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.
3/25/2007 10:43:00 PM
Presenting: The Final Four
Will John Thompson III's Hoyas cut down the nets in the ATL?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Both Final Four matchups are repeats of 2006 tourney games: Georgetown and Ohio State met in the second round, while UCLA and Florida met in the title bout.
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The back hallways of Continental Airlines Arena had nearly cleared out by 9 p.m. Sunday, when two men in suits came walking away from the team locker rooms as maintenance workers were stripping down the NCAA tournament signage. The much taller of the two, John Thompson Jr., had a white-and-black Georgetown Final Four hat perched atop his head, and his right arm around his companion -- his hatless son, head coach John Thompson III. Big John, as the legendary elder who led the Hoyas to three national title games in the 1980s has come to be known, leaned down and spoke in hushed baritone into Little John's right ear, and the proud father and beaming boy shared a laugh.
As they neared the exit, a Georgetown staffer propped open the door and began excitedly shouting into his walkie-talkie. "The Thompsons are coming to the bus!" he said. "I've got the Thompsons coming!"
Thanks to a stunning, 96-84 overtime win over top-seeded North Carolina in the East Region final, it really is happening: The Thompsons are headed back to the Final Four.
Second-seeded Georgetown pulled off an epic comeback victory to punch the last ticket to Atlanta, filling out a powerhouse field that also includes two No. 1s, Florida and Ohio State, and another No. 2, UCLA. On one side of the field it's big-stage Deja Vu, with a rematch of the 2006 Gators-Bruins title game, while the other is a Dinosaur Duel, featuring a rare meeting of prehistoric 7-footers Roy Hibbert and Greg Oden. None of the Final Four teams, in this, the Ultimate Chalk Bracket, snuck up on the nation, and none of them separated themselves from a loaded Elite Eight field by accident, either. While Big John said he planned to celebrate the win by "getting some sleep," the Blog is forging ahead and breaking down the heavyweights headed for the A-T-L:
Tournament Identity: The Hoyas hammered home a fact that had started to become evident late in the regular season: They own the nation's best offense. In case you missed the numbers from Sunday's thriller, Georgetown shot 57.6 percent against North Carolina, which had the nation's fourth-most efficient defense. The Hoyas also hit 57.1 percent of their 3s, and more importantly, didn't panic and deviate from their Princetonian scheme when they were down 10, at 75-65, with 7:19 left in the game. "We believed in our offense," said Hibbert, who finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. Their faith was rewarded, as the shot that erased the Heels' final, three-point lead -- a trey by point guard Jonathan Wallace from the left wing -- came in the flow of their regular sets. "That's a practice shot," Wallace said of the clutch 3-pointer. "I shoot that shot every day."
The Hoyas are ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, a fact that has not eluded East Region Most Outstanding Player Jeff Green, who finished with 22 points. "We know that our game is based on our offense," he said. "We're just going to have that identity that if you can't stop our offense, we're going to have a chance. We have the great athletes that make the Princeton offense look good."
How to Let Them Beat You: Fail to stay aware of their backcuts. The backdoor play is the most distinct -- and most cliche -- element of the Princeton offense, but against Georgetown's personnel, even the best defenders get burned. Wallace scored both the first basket of the game and the first bucket of overtime by backdooring a dumbfounded Tywon Lawson, and the Hoyas finished with six back-cut layups on the day. "We've played against teams that try to go back door," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We just didn't guard it as effectively today."
How to Beat Them: Control the offensive glass. That's not the easiest task, obviously, against a frontline of Hibbert, Green and DaJuan Summers. But when the Tar Heels took a 50-44 lead into halftime, it was no coincidence that they were winning the offensive rebounding war 10-4. The Hoyas still finished negative-10 on the game in that department, but they didn't allow UNC to grab a single offensive board in the final 6:26 of regulation, and that made the comeback possible.
Tournament Identity: This was a team that was unsure of its leadership hierarchy as late as February, with its super-freshmen still wondering whether it was acceptable for them to get in the faces of OSU's upperclassmen. The Buckeyes' roles, through the first four games of the dance, have become more clearly defined. Frosh point guard Mike Conley Jr., the MOP of the South Region, is the leader and OSU's best player -- no matter how much NBA scouts salivate over Oden. Senior Ron Lewis is their dagger-man (the gunner with the cojones to take every big three). Junior Jamar Butler, the ex-point who was displaced by Conley, has turned into long-distance shooting option No. 2. And Oden, despite his ambidextrous skills in the lane, is not the top offensive option, but is the most dominating defensive presence in the tournament.
How To Let Them Beat You: Piss off the normally sleepy giant, who shows emotion about as often as Conley commits turnovers (which is next to never). When Oden does come alive, though, it's best to get out of the way. Memphis' Joey Dorsey made the genius move of calling Oden "overrated" and using a botched David/Goliath reference when discussing their Elite Eight matchup. Oden finished with 17 points and nine rebounds ... and held Dorsey to zero points and three boards.
How To Beat Them: Get Oden off the floor. He doesn't foul out often, but he is prone to early foul trouble, so don't be scared of shot-blocking prowess and have your big men challenge him inside. Just how valuable is Oden to the Buckeyes' success? Take a look at his plus-minus ratings against Tennessee (+14 in 17:30 minutes played) and Memphis (+26 in 24:26 played). They're stunning.
Tournament Identity:Arron Afflalo's sublime performance in the West Region final against Kansas elevated his reputation from "guy who occasionally hits big shots" to "stone-cold star." Really, what two-guard goes 10-of-15 against the Jayhawks' intense backcourt -- and connects on all of his final eight attempts -- in an Elite Eight game? "If he plays like that," teammate Alfred Aboya said of Afflalo, "we can't lose."
Coach Ben Howland's gritty, denial defense is the Bruins' bread and butter, and it has been suffocating during the tournament, holding all of its first four opponents -- including red-hot Kansas -- to under 0.900 points per possession. (The Jayhawks' offensive efficiency in that game, at 0.798 points per possession, was by far their worst of the season; before that, they had never been held under 0.912.) That helped make up for an uncharacteristically high turnover count from Darren Collison (seven, against just one assist) and a near-complete absence of low-post baskets. Anyone who's followed UCLA closely this season knows that Collison's sloppiness can be chalked up as an aberration. The Bruins' big men, however, need to complement their stingy D with some offensive production.
How To Let Them Beat You: Assume that your guards, just because they've been steady all season, will be unaffected by the pressure of Collison and Afflalo. They turn up the heat to a new level. KU's four-headed backcourt, which had been an unstoppable machine over the past two months, shot a combined 12-of-36 (33.3 percent) against the Bruins' duo and committed 13 turnovers.
How To Beat Them: UCLA's post-to-post double-team -- a staple of the Howland system -- can neutralize even a front line as athletic as Kansas'. But as Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford proved in the '06 title game, big men who both get out in transition and pass quickly out of the double-team can cause serious trouble, and exploit what may be the Bruins' only weakness.
Tournament Identity: In case you weren't privy to Noah's "We win, we eat" chant after the Gators took down Oregon in the Midwest Region final, they've made it clear they're still hungry for a second title. And it seems Florida's players also believe -- far more than is actually true -- that this encore run should be billed as Them vs. An Entire World of Doubters. "Keep hating," Noah said on Sunday. "It fuels the fire. Hopefully we can get two more wins -- then people can really keep hating."
Such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude marks a 180 turn from the meekness that defined their late-February, three-loss swoon. That slump is what fueled most of those doubts in the first place. Basketball-wise, the most promising development of the Gators' Elite Eight win over Oregon was the dominant play of their backcourt. Point guard Taurean Green and shooting guard Lee Humphrey were far from weak links all season, but they do sit well behind the frontcourt duo of Noah and Horford in the publicity standings. On Sunday, Humphrey scored 23 points and 7-of-13 long-distance shooting, while Green had 21 points on 4-of-8 three-point shooting. Each guard outscored the combined total of Noah and Horford's points (20).
How To Let Them Beat You: Decide that leaving Humphrey open while sagging your defense into the paint is a good idea. Whatever a team does to attempt to neutralize Florida's bigs (we detailed one of these methods in a column on Wednesday) it can't include using the man guarding "Humpty" on low-post double-teams. The Ducks learned the hard way, as he scorched them from outside, even tearing open the net at one point and causing a 10-minute delay.
How To Beat Them: The refrain of the "haters" during the NCAA tournament has been that Florida isn't hungry in the first half. The Gators trailed early against the Ducks on Sunday, just as they did against Jackson State, Purdue and Butler. A team that can jump on Florida in the first 10 minutes, when its appetite has yet to develop, and then play enough D down the stretch to hold back the flood, is capable of pulling off the upset. It's easier said than done -- but the window of opportunity exists.
THE FINAL FOUR MATCHUPS
Georgetown vs. Ohio State: The last time the Buckeyes faced an offense as good as Georgetown's -- Florida on Dec. 23 in Gainesville -- they were blown out. That, however, was multiple months ago, before Oden came into his own and Conley emerged as a bonafide star. The Hibbert-Oden duel will go a long way toward deciding the game, but so will the Hoyas' ability to defend Lewis and Butler on the perimeter.
The Pick: Georgetown 72, Ohio State 71. Set your watch to Jeff Green Time in Atlanta.
Florida vs. UCLA: The '07 Bruins are in many ways better than they were in '06 -- especially with Collison's defense and point-guard play, as well as Afflalo's big-shot confidence -- but have they proven they can prevent a repeat of last April's blowout? The fact they shut down Kansas' active bigs on Saturday was a positive sign, but Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson are not Noah and Horford. Revenge will not come easy.
The Pick: Florida 69, UCLA 65. The hate, at least here, does not exist.