Final Four Preview & Picks

The Final Four is set. Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, it looked like we might end up with three or four Big East teams heading to Detroit, but Syracuse was blown out by Oklahoma on Friday and Louisville was upended by Michigan State yesterday. So while the Big East has two teams (UConn and Villanova), both the Big Ten (MSU) and the ACC (North Carolina) are represented.

What do these four teams have in common?

They all have a good point guard — North Carolina’s Ty Lawson, Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds, UConn’s A.J. Price and Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas.

It’s often said that guard play is a key component to NCAA success, and this year’s Final Four supports that thinking. Louisville, Missouri and Oklahoma all had some backcourt issues throughout the season (and the tournament) and it’s no coincidence that they ultimately lost to teams with a great point guard.

Let’s take a closer look at each of Saturday’s games…


Tip-Off: 6:07 PM
Sagarin Ratings: UConn (94.40), Michigan State (89.39)
Line: UConn -4

With Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson, UConn might have the most imposing front line in the country. Thabeet averages 4.3 blocks per game, while Adrien and Robinson are two strong forwards who can score inside and rebound like crazy. A.J. Price anchors the backcourt, but the lightning-quick freshman Kemba Walker is the reason the Huskies survived a scare against Missouri. The Huskies are deep and talented, and other than a few minutes against Purdue and Mizzou, they have looked dominant and focused.

The wild card with this UConn team is how they handle the recruiting scandal of Nate Miles. It’s going to be interesting to see if the media presses the issue or if Jim Calhoun is successful in pushing off any further inquiry until after the tournament. Will the press take “no comment” as an answer? When a program is under attack, there is usually a “circle the wagons” mentality within a locker room, and depending on the makeup of the roster, it can bring a group of players even closer together.

On the flip side, the NCAA tournament has been a pleasure for the Michigan State Spartans. I didn’t think they had the firepower to make it to the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four, but this team has something that many others don’t — chemistry. Every player knows his role but doesn’t shy away when he is asked to make a play. They have the Big Ten POY in Kalin Lucas and group of guys willing to the little things like defend and rebound. The Spartans are an interesting matchup for UConn because of 6’10” center Goran Suton. Since he can hit the long ball, he should be able to pull Hasheem Thabeet out away from the basket, limiting his shot blocking. UConn may counter by putting Robinson or Adrien on Suton and letting Thabeet defend one of Michigan State’s forwards that isn’t a good shooter like Raymar Morgan or Draymond Green.

The Spartans are particularly adept at pulling up in the lane and hitting the 8- to 15-foot jumper which will be crucial if they hope to score consistently on the Huskies. It’s nearly impossible to take it to the rim when Thabeet is in the game, but the middle of the lane is usually pretty open since the Husky defenders are taught to feed their man to Thabeet. Defensively, the Spartans have shown the grit and effort necessary to stay with more talented foes, so Michigan State should be able to keep this one close. I don’t like the line, and I think UConn will ultimately triumph, but this has a good chance to be a game that is nip and tuck down the stretch. It doesn’t hurt that the Spartans will be playing about 75 miles from East Lansing. I’d expect a decent home crowd, though it’s tough to get any kind of home court advantage at the Final Four.


Tip-Off: 8:47 PM
Sagarin Ratings: North Carolina (95.05), Villanova (89.82)
Line: -7.5

The big story heading into the tournament was the health of Ty Lawson’s toe, but barring any unforeseen complications this week, this is pretty much a non-story at this point. Lawson has been outstanding in three tournament games, averaging 20.3 points and 6.7 assists, while shooting a blistering 20 of 35 from the field and 7 of 11 from long range. No one but those that bleed Carolina Blue thought that he’d be able to play at this level on an injured toe, so he has exceeded all reasonable expectations. Had Lawson been healthy from the start, UNC would have been (and still were in some circles) the tournament favorite, and there’s no reason to think they aren’t the favorite heading into this weekend. Danny Green is shooting the ball well (5-10 from long range in the last two games) and Wayne Ellington is averaging 19.0 ppg in the tournament. Oh, and the Tar Heels have Tyler Hansbrough (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and the steady Deon Thompson down low. Roy Williams has been using Bobby Frasor and Ed Davis as his main reserves, though he can go a bit deeper if he has to. As a program, North Carolina has a tendency to get distracted at times during the NCAA tournament, but these Tar Heels have looked focused from the start.

Likewise, Villanova is also playing its best ball of the season. The Wildcats have to be brimming with confidence after upending Pittsburgh in probably the best game of the tournament. They out-poised the Panthers in the clutch, and that’s hard to do. ‘Nova is led by guard Scottie Reynolds and big man Dante Cunningham, who both average better than 15 points per game, but there are four other Wildcats that average between 6.9 and 10.7 points per game, so this is a balanced attack. Unfortunately, Cunningham is the Wildcats’ only true big man (though Antonio Pena does get some work off the bench), so if there’s a weakness with this team, it’s inside. Villanova likes to spread the defense out and attack with the drive. This is something that North Carolina has struggled with in the past, but the Tar Heels are doing a better job of stopping dribble penetration in the tournament.

In the Regional Final, ‘Nova beat a team in Pitt that was trying to get back to playing great basketball. The Panthers struggled the entire tournament and were ripe for an upset. On Saturday, the Wildcats will face a team that is as hot as they are. I’ll be rooting for the underdog, but I think the Tar Heels are going to be able to grind out a win. I don’t like the line in this game, but if I had to choose I’d take Villanova and the points.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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