut down Rose. CDR will likely be defended by long-armed Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Memphis loves to attack the basket as its 3-point shooting is weak. The Tigers would love to get Mbah a Moute or Love in foul trouble because the Bruins' depth up front is lacking. Backups Mata-Real, Aboya, and Keefe are not offensive players. They rely on defense primarily, maybe getting a few putbacks here or there. Taking away Love would severely hamper UCLA's offensive options, especially if Shipp can't find his shot.
For the Bruins, they will look to take advantage of their superior defense. Westbrook has been an amazing defender all year, routinely shutting down the opponent's best player. His play on Rose will be crucial. Disrupting Rose, forcing the freshman into turnovers would be helpful. Backup point Andre Allen is suspended for the weekend so Rose will have to play more minutes. Rather, if he exits, the Tigers will have to slide Anderson, Roberts, or Kemp over to the 1. That would only help the Bruins because I can't see the Tigers' offense running nearly as smoothly without Rose.
The biggest thing to watch for early will be how Love fares down low. He'll be matched primarily with Joey Dorsey. But, I'm sure Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart will slide over at times. These three big bodies will do their best to shut down Love, but few teams, no matter how big, have completed this task in 2008. Love is a master on the offensive glass, creating multiple opportunities for the Bruin offense. He can also force Dorsey away from the lane with his 3-point ability. It may not look pretty, but it goes in 36% of the time.
When it comes down to it, I'm sticking with my pre-Tourney prediction. UCLA wins behind its superior defense in a low-scoring affair.
Both of these teams goes solidly nine deep so expect a much faster game than the early contest. Each coach can play multiple lineups with different matchups that should create an interesting chess match. The Jayhawks can throw Darnell Jackson, Darrell Arthur, Sasha Kaun, and Cole Aldrich on the frontline to defend Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, and Alex Stepheson. In the backcourt, UNC can go big with Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard or go small with Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Kansas has big guards in Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush to go along with smaller guards Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson.
The big question here: can Kansas stop the runaway train that is North Carolina? The Heels have rolled through the tournament, winning by 39, 31, 21, and 10. They've played great defense, great offense, and done so at a slower pace than normal. Hansbrough, recently named the AP Player of the Year, should have no problem getting his 20 and 10. Teams rarely shut him down and I can't see Jackson or Arthur staying out of foul trouble. Hansbrough goes to the line a la Karl Malone. Everytime you look up, he seems to be shooting free throws.
However, Hansbrough is weak on defense. This is where Arthur and Jackson must step up. They are both bigger and stronger than Hansbrough and need to take advantage of it. Much like Love, Kansas needs to get Hansbrough in early foul trouble to force UNC into using its bench. They are deep in the backcourt, but they have to go small on their frontcourt bench. Kansas only gets bigger when going to Kaun or Aldrich. This size should come in handy on the glass.
A big matchup problem could be UNC's Danny Green. His size and versatility allows to create mismatches. He excels on the offensive glass where he can use his speed against bigger defenders and his size against smaller ones. Brandon Rush may be the best option against Green, but he occasionally will take plays off and seem to coast. If he gets caught napping tonight, Green will no doubt take advantage.
The Jayhawks two-headed PG of Collins and Robinson needs to wear down Lawson. Full-court pressure will tire him while the Jayhawks can alternate guards. Force the Heels to use Quentin Thomas who is about 1/10th the player Lawson is. He turns the ball over easily against pressure and doesn't always read the court as well. Collins could be an all-conference performer elsewhere. At Kansas, he comes off the bench. What an option that is for Coach Self. His bowling-ball frame, combined with his quickness, helps him get to the hole and finish.
The Jayhawks must use Collins and Rush to push the tempo and keep the Heels off the offensive glass to win. However, Carolina is simply playing too well for them to be pushed around by Kansas. I see Deon Thompson stepping up on the offensive weak side and Carolina winning.