For These Final Four, the Difference Is the Same: Defense

Paul McGuillicuddyAnalyst IApril 4, 2009

DETROIT - APRIL 03:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans walks on court during practice prior to the Final Four of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at Ford Field on April 3, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Sixty-one games later and here we have it—four teams.  Actually, it’s far more than 61 if you count all the single elimination conference tournaments played for an automatic bid.

To many, making the Final Four is akin to a championship.  A team wins four games from one Region and earns the honor of cutting down the nets. Thus now on this final stage in Motown stands the Huskies of Connecticut, Spartans of Michigan State, Wildcats of Villanova, and Tar Heels of North Carolina with the opportunity to grab the most prized title—NCAA champion.

The paths these four have taken not only converge at Ford Field but in the ability to present an immovable object, a resistance to the force applied.  To one degree or another the Huskies, Heels, Spartans, and Wildcats have all proved their mettle on the defensive end of the floor.

Making a claim that the Huskies get it done on defense might be one of the more obvious statements I can make.  While much of Jim Calhoun’s energy off the court has been spent defending his recruiting practices and salary, his team has continued the Husky pride in playing defense on the court.

Hasheem Thabeet averages over four blocks per game, and UConn as a team knocks away 7.8 per game to rank No. 1 in the nation.  Couple that with a 9.2 rebound margin (third in the country) and a stingy field goal percentage defense of 37.6 percent (No. 2 in the land) including 30.4 percent from the arc (18th), and the Huskies have their recipe.

UConn topped Purdue in the Regional Semi-Final 72-60.  At quick glance someone could suggest that holding any Big 10 team to 60 points is less than impressive.  But consider that the Boliermakers’ leading scorer was Robbie Hummel with 17, and to get there the Purdue sophomore needed 17 shots.  

Translation: UConn made the Boilermakers invest too many possessions to come away with too few points.  UConn held the Boilermakers to 26 percent (6-23) from long range.

Against Missouri in the Regional finals the Huskies withstood a gamey Tiger squad, 82-75.  Again, at first this could be an unimpressive number until one considers that in a combined 7:00 stretch of the second half Missouri managed three points (one field goal in four minutes and one free throw for three minutes).  The Huskies used their defense to pull away from Mike Anderson’s club.

Suggesting that the North Carolina Tar Heels proved their worth on the defensive end might raise a few eyebrows. After all, UNC has shown an acute case of "Charmin Tissue play" on the perimeter—"being squeezably soft." 

And why not?  They are No. 2 in the nation in scoring (90 ppg), No. 2 in assists (18 per game), leading to No. 1 in scoring margin (18).  Why should they play defense?  They have proven the ability to outscore weaker teams.

But Roy Williams and his Heels stepped it up when they needed.  Gonzaga came into the Regional semis averaging 40 percent from behind the arc.  Against UNC the Zags went 7-23 (or just under 30 percent).  

In the regional finals, Blake Griffin was like Ringo Starr looking to get by with “A Little Help From His Friends.”  Unfortunately for the player of the year, his Paul, John, George...and Stu (had to come up with a fourth—Beatle fans can appreciate) managed 16 points for the first 35:00 of play.  Carolina’s defense schemed to take away the rest of the lineup and succeeded.

Many wondered throughout the season if the Big Ten played solid defense as a whole, or if it was simply a case of poor offensive play.

Tom Izzo’s Spartans proved last weekend that their conference can get it done when it matters most.  Kansas came into the Regional semis averaging over 76 per game.  The Spartans held them to 62 points including 3-12 shooting behind the arc.  Eager to prove themselves as not a fluke MSU beat Louisville, 64-52—holding the Cardinals to 23 points under their average.  

MSU’s best defense might have been their offense...or at least their press offense.  The Spartans refused to give into the Cardinal press.  Subsequently, Louisville was forced to run half-court offense on a consistent basis, and MSU frustrated Louisville players time after time.

Trying to measure Villanova’s defense could be tricky.  Sure the Wildcats held Duke to 26 percent (16-of-60) from the field and Pittsburgh to 28 percent (5-of-18) from long range.  But defensive conversion might be Villanova’s most impressive trait.  The Wildcats possess the ability to take away opportunities and take opponents out of their comfort zone.

Blue Devil shooters looked annoyed having to play every possession with a Wildcat in their grill.  But more than that Duke did not get any easy layups.  

Why?  Because Villanova did not allow any such chances.  Same went for the bigger Pittsburgh Panthers.  Sure the Panthers managed 76 points, but too often DeJuan Blair was forced into shots he’d rather not have taken.

And so it comes down to force versus object.  Which will succeed?  Time for a little Motown Rebound.  

Pickin' Splinters