Final Four: Fight to the Finish

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Final Four: Fight to the Finish
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

We’ve made it.  The 2009 edition of the Final Four. I am excited. I was also terribly bored all week and am wondering why they wait so long to play the next set of games.  Even prior to the semifinals, there are four day breaks, then one day in-between games.

This is an entirely separate issue and I will ask questions later.

It is time to enjoy.

Two great matchups. I would not have felt this way two weeks ago.  I still do not know how Michigan State has even gotten past USC. They have been great to watch and they obviously have the magic of this tournament with them. 

Tom Izzo is brilliant and I am glad to see people worshipping him since the win over Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed.

Louisville was clearly the best team in the country all season long. They shellacked Arizona by 39.  An Arizona team that is far more star-studded than this Spartans squad. Kalin Lucas will play at the next level. 

Raymar Morgan has been who I thought he was and done essentially nothing all tournament long.  Goran Suton was phenomenal, but they are all overshadowed by the leader, Coach Izzo.

Arizona had three professional prospects. Michigan State has one sure thing, with a couple possibilities, and even then those are stretches.  But they are different games - college and pro.

I was also happy to see Louisville go down.  I still think I am the only person who saw Kyle Kuric dunk the basketball with three seconds left in the Arizona-Louisville game.  After, Brendon Lavender of Arizona just dribbled the ball out. 

It serves the classless Cardinals right to go out prematurely and in the fashion they did. As the best team, complaining all year long how they were not respected, yet they acted disrespectfully, then were outplayed and outcoached, and for that (while they had successes don’t get me wrong), their season is a failure in the end.

Full rosters no longer guarantee anything, and maybe they never did. North Carolina and Connecticut are not sure victories this weekend.  If Michigan State or Villanova win their semifinal, it will be an upset.

However, it will not be surprising in the least.

It is hard to go against North Carolina and Connecticut because of their depth and talent. On the other hand, it is almost equally difficult to go against the run Michigan State has made and the perseverance and play of Villanova so far. 

Once again, and hopefully there is no lesson to be learned for me, I cannot overlook the big names, the stars, the depth, the skill, the natural ability, everything—the history, of the remaining No. 1 seeds.

 

2 Mich St  v.  1 UConn

Something magical is happening with the Spartans this season. A lot of people doubted them all season while some credited them. I have been a huge doubter. I still am. I am ready to call Coach Izzo coach of the tournament. I still have many uncertainties with the players.

Will Goran Suton do today what he did last weekend?  Will Raymar Morgan get out of bed?  Durrell Summers is their key, but Raymar Morgan has the opportunity to do something great.

Kalin Lucas will get his and while he could score more, we know they will not score over 70 so his regular output should suffice...if everything else goes right. That is asking a lot but it has happened all tournament; why would it stop now?

If Izzo does it again and creates an ingenious game plan and gets the best of his players, Michigan State has a great shot at winning. Another major (and I think most important after Izzo) factor will be the crowd.

Before everyone started mentioning the idea of a team playing in the Final Four in their home state after the Louisville upset, I had never thought of the idea.

I never gave Michigan State a second look when I had my thoughts on the bracket. I was not alone. I also do not think Michigan State cares about anyone but themselves.  This is how they should carry themselves this weekend.

Watching their amazing run that could very well go on, I do not think they are very motivated to shut people like me up. I think they are doing their own thing—staying, fighting, playing, and most importantly winning with their own guys all by themselves in their own locker-room. No distractions. No issues. Just the Spartans.

Finally, I think the crowd can be a huge advantage. The question is will Michigan State use it? The crowd cannot win the game alone, and the players cannot either. Together they can, and I have a little fear that they will.

Connecticut: So strong and seasoned. So intelligent and mature. The program does it right, and the 08/09 version has been no different. Like every opponent they have faced, not only all season but in the tournament, Michigan State will be overmatched.

It is highly unlikely that Goran Suton can contain and get his offense against Hasheem Thabeet.  And if he does, then what?  Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe come to his aid and take care of the other big dawgs?  No.

Stanley Robinson has emerged and become a big part, literally and figuratively, of the Huskies. If, and it’s a big one, Hasheem Thabeet is somehow contained (I doubt he will be, and if he is, it will only be one way.

He will dominate at least one end of the floor), there are two other beasts to worry the home team.

Jeff Adrien has probably been the most underrated player all year.  He is their best rebounder and he is sure to get ten of them a game. With his emergence, Robinson only adds even more height, strength, defense and offense to the Huskies.

Suton cannot and will not stop or contain Thabeet. How then can he contain three very good big men?  It is an impossible task. Even if he gets help from his friends, they will still be much overmatched.

A.J. Price is better than Kalin Lucas and can score when he wants. Kemba Walker, the kid I have been raving about all tournament, did his thing and showed everyone what he can do. Now people are talking about him.

Michigan State is overmatched in every aspect other than coaching (I’ll call it a draw) and noise.  The crowd will be raucous and add an interesting component to an already intriguing match-up. 

Intriguing not because these teams are close to one another (Connecticut is vastly better), but because Michigan State has showed that none of that matters. Everything I just wrote is meaningless to them whether they have read it or not. I expect them to be wrong. Finally.

 

3 Villanova  v.  1 UNC

In another case of one team being much better than the other, I expect the same outcome. Blake Griffin absolutely manhandled the Tar Heels as he did every team this season, including his own which I’m sure he did in practice every day. 

Not only is Blake Griffin better than everyone, but his compliments are also superior to those of Dante Cunningham. Not to mention Cunningham is not half of Blake Griffin.

Scottie Reynolds’ last second layup to win the game versus Pittsburgh was great.  Coast-to-coast and up over the top of a really weak defender in Gilbert Brown. People have called on the referees who seem to have taken over the game, but that was just bad. Brown did not even get off the ground.

The Panthers would have been better off fouling him earlier instead of letting Villanova blow right by them; and putting Reynolds on the line in a high pressure situation. Plus, they would get their own desperation heave at the final horn.

I am not surprised Villanova has reached the Final Four. Of course, I did not pick them to make the national semifinals, but I did pick Pitt to lose when they did. I did not foresee Duke having one of its worst tournament games ever and by far its worst showing of the entire season versus Villanova in the Sweet 16.

I thought Pitt would falter sometime (and before the other three No. 1s) and they did, but to the wrong team. Villanova has been impressive, but the win versus Duke could be single-handedly attributed to very, very poor shooting on the Blue Devils’ part.

Villanova plays better defense than people think they do. That could have helped cause Duke to shoot a ghastly 26 percent total and 18 percent from three, but not much of it. 

The same could be said at the end of the Pitt game, where DeJuan Blair and the Panthers finally did not take over late in the game and put it out of reach.

Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham are Villanova’s go-to guys.  Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson are also good. 

Reggie Redding can have good nights any time it seems, but good performance and contribution is not guaranteed from him. Redding is their x-factor, and their defense will be their key. If the Tar Heels shoot poorly, there could be a similar fate for another ACC club.

I love that Tyler Hansbrough is no longer a great, even good player.  His one “good” tournament game versus Gonzaga means nothing because it was in a rout (he had 24 and 10).

He has gotten in to foul trouble early, which has definitely contributed to him getting off to slow starts, but I do not understand why people are all of a sudden low on him, and even talking negatively about him.

He already garners enough criticism because it is known he will not be the player he is in college at the next level. So what. He came back to school to win a national championship. I would rather have him on my team than anyone else.

His personality and passion are unmatched, all-time.

For the record, he has gotten eight fouls called on him during all four games combined; that is a non-issue.  He has also only fouled out twice in his career, once this season versus Duke, and once his sophomore year. 

As long as he does not grab his second foul before 10 minutes have elapsed, he should be O.K. to play good minutes. He will not foul out but he does need to be on the floor, which is obvious. People have commented on the subject overwhelmingly so I felt like addressing it correctly.

In the case that Tyler does not get 20 and 8 and plays horribly, there are Ed Davis (who is also finally getting some mention nationally) and Deon Thompson.  And then Danny Green. All can rebound if that is what is needed of them.

Davis does that regardless.  Thompson should rebound more but he can score as well and play good defense.  Wayne Ellington is a scorer and Ty Lawson is playing like MOP.

Let’s keep talking about Ty Lawson. Opposite Hansbrough, Lawson is getting most of the credit now. It is acceptable as he has been great.

However, anyone who says they have always liked him as much as they do now and that they thought he was a top two guard in the country back in November is lying through their teeth. 

Even Roy Williams, but he has not said it, because he would not lie.

It is great for Lawson, but it is funny to me to see people abandon one guy (Tyler) and embrace another so quickly. It is quite cruel. If North Carolina wins the Championship, it will be remembered as Ty Lawson’s year. Hansbrough will not be forgotten, but he certainly will not be remembered as he should be. This saddens me greatly.

 

Last year’s Final Four was new, interesting, and generally enjoyable because all of the top seeds made it, which surprisingly had never happened before. This year is even better. We have got what could be described as a powerful Cinderella or more sensibly: a powerful underdog/neutral fan fav. 

There is a dark horse that looks to repeat history.  And arguably the most storied program with returning veteran players on a mission.  The same can be said for another except they are doing it shorthanded and with an ill coach who they adore.

This Sunday, in the wake of the National Championship Game, I expect the nation to find it right back where it started: With the top two ranked teams in the preseason poll standing alone opposite each other. 

North Carolina will be the favorite (remember they received all 103 first place votes too) as usual. Nonetheless, I expect a great game no matter who is favored and no matter who is playing who after the spectacular games we are sure to witness today.

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