Finally, We’re Down to Four
by Bill Thayer
While we haven’t had a ton of huge moments or that many memorable upsets, to me this year’s Tournament has been all about the tight games. It seems that almost every game came down to the final moments, with a number of lower seeded teams (UNC Wilmington, Wisconsin Milwaukee, Gonzaga, etc…) coming within seconds of pulling off shocking upsets.
We’ve seen the two favorites fall, the defending champions have been eliminated and only one number one seed remains. However, this could be one of the best Final Fours in recent memory as a case could be made for any of the four teams to walk away with the title of champions.
And as I think about the setting, New Orleans, where Fred Brown, Keith Smart and Chris Webber have all been immortalized, for good and bad, the nickname seems appropriate. The Big Easy, as each of the four has a player who makes the game seem so easy at times. While I’ve ridden the Texas bandwagon all season long, I find myself hedging a bit…maybe Carmelo Anthony is that special, good enough to carry the Cuse one moment. Then, I’m thinking about the Kansas seniors, who refuse to let the Jayhawks season die another. Then I’m thinking about the incredible team game played by Marquette last weekend.
Well, why not break down your four remaining contenders (in alphabetical order of course) with a touch of historical perspective:
Collison and Hinrich. Hinrich and Collison. At this point there’s not much else to be said about this team. Four starters remain from last year, the same team that lost in the national semifinals to Maryland. If its not one of the two stepping up in a big game, its the other. Collison carried the load against Duke, as he put forward the best individual effort in the tournament (until two days later when he was trumped by Dwyade Wade). Then, as Collison struggled against Kansas, Hinrich exploded on the outside, dropping 28 points against the Wildcats. While the season took a hit when Wayne Simien was lost for the year, it caused Jeff Graves to mature. Graves, a widebody in the middle, can eat up space and help Collison out on the boards, as he did against Arizona. Keith Langford is explosive going to the hoop, but the key will be Aaron Miles. The sophomore point guard will have to keep his turnover numbers low if the Jayhawks hope to walk out of the Superdome with the championship trophy. All four teams are good at taking advantage of their opponents mistakes and while he has the most tournament experience of any of the four point guards, he is also the most questionable offensive option out of the four. If I were to compare this team to any recent champions, it would be the 1991 Duke team. Each reached the Final Four after getting blown out there the year prior (Duke against UNLV, Kansas against Maryland) and has an inside-outside combo that is difficult to match (Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner compared with Hinrich and Collison) as well as a coach who is searching for his first championship ring despite having great success as a head coach.
For the large portion of the nation who didn’t know the name Dwyane Wade, they now do. The Golden Eagles junior stole the spotlight as he got the Tournament’s first triple double since 1998 in leading Marquette to a stunning win over top seeded Kentucky. But for all the attention given to Wade, his teammates all did their share, including senior center Robert Jackson, the Milwaukee native who transferred to play closer to home after spending three seasons at Mississippi State. Travis Diener has filled the big shoes left by departed senior Cordell Henry, but is a better shooter than ballhandler. Tom Crean’s club has evoked memories of the 1977 Al McGuire club, who went on to win the national championship in McGuire’s final season as head coach. Could they do it again this year? The brunt of the burden will fall to Wade, who will have to stop Kansas senior Kirk Hinrich. Wade’s size and athleticism make him one of the toughest defenders remaining (as shown by his five blocks against UK). Jackson and Scott Merritt can throw different looks at the Kansas front line, and their lack of depth will only get exposed if they are hit with foul trouble. Of recent champions, this team reminds me most of the 1996 UCLA team. Both have a star on the wing (Ed O’Bannon and Wade), a solid but unspectacular senior center (George Zidek and Jackson) and were not expected to be there after having sensational regular seasons.
Let the complaining about the Orangemen playing in Albany continue, the crowd was able to give the Orangemen a boost when needed against Auburn as the Tigers made their charge. The 2-3 zone seemed to do more damage against Oklahoma than the crowd did, however. The long arms of Hakim Warrick, Kueth Duany and Carmelo Anthony helped harrass the Sooners and threw them off their game. Marquis Daniels found his way into the middle of the lane many times, but the only player who plays his type of game would be Wade and the zone could cause problems for Diener and Steve Novak if Syracuse faces Marquette in the finals. In terms of pure talent, Syracuse may be the best team left, but the team only has one senior in the rotation (Duany). Jeremy McNeil can change the game when he gets in, but is too prone to foul trouble and will have his hands full with James Thomas. Gerry McNamara, like Diener, is best suited to play the two, but has been successful running the point. Jim Boeheim, like Roy Williams, is searching for the championship that has eluded him his entire career. I thought about comparing this team to the 1990 UNLV team, for their swagger, athleticism and the Warrick/Anthony combination but instead think their closest fit is the 1995 Arkansas team. Neither coach got their proper due for building a very strong team that season and neither was expected to do too much entering the season but thanks to a stifling defense they found their way to the Final Four. Could McNamara play the role of Scotty Thurman in the championship? It’s very possible.
Texas: 2000 Michigan State
The only number one seed still alive, the Longhorns got some help from the possession arrow against Connecticut in one of the most bizarre endings when the ball got stuck between the rim and the backboard as the Huskies were attempting a game-tying layup, causing a jump ball. Naismith award winner T.J. Ford steers the Longhorns offense, but his shooting has slumped recently, causing teams to back off him again. Brandon Mouton is the team’s biggest outside threat, and Texas has an army of big men led by James Thomas. Thomas should keep looking at tape from the Longhorns loss to Kansas back in January to remind himself of what Collison is capable of doing. As proven against Connecticut, this team lives and dies with Ford. Texas nearly blew a 14 point second half lead with Ford on the bench in foul trouble. They need him on the court to succeed. The comparison for this team is the 2000 Michigan State Spartans. Both squads are physically dominating but need their point guard on the court at all times. Both Ford and Mateen Cleaves were surrounded with very solid role players.
I like the Longhorns depth, versatility and Ford. That’s why, despite all the talent converging on New Orleans this weekend, Texas remains my pick to become the 2003 National Champions.
Enjoy your hurricanes, boys.