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InsideHoops [NCAA College Basketball]

NCAA Tournament Final Four Preview





/ Mar. 30, 2005


No. 1 North Carolina (31-4) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (26-6)

North Carolina’s road to St. Louis:
Def. No. 16 Oakland 96-68
Def. No. 9 Iowa State 92-65
Def. No. 5 Villanova 67-66
Def. No. 6 Wisconsin 88-82

Michigan State’s road to St. Louis
Def. No. 12 Old Dominion 89-81
Def. No. 13 Vermont 72-61
Def. No. 1 Duke 78-68
Def. No. 2 Kentucky 94-88 (2OT)

North Carolina is right on par with its preseason expectations. Roy Williams’ squad features at least four future first-round NBA picks, but the players have not been selfish, something that has hindered this team’s chances in the past. They feature five players who average double- figures in scoring, led by the beast in the middle, Sean May. May has been the most consistent player for this team. He’s averaged a double-double on the season (17.1 points, 10.9 rebounds), has scored 21.5 points a game in the tournament, and is virtually impossible to stop. This is one area where North Carolina has a huge advantage over Michigan State. While Paul Davis is a very good low-post player, he will need tons of help on defense to prevent May from taking over the game, which he has done so many times this year. If May is double-teamed, he can just kick it out to any one of his various weapons for the long-range shot. A low-post presence of May’s caliber is invaluable in this tournament. The way May has led his team, whether it be flushing down a monster jam or showing leadership from the sidelines, don’t be surprised to see him holding the Most Outstanding Player trophy at the end of the championship game.

Carolina has those “other guys” too. Rashad McCants, the best—not top, though—scorer on the team, averages 16 points a game, and has shown maturity by becoming a team player and leaving his attitude issues in the past. Raymond Felton is one of the top point guards in the country (6.9 assists per game), and holds the offense together. We all saw what happened when Felton was suspended for the season opener (77-66 loss to Santa Clara), and when he fouled out late against Villanova, right before the Wildcats almost came back from a 10-point deficit to upset the Tar Heels. Felton must stay on the court for Carolina’s game to flow. Senior Jawad Williams has been steady all year (13 points per game), and Jackie Manuel is a defensive monster. The crazy thing about Carolina is that the best prospect out of the bunch, and perhaps most talented player right now, comes off the bench. Supersub and ACC Freshman of the Year Marvin Williams has played much more like an experienced veteran rather than a nervous frosh making his first tourney appearance. He’s averaging 15.5 points a game in just 23.5 minutes of action over the course of the tournament, including two 20-point efforts in the first two rounds.

If these numbers don’t scare you, the UNC fast break will. This team can score from the outside, they can score from the inside, and they bring it for a full 40 minutes. This is Roy Williams’ best chance to nab that ever-elusive first national championship and bring Carolina back to college basketball prominence.

For those that think Michigan State has zero chance in this game, ask Coach K and Tubby Smith why they’re watching the Final Four on television. The Spartans bring a very balanced attack, and they have perhaps the most athletic personnel in the country. Not to mention Tom Izzo is becoming a coaching legend, having brought his Spartans to the Final Four for the fourth time in the last seven years.

The Spartans have 10 players who average over nine minutes a game, so coach Izzo is not faced with a depth problem whatsoever. Maurice Ager (13.8 points per game), Alan Anderson (13.7), Paul Davis (12.2), Shannon Brown (10.8), and Kelvin Torbert (9.5) are all capable of putting up huge offensive numbers on a constant basis, but playing under the team philosophy, it’s usually a different Spartan leading the way each night. In the first game against Old Dominion, the five stars each scored between 13 and 15 points apiece. However, in the win over Duke, Davis went for 20 points, and in the win over Kentucky in the regional final, Brown went for 24 and Ager added 21. The fact that Michigan State features so many options on offense could give Carolina problems on the defensive end. The high-flying trio of Ager, Brown, and Torbert is another wildcard for the Spartan offense. The three of them play so well above the rim, and if the game is played at the run-and-gun pace that Carolina likes, the Spartans have the athletes to counterpunch.

The key for Michigan State is the play they get from the point guard position. Freshman Drew Neitzel was thrust into the starting lineup to replace senior Chris Hill, and has performed well, averaging 3.3 assists a game, and becoming a catalyst for the offense with his dribble drives and his court vision. Chris Hill is very good in terms of not turning the ball over, as he features a three-to-one assist to turnover ratio. It’s important to have an experienced player like Hill, who won’t get rattled, handling the ball in key situations. Hill’s scoring punch has taken a hit, as he’s struggled shooting the ball in the tournament so far, but as long as he and Neitzel can run the offense and get the ball to the five scorers, the Spartans will be OK.

Entering the tournament, Michigan State, as a team, was tied for first in free-throw percentage in the country (79.1%), and was ninth in field-goal percentage (49.9%). However, North Carolina was fourth in field-goal percentage at 50.4 percent, and first in scoring offense (89.3 points per game), so the Spartans will have to bring their defensive A game, in addition to their steady offense, to St. Louis if they expect to upset the top-seeded Tar Heels.

Prediction: North Carolina is just too talented at every position to lose this game. Going down the line, Michigan State has very good players at each position, but Carolina’s are just better. Then again, Wisconsin, a team that Michigan State split the season series with, did just give Carolina a run for its money, and with the way this tournament has worked itself out, it wouldn’t be a shock to see another underdog score a remarkable upset. That being said, it won’t be a blowout, but Roy Williams will get his shot at the title, and UNC will move on.

No. 1 Illinois (36-1) vs. No. 4 Louisville (33-4)

Illinois’ road to St. Louis
Def. No. 16 Farleigh Dickinson 67-55
Def. No. 9 Nevada 71-59
Def. No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee 77-63
Def. No. 3 Arizona 90-89 (OT)

Louisville’s road to St. Louis
Def. No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette 68-62
Def. No. 5 Georgia Tech 76-54
Def. No. 1 Washington 93-79
Def. No. 7 West Virginia 93-85 (OT)

Both of these teams are coming off of exhilarating, and borderline miraculous, regional final comebacks. Illinois was down 15 to Arizona with four minutes remaining, and fought back behind the play of Deron Williams and Luther Head to pull off the overtime win. Louisville was down by 20 to West Virginia—who couldn’t seem to miss a shot—but the Cardinals found the inner strength to chip away and chip away some more to win it in overtime. Both teams played a rough first game, looked dominant for the next two, and then fought for their lives to move on to the Final Four. These two teams mirror each other on a number of levels, and should put on quite the display on Saturday night.

This match-up is intriguing, because both teams also get knocked for the same reason—lack of a low post presence. If you consider the inside games equal and look at the guards, you’d be hard pressed to find a trio better than what Illinois brings to the table. While Louisville’s Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean, and Larry O’Bannon are very good, Illinois’ Williams, Dee Brown, and Head are fantastic, and this is why the edge in this game goes to Illinois.

The Illini are pretty deep, with eight players averaging over 11 minutes a game. Almost all of the scoring, though, comes from the starting five. Williams, Head, and Brown, the Big Ten Player of the Year, are the finest trio of guards you will find, and have been consistently great all year long. They each bring intensity, quickness, and a great three-point shot to the game, but most importantly, they each show a ton of poise and composure. Williams leads the team in assists with 6.7 a game, and Head leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.7 points a game. Brown does a little of both, scoring 13.5 points a game and dishing out 4.5 assists per game. Forward Roger Powell Jr. chips in with 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest and James Augustine, who has garnered a ton of attention as the primary reason why Illinois can’t win (because they’ve lost oh so frequently this year), puts up 10.4 points and grabs 7.6 rebounds a game. The Illini’s top subs are senior big men Jack Ingram and Nick Smith, and sophomore guard Rich McBride. Ingram, in particular, has played very solidly in the tournament, and is an asset that Illini will use for depth in the frontcourt.

Illinois is coached by Bruce Weber, who has somehow managed to maintain concentration and focus after the tragic loss of his mother earlier in the winter. He is a true winner and is building quite the reputation after splashing onto the national scene with mid-major Southern Illinois. What a story it would be for Weber to lead the Illini to its first-ever national championship after everything he’s gone through this year.

Louisville and coach Rick Pitino will do everything in their power to make sure that this does not happen, though. Louisville can win in any number of ways. As we’ve seen throughout the tournament, their defense is chameleon- like in that it can change based on the offense it’s up against to stifle their opponent’s attack. At halftime of the regional final against West Virginia, Pitino scrapped the original game plan and made the adjustments necessary for his talented squad to win. Coaching is the one area where Louisville has the advantage. Nothing against Weber, but Pitino is a mastermind.

Louisville has the right players out on the court executing his game plan to get the job done. Like Illinois, Louisville has eight players averaging double figures in minutes, and the starting five does about all of the damage. Garcia is an amazing talent who will probably jump to the pros after the tournament is over. He scores 16 points a game, and is extremely versatile. He’d better stay out of foul trouble, though, because without him, Louisville cannot win this game. Garcia has two sharp-shooting compliments in Dean (14.5 points per game) and O’Bannon (15.2). This trio is lethal shooting the three, and should form an interesting match-up against the Illini’s trio of guards.

On the inside doing the dirty work for the Cardinals are freshman Juan Palacios, and seniors Ellis Myles and Otis George. Myles is Louisville’s top rebounder (9.3 per game), and Palacios has been a pleasant surprise (10 points per game, 6.6 rebounds) in his first year. He’s very good right now, and will be a stud in the future for the Cardinals.

Louisville is not your typical four-seed—especially considering that they are ranked No. 4 in the COUNTRY right now—and have played the “motivation through disrespect” card all tournament long. This is an intangible factor that you can be sure Pitino has been using for motivation since Selection Sunday. Illinois won’t underestimate Louisville, but if Pitino is even more of a motivator than we know, the scales could tip in Louisville’s favor.

Prediction: While Louisville is extremely hot right now and is getting great play from Garcia, Dean, and O’Bannon, Illinois has been the top team all year, and looks primed to march on to the national championship game. This game should be thrilling to watch (which tourney game over the last two weeks hasn’t been?), and if you love the three-point shot, this is your type of game. Like the other Final Four match- up, this should be a tight contest with the No. 1 seed moving on to the finals.

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