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.

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Lawson’s toe seems fine, Tar Heels advance

When I filled out my bracket, I felt that North Carolina’s chances were tied to the health of Ty Lawson’s toe. And I still think so.

The ACC POY had to sit out the ACC tournament to allow the swelling to go down. And this wasn’t just any swelling; Dick Vitale said that the toe was “cartoonishly” swollen (and I think he just made that word up). This is obviously a huge concern for North Carolina.

He injured the toe on March 6 and played two days later against Duke, scoring 13 points (on 2 of 7 shooting) and dishing out nine assists. He sat out both of North Carolina’s ACC tournament games, and the Tar Heels lost to Florida State. They aren’t the same team without him.

I think that UNC can get past the first two rounds even if Ty Lawson isn’t 100%. But I’m not sure that they can get by Gonzaga without him playing at a high level. This is probably the biggest “IF” of the entire tournament. If Lawson can play at 90-95%, then the Tar Heels are probably the tournament favorite. If he can’t, then they could easily lose before the Final Four.

So how do we handle this? Well, for the purposes of a single bracket, I’m going to wager that a “cartoonishly” swollen toe isn’t going to be 90-95% healed in time for the tournament. I don’t particularly like Oklahoma or Syracuse to beat them unless Lawson is out or very limited, so I am going to put the Tar Heels through to the Final Four. If I were in two or more brackets, I’d have one where North Carolina loses in the Final Four semis, and one where they lose to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. The bottom line is that I’m betting that Lawson’s toe is not good enough for him to play at a high level for six games over the next three weeks.

If Lawson had been healthy heading into the tournament, I would have picked the Tar Heels over Connecticut for the title. I haven’t seen a guy play this well on a bum toe, so either it wasn’t ever as bad as it seemed, or Lawson has a tremendous ability to play with pain. I’m bummed about my bracket blowing up in my face (thanks, Pitt), but I feel like my original take sans health issues — UNC & UConn — was spot on, but I couldn’t in good conscience pick a team whose best player was gimpy with a bum toe. Simply stated, I guessed wrong on Lawson’s toe.

I think we’ll see a UNC-UConn final, but Michigan State and Villanova are both playing their best basketball of the season. It should be an interesting Final Four.

Pitt falls, UConn advances

It’s all right there in the title — my bracket is f*#kd.

The Pittsburgh Panthers played with fire for the entire tournament and they finally got burned. In the first three games, they showed tremendous poise in the clutch. But when they had a chance to put this game away, they blew it.

Up four with the ball and 2:56 remaining, Pitt brought the ball up against Villanova’s full court pressure. If Pitt converts there and goes up six or seven, it would be a tough road to hoe for Villanova. But Jermaine Dixon made a bad decision at half court, which led to a steal and eventually to a three-point play for Villanova. On Pitt’s next possession, Sam Young turned the ball over in the lane. And just like that, the Panthers’ four point lead turned into a one-point deficit.

Down four with 0:12 to play, it looked like all was lost, but DeJuan Blair slipped to the hoop for a bucket and the Wildcats turned the ball over going for the home run. Levance Fields was fouled and knocked down two free throws to tie the game with 5.5 seconds to play. One more stop and Pitt was going to force an overtime when they had absolutely no business doing so. But they made a mistake on the inbound play, allowing ‘Nova to catch the ball near halfcourt, where it was flipped to Scottie Reynolds who was streaking down the sideline. The long pass covered a lot of ground when Pitt should have forced Villanova to dribble the entire length of the court. Make them catch it in front of you!

Reynolds drove into the lane and hit a tough game-winner.


Give credit to Villanova for playing a great game. As a team, the Wildcats shot 22 of 23 from the free throw line, which is outstanding given the pressure of an Elite Eight game. It’s going to be fun to see them play in the Final Four.

In the other Saturday game, UConn fended off a feisty Missouri team with a 12-5 run over the last two minutes. UConn looked a little out of sorts in the second half, but freshman Kemba Walker scored 23 points off the bench to put the Huskies over the top.

Elite Eight Preview & Picks: Louisville/MSU, UNC/Oklahoma

#2-seed Michigan State vs. #1-seed Louisville
Tip-Off: 2:20 PM ET
Sagarin Ratings: Louisville (92.53), Michigan State (88.53)
Line: Louisville -6.5

The Spartans exceeded my expectations when they beat Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, but anytime a team has a great point guard (Big 10 POY Kalin Lucas) and a lot of grit, they have a shot. Tom Izzo’s team isn’t going to give up, which makes the dog an interesting play in this game. There’s no doubt in my mind that Louisville is the better team, but they looked flat against Siena before blowing out Arizona. The Sagarin numbers say that the line is off by 2.5 points, but Raymar Morgan has a broken nose and has to wear a mask for the first time, so I’d stay away from this one. I think Louisville will win, but it might be tight if the Cardinals put it into cruise control too early or if they don’t bring their A-game.

#2-seed Oklahoma vs. #1-seed North Carolina
Tip-Off: 5:05 PM
Sagarin Ratings: UNC (94.64), Oklahoma (89.96)
Line: North Carolina -7

The big question heading into the tournament was the health of Ty Lawson’s toe. I think that question was answered with his solid play against LSU and Gonzaga. North Carolina should have enough firepower to beat the Sooners, but seven points is a lot to give a good Oklahoma team. In addition to POY candidate Blake Griffin, Willie Warren is one of the best freshman in the country, and Tony Crocker is capable of stepping up and hitting a bunch of threes. Still, the way the Tar Heels playing, I wouldn’t be comfortable taking the Sooners and the points.

TSR’s running diary of March Madness: Let’s play in the Sandbox

These March Madness diaries have turned into something of a tour of the sports bars of Orange County. Last Thursday it was Rudy’s in Newport Beach (still my favorite), yesterday it was the Costa Mesa Hooters, and tonight it’s Sandbox, a relatively new sports bar/lounge on Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. The setup is nice – but no wifi, so this diary is going up in one fell swoop – with a number of HD flatscreens positioned around the restaurant. At night, it turns into more of a lounge/dance club for the well-dressed. Our server’s name is Jessie and she’s looking sharp in her little black dress. We’ll see if I can get a picture of her for you.

I’m watching the games with LaRusso and his co-worker/buddy Kevin, who is from Foxboro, so he’s a big Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox fan. We got into a minor spat last year over whether or not the Celtics would have beat the Lakers had Andrew Bynum been healthy – he thought a Boston win would have been a sure thing while I thought it would have thrown the series on its ear, but we’re way past that now.

5:14 PM: Louisville is spanking Arizona (not a huge surprise) and Oklahoma is up eight or ten on Syracuse (a bit of a surprise). I think the Orangemen have a shot at pulling this one out, though it’s not looking particularly good right now.

5:20 PM: What is the deal with these Howie Long commercials where he mocks anyone who has a truck that’s not a Chevy? This probably brings back memories of high school for Howie. Is there any chance that he wasn’t stuffing freshman in lockers on a regular basis? He reminds me of a meaner “Big John” from “Can’t Buy Me Love.” He was the one who stuck his butt out the window of a house party and farted in the face of a young Seth Green. For those that haven’t seen the flick, it’s one of my favorites from the ’80s — McDreamy plays a McLoser who pays a girl to date him so he can be popular. Hilarity (and surprisingly touching social commentary) ensues. Anyway, I’m waiting for one of these guys in these commercials to tell Howie to go f*ck himself. Do we really need a washed up NFLer mocking a fellow truck owner because it has a convenient “man step” or gets two fewer miles to the gallon? Give me a break.

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