SAN ANTONIO – UCLA vs. Memphis
Should be easy to tell who wins the UCLA-Memphis game. Just look at the scoreboard. If Memphis puts up 80 points, the Tigers are in good shape. At 90, they're pretty much set. At 100, it's a virtual lock.
As much as the Final Four matchup will become a showcase for freshmen Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, the first of Saturday's semifinals also will be a test of tactics.
Can coach John Calipari's suddenly chic "dribble drive motion" offense break down UCLA's coach Ben Howland's rugged defense?
"All we're going to do is have fun," Calipari said Thursday. "If it leads us to something good on Monday night, have at it, we're going to have a ball. I want these kids to feel nothing but, `Let's go play, show what we're about. Let's make statements.'
"But the biggest thing is when they watch us we're hugging each other, we're smiling," he said. "If they're out there and you watch them and you say, `Wow, that team has more fun than any other team,' then I've done my job. That's what I'm trying to do."
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That, and help lead the Tigers (37-1) to their first NCAA men's basketball championship.
Memphis looks to score in a hurry, either off the break or its normal set, leaving the middle open and encouraging Rose, All-America guard Chris Douglas-Roberts or anyone to take the ball to the basket and create a play.
"Calipari, I think, said they're kind of like Princeton on steroids. They're going to be very tough to defend," Love said.
It's worked well for them this season, with the Tigers scoring 90 points on eight occasions and topping 100 three times.
UCLA, meanwhile, has not reached 100 points in a game since December 2002. The Bruins never even scored 90 this season.
That's fine with Love, Darren Collison and their teammates. UCLA (35-3) is making its third straight appearance in the Final Four, and the Bruins have done it mostly by jamming up their opponents — two weeks ago, they held overmatched Mississippi Valley State to 29 points, the fewest in the NCAA tournament since 1946.
Witness what happened two seasons ago when UCLA twice played Memphis. In November at Madison Square Garden, the Tigers won 88-80; that March in a regional final, the Bruins won 50-45.
"The key between those two games was our defensive effort. We didn't play nearly as good defense when we played in the Garden against them. That's why the score was so high," Collison said this week.
"In the tournament, we played extremely well on the defensive end and the score was low. That was one of the games that identified us as a defensive team. That's the type of effort we're going to need to win this game," he said.
UCLA did fine Thursday, at least in a test run. While the teams practiced at gyms elsewhere, workers at the Alamodome checked out the scoreboard. When the horn went off after a first-half time trial, it showed the Bruins leading 41-30.
Come Saturday, UCLA will get its first look at Rose. A third-team All-America guard, he probably will play his final college game in the next few days. Extremely athletic at 6-foot-3, he already has an NBA body and skills.
Kansas vs. North Carolina
If the choice had to be made between talent and experience, Roy Williams knows what he’d pick.
“I think everyone would take experienced talent over anything else,” he said.
He is one of the few coaches who has that commodity—rarer by the day in college basketball—at his disposal this season.
Which is why Williams is coaching North Carolina in the Final Four.
“At this level, with the four teams that are in, what you have is you have basically experienced talent on every team,” he said.
But the Tar Heels and Kansas, their opponent in Saturday’s second semifinal, have that combination in a particularly special way.
Tyler Hansbrough vs. Brandon Rush, though they may never find themselves paired up one-on-one in this game, is the kind of junior-vs.-junior matchup that has become all too rare in the college game.
Hansbrough had the stats to leave after last season—18 points, eight rebounds per game—but he likes college and comes from a family that didn’t need money. No rush to head to the NBA, he stayed and some say he might stay again when this season’s over.
Meanwhile, Rush was supposed to be out the door after last year, but a knee injury that forced him into ligament surgery limited his choices, brought him back to KU, and now, he’s two wins away from a reward that money can’t buy—the national title.
And that’s not all.
“It’s possible I could be a better draft pick than I was last year,” Rush said in interview last month. “Just because of the type of team we have. How far we go in the postseason will help me out a lot, too. Everything is better.”
In a season in which the NCAA selection committee seemed to get everything right—no big controversies when the bracket came out, all four No. 1 seeds making it to the Final Four for the first time—even the semifinal pairings had a certain perfectness about them.