Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/29/2006 06:20:00 PM
Piecing Together The Final Four
How does one build the representative body of this year's Final Four? With these 10 parts:
1. The Gator's Tail
Who knew, back in early March, that the hirsute star of the NCAA tournament would not be Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, but rather the lanky, pony-tailed Joakim Noah? The bracket's biggest Bob Marley fan doesn't sport dreads, but his bushy 'do gives him the most recognizable head in Indy.
2. Big Baby's Braces
When Big Baby drove me into the Park-town neighborhood of Baton Rouge to meet some of his old classmates from Capitol Middle School, more than half of them had "golds" in their mouths -- permanent metallic caps over their teeth. And a few of those dudes had mouths that were completely golden. Big Baby got out of that rough 'hood, and now flashes his version of metal-mouth: braces.
3. The Mason Duds
Jersey-popping has been en vogue for the past two NCAA tournaments, and really, is there any jersey more representative of this wild year than Mason's? It doesn't matter if the Patriots win another game; they're still (with apologies to Gonzaga) America's team of 2006.
4. UCLA's Defensive Muscle
Some say Memphis went ice cold in the Elite Eight (shooting 2-of-17 from 3). Others say the Bruins shut them down. Some say Gonzaga collapsed in the Sweet 16 (allowing UCLA to score the final 11 points). Others say the Bruins' D pulled off some crazy-clutch thievery. I'm with the others: UCLA's defense is the best lock-down unit left in the tournament.
5. Lamar Butler's Hot Hand
George Mason didn't need a miracle to beat UConn, but it did need a nearly unconscious shooting day in D.C. -- and the Patriots went out and hit 50 percent of their 3s. Sports Illustrated cover boy Butler hit 4-of-6, and kept Mason's Living On A Prayer-run going for another week.
6. Jai Lewis' Waistline
Lewis' big (275-pound) body provided the bulk needed to counteract UConn's skinny size advantage inside in the Elite Eight, and plus-sized basketball fans everywhere are salivating over the thought of a Big Baby-Lewis title game showdown on Monday night.
7. Cedric Bozeman's Knees
The grandfather of the Bruins' Final Four run, Bozeman has endured a roller-coaster career in Westwood. He arrived at UCLA as a Class of 2001 McDonald's All-American, started at point guard for his first three (somewhat underwhelming) seasons, and then blew out his right knee before his senior year. Bozeman redshirted in 2004-05, and watched Jordan Farmar take over the point, but Ced' rehabbed and returned as a valuable swingman in his fifth year.
8. Tyrus Thomas' Calves
If Davis is the Big Baby, then Thomas is Big Hops. His calves are made of bionic material; there is just no way a human can jump so high, so fast. LSU coach John Brady said Thomas makes plays that can "somewhat demoralize" opponents -- and his calves are where the play-making begins.
9. Florida's Fleet Front Line
No 3-4-5 combo in the nation can match the athleticism of the Gators' Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Each one of those forwards can run the break, and handle and pass the ball with ease, as slower big men on South Alabama, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Villanova found out the hard way.
10. The Patriots' Slippers
I know, the picture at left is just a shot of regular old Nike kicks. Use your imagination, though -- it's not that hard -- and you'll see something more apropos of Cinderella's feet. Coach Jim Larranaga's squad outlasted fellow little guys UWM, Northwestern State, Montana, Bradley and Wichita State to achieve something that few thought was possible for a mid-major.
Readers, what pieces were left out? Chime in via the comments section.
It wouldn't be prudent to abandon the numbers now. I'm going to ride this statistical business 'til the end, and offer Final Four previews in the raw, without mentioning the glass slippers, ponytails, Big Babies or revived powerhouses. And since there have been complaints -- namely, that stats don't take heart into consideration -- I'll tell you which way my heart is leaning, too.
First up is Saturday's nightcap, UCLA-LSU, and a look at how the teams stack up in terms of tempo (possessions per 40 minutes) and offensive and defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions). All stats are the latest from kenpom.com.
Team Tempo Off Eff. Def. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) UCLA 63.4 (303) 113.2 (23) 84.9 (3) LSU 69.5 (94) 110.3 (42) 85.3 (4)
What it means: This is probably going to be the slowest game LSU plays in the NCAA tournament, with even fewer total possessions than there were against Texas A&M or Texas. The Bruins, at 63.4 possessions per 40 minutes, are the most methodical team left in the bracket, and were the seventh-slowest squad entering the whole tournament (after Air Force, Georgetown, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Utah State and Boston College).
Beyond the difference in tempo (painfully slow versus mildly slow), UCLA and LSU are very much alike -- both have decent offenses that are carried by the best two defenses left in the tournament. The bottom line: When this one turns into an ugly slugfest, don't act shocked.
The next step is to examine tendencies when either team has the ball, by comparing point-distribution figures (all percentages) for the season:
What it means: The Tigers are a balanced defensive team with stoppers on the perimeter (Garrett Temple) and interior (Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis), and they don't let opponents beat them on the free-throw line (where they allow just 15.2 percent of their points). There are no great stat-gaps here, other than that the Bruins average 20.0 percent of their scoring from the stripe. Will they be able to draw whistles, or will their shots just get swatted by Thomas?
What it means: It's an excellent matchup for LSU. Because while UCLA has the best D still in the tourney, it mainly excels on the perimeter, giving up just 23.5 percent of its points from beyond the arc due to pressure on shooters from guards Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar and swingman Cedric Bozeman. This will have little effect on the Tigers, who are now, officially, the squad that relies on fewer 3-pointers than anyone else in the entire, 334-team ranks of Division I. The Tigers' offensive game plan barely takes the 3-point line into consideration.
Which brings us to ... the pick: UCLA is slightly more efficient on both sides of the ball, but the difference is too small to matter. Even though the Bruins are the best overall defensive team LSU has faced all year, the Tigers just defeated a stellar D (Texas') in the Elite Eight, and their offense is better-suited to score against the Bruins than it was against the 'Horns. LSU by two.
And the "heart" pick?: It happens to be nearly identical. LSU is such a tight-knit team built from Baton Rouge-area talent -- "Brothers from another mother," Davis says -- that it's not going to crumble on the big stage. Embattled Louisiana residents deserve some positive news, and State U will bring it to them in the form of a trip to Monday's title game. LSU by four. Heart adds another basket.