Here at the Carnival, we're coached to accentuate and draw attention to those predictions that we happen to be dead-on-balls accurate about. When we're wrong we change the subject, obfuscate, or write about film. I didn't get the memo on writing about being dumped but damn that's entertaining shit any way you slice it. But back to being right, like any good carny, when I make an accurate prediction like predicting the top four basketball teams back on January 7th I'll scream it from the rooftops. And just before the Sugar Bowl I was dreaming when I wrote this:
Since no one can tell me who the best college football team is, let’s try another sport.
Is it UNC after a ballsy comeback win in overtime on the road at Clemson? They’ve got a great inside/outside one-two punch of Hansborough and Law, surrounded by uber-talented wing players like Ellington, Ginyard, and Green. They just strike me at this point as having too many chiefs and not enough Indians to be considered the best team in the country. Oh, and by the way, they hadn’t beaten anyone worth a flip until last night. They’re 4th on my list.
Is it UCLA? They’ve got two signature wins on the road at Stanford and at Michigan State. Their only hiccup was at home to an upstart Texas team in Collison’s first game back from injury. They’re probably the best coached out of the top 4 and will be one of the toughest outs in the tourney with the way they play defense combined with their offensive balance. Still, I don’t think they have enough shooters to punish a good zone team and you can’t ignore the loss. I’ll put them at 3.
Is it Kansas? They’ve been steamrolling everyone on their schedule with the exception of OJ Mayo’s USC team, where they escaped Southern California with a come from behind win in a low scoring 59 to 55 game. It makes you wonder how tough this team really is, especially when it goes against comparable athletes that are well coached. Remember the UCLA loss in the tourney last year? But my lord, they’re oozing experienced talent. If they can keep sharing the basketball, Self’s team might make a run. But, they’re still number 2 on my list.
I think Memphis is the best team in the country. Chris Douglass Roberts and freshman phenom Derrick Rose are the best backcourt in the nation. And they have a solid defensive interior that stymied a good Georgetown frontcourt. Players like Joey Dorsey who are great on defense and can score as well make them a unique team. Somehow Calipari has gotten all this talent to really get after it on the defense end, and share the basketball on offense. They have two really nice wins, kicking the crap out of a big defensive juggernaut like Georgetown and defensively smothering a offensively talented Arizona club. The thing I like best is that each individual on the team seems to know his role better than most teams with this much talent, so you don’t have to worry about options 2 and 3 shooting you out of games because he "feels it". See Kansas and North Carolina. They’re my early prediction to win it all.
Not bad, you say. Well you're right, just don't ruin it by looking at my brackets. Let's pretend I picked the final four, and move right on to the previews and predictions of this weekend's games in San Antonio. It'll be an unprecedented battle of 4 number 1 seeds which should be as epic as the ending in Love, Actually.
UCLA vs Memphis
In my Memphis postmortem, I typed about the need to have bigger guards when facing teams with elite size and strength in the backcourt. I also mentioned that teams need to be able to challenge Memphis in the paint to take advantage of their interior players' propensity to foul as well as force the long athletic perimeter defenders to sink and help the post instead of just being able to roam the arc for steals and run outs. Guess what? We'll get to see both of the key ingredients Texas was lacking when the Bruins' come to the Alamo city. It's two things you absolutely have to have if you're going to take the Tigers down. On to the matchups.
Russell Westbrook vs. Derrick Rose
Josh Shipp vs Chris Douglass-Roberts (CDR)
Darren Collison vs. Antonio Anderson
A team like Memphis becomes almost impossible to defend when their guards can take two dribbles inside the arc and simply pull up knowing your lilliputian guards can't contest any of a wide variety of shots. And that's what CDR and Derrick Rose will do to any team that starts a tandem of sub 6-1 guards. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Bruins bring to bear two terrific sized perimeter defenders in Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook who go 6-5 and 6-3 respectively. Shipp matches up very well with the slightly built 6-7 scoring machine CDR and Westbrook is quick enough and big enough to bother the great lead guard Derrick Rose. The Bruins stellar defensive tandem allows Howland to keep his best scoring guard and floor general Darren Collison off of either of the Tigers' perimeter world-beaters.
The risk is exposing matchup problems with the shorter Collison on 6-6 Anderson. But the risk can be managed by allowing Collison to play softer on Anderson, in more of a helpside position, while enticing deep jumpers because he shoots just 33% from deep. Against elite offensive teams you must pick your poison, and the poison I'd choose is Antonio Anderson shooting deep or backing down my star guard as opposed to Derrick Rose shooting deep and backing down my star guard. It's similar to Duke choosing George Ackels instead of Hunt, Anthony, Augmon, or Johnson in the '91 Duke UNLV game.
When we flip ends of the floor, you'll see similar strategy out of Calipari. He'll undoubtedly elect for Antonio Anderson to be on Darren Collison for the exact same reasons we'll see Westbrook on Rose. But Rose will have to be careful because Westbrook is a capable slashing threat unlike Anderson. Don't be surprised to see Westbrook on the ball offensively in an effort to pick up some cheap fouls on Rose.
CDR will undoubtedly be on Shipp, which will be advantage Tigers considering Shipp's shooting woes. With Josh being 2-14 from deep in the tourney, CDR won't need to contest as aggressively, which allows him to help a bit more on Love down low or on Collison or Westbrook penetration. Shipp will have to hit a couple early bombs to make CDR play honestly, otherwise UCLA is going to struggle some in its halfcourt offense. If it wasn't for Shipp's inability to hit from deep, the backcourt matchup would be stone cold even, but instead I'll call it advantage Memphis.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute vs. Robert Dozier
Kevin Love vs. Joey Dorsey
This is where UCLA has to make its money. The foul susceptibility of Memphis' big men is well chronicled and the last thing the Tigers want to do is get in a war of attrition with UCLA's frontcourt. Memphis isn't deep here, and they certainly don't want to sacrifice perimeter pressure for helping and recovering to shooters after Love catches it low. It's a recipe for fouling and tired legs at the end of the ballgame.
Look for Mbah a Moute to play a huge role in this game. First, as the forgotten man, he'll be a screener and cutter when UCLA is trying to get the ball to Love in the low post. Look for backcuts out of Mbah a Moute when Love lifts to the high post with Memphis focusing its attention on the freshman star. When Love does catch it down low, Mbah a Moute can dive to the goal for an interior pass because Dozier will come to help from the weakside. On Love shots or shots coming off of Love kickouts, Mbah a Moute will have a huge advantage getting to the offensive glass given the likelihood that a helping Dozier is out of position.
If the Tigers decide not to help, Love can really hurt the undisciplined Dorsey and Dozier, because they don't play really good position defense, relying mostly on strength and athleticism.
Flipping the court, I think Dozier, with his versatility, can provide some inside/out problems for Mbah a Moute. The problem Memphis has is Love doesn't need to work on the defensive end. He can essentially play a one man zone in the paint because of his size. This allows him to erase penetration to the extent the trailing defenders get to the glass. Memphis' lack of post game will really put them in a bind in this game. Allowing Love some rest without having to body on the defensive end is a huge luxury.
As much as the Texas matchup was good for Memphis, a matchup with the Bruins is equally as bad. To beat the Tigers you must have size on the perimeter and the ability to score in the paint. UCLA has both in spades. And that doesn't even address the Tigers' inability to hit from the foul line which will be huge in game that will likely come down to a difference of 2 or 3 possessions. I really like UCLA in the game because of their ability to match up defensively. In the Tigers' only loss on the year vs. Tennessee both teams defended well which resulted in both teams shooting poorly. Tennessee was a mediocre 12-18 from the line while Memphis was 8-17. That was the difference and it'll be the difference on Saturday. 69-65 Bruins.
North Carolina vs. Kansas
Roy Williams vs. his old club will certainly be a theme for the weekend for the talking heads. Not for me though. I'll be watching for what should be a record performance in scoring with two teams that love to get up and down and take quick shots. Jim Nance better drink some coffee. Another intriguing story is the interest that Oklahoma State has shown in hiring away Bill Self. We'll learn a lot about the Kansas coach this weekend especially if his team gets bounced on Saturday because you know "those questions" will be swirling.
Ty Lawson vs. Russell Robinson/Sherrod Collins
Wayne Ellington vs. Mario Chalmers
Marcus Ginyard vs. Brandon Rush
Kansas certainly has the defensive horses to keep Lawson from getting to the paint relentlessly. I expect Robinson or Collins to play soft on Lawson, daring him to shoot the basketball. The key will be forcing UNC to run some half court. I thought Pitino did his kids a huge disservice by pressing Carolina allowing runouts on made shots. You won't see that from Kansas' and its backcourt, job 1 will be to stop transition. In halfcourts and breaks alike, however, Ginyard and Ellington are blazing 3 point shooters and must be contested and closed out on aggressively. I think Rush and Chalmers can chase the UNC wings off of jumpers, but lending help to their interior mates defending Hansbrough will be difficult.
On defense, UNC has played porous at times on the perimeter, nearly allowing Louisville to shoot its way back into the game. Unlike Carolina's perimeter, Kansas will be able to put slashing, penetrating guards on the floor at any given time, two of which shoot it at over 40%. UNC's perimeter offense doesn't put nearly as much pressure on the opponent because it's comprised of two jump shooters and a penetrate first point guard. The Kansas backcourt has the advantage here.
Tyler Hansbrough vs. Darnell Jackson
Danny Green vs Darrell Arthur
Jackson and Arthur will certainly have a difficult time going up against UNC's big front court on the low block. But each can step out to 15 feet and shoot it, so this might give the Tarheel frontcourt some trouble if the Jayhawk bigs are hitting. More concerning for the Tarheel big men, however, will be slashing and penetrating Kansas guards looking to drive and dish and drive and kick. UNC has to do a good job of playing sound on dribble drives by forcing midrange pullups instead of fouling at the rim.
On offense, I think it's a catch 22 for the UNC offense. On one hand, patience certainly guarantees them a good shot on the offensive end considering Hansbrough's matchup difficulty on the block. The problem is the Tarheels are a running team and have a tendency to settle for jumpshots at the expense of Hansbrough. Look for Kansas to throw bodies at the Player of the Year, and hope guys like Ginyard, Lawson, and Ellington settle for jumpers before getting it to their horse down low. The X factor for the Heels is Danny Green who can step out and hit from 3 (38%) on the year. His ability to shoot it can pull Kansas frontcourt help away from Hansbrough and isolate the big forward inside.
I think the game will be determined by which team can play to its strengths and avoid the opponent's enticements to play differently. Will UNC be patient enough to involve Hansbrough as much as possible or will younger players "settle" when Tyler isn't available immediately? Will Kansas guards probe and seek out good shots for teammates and be unselfish with the basketball each possession, or will they get caught up in an up and down quick shot tempo-d game? I like the more experienced Jayhawks to play more to their style and get the Heels a bit out of their comfort zone by forcing younger Tarheels to beat them. It'll be close regardless of style but I like the experience and leadership of Rush, Chalmers, and Collins to carry the Hawks in a classic. 85-82 Kansas.
Your thoughts and predictions?