OK- raise your hand if you saw this coming, because if so, I've got a few lottery numbers that I need help picking.
The matchup in Monday night’s championship shouldn't be too surprising, considering both Kansas and Memphis entered the season as national title favorites, and have a combined 74-4 record. But the relative ease with which they dispatched UNC and UCLA was somewhat shocking, considering the level of competition. Kansas jumped all over UNC from the get-go, racing to a 40-12 advantage and making the Heels look slow and timid. Memphis meanwhile, simply overwhelmed UCLA all game, holding a comfortable margin the entire time. Here’s a look back at the weekend.
Perhaps the defining moments of the game occurred with about four minutes left, and Memphis holding a nine-point lead. Fabulous Tigers' freshman Derrick Rose penetrated and lobbed a soft pass up near the basket for Joey Dorsey to throw down, a play Memphis runs a few times each game. Dorsey bobbled the pass and blew the dunk, with the ball eventually landing in the hands of UCLA guard Russell Westbrook, perhaps the only Bruin athletic enough to compete with Memphis on this night. Westbrook raced down the floor, weaving in and out of traffic, and he rose for a lay-up that would cut the lead to seven, and give the Bruins some momentum. Just as he released it, Dorsey, who sprinted the length of the floor to atone for his bobble, took off a few feet behind Westbrook. He extended a giant left paw, swatting the shot out of the air just before it reached the backboard, saving the basket, and deflating UCLA's slim hopes. He said at the post-game press conference that he "just knew he had to make up for missing the dunk."
The play was typical of Memphis all night, as they just seemed a step faster everywhere on the court. Outside of Westbrook, UCLA looked timid on the perimeter, unsure of how to attack the Tigers. Bruin point guard Darren Collison looked like a scared freshman who was asked to scrimmage with the varsity team, not looking for his own shot and turning the ball over five times. Worse yet, the Bruins couldn't seem to get the ball to Kevin Love, who scored just 12 points, and only two in the second half. After all the talk of the Bruins being only a post player away from a title the past two seasons, they couldn't get him shots when it mattered most.
Meanwhile, the Tigers backcourt of Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts continued to play lights-out, combining for 53 points on 16-33 shooting. Rose simply gets better each game, as he got into the lane at will against the Bruins’ guards. Right next to him, CDR was a monster match-up problem with his height and speed, and it was his emphatic left-handed dunk over Love that punctuated the victory. Even the Tigers’ alleged weakness, free-throws, was forgotten for the third straight game, as they went 20-23. To be blunt, when Memphis plays like that, they're unbeatable, and the Bruins will attest to that. Another effort like this, and the Tigers will be cutting down the nets on Monday.
The talk leading up to the game, besides UNC Coach Roy Williams going against his former school, was that both teams played an up-tempo game, and scoring would be early and often. Well that turned out to be only half-true, as Kansas came out and just blew the doors off UNC, opening up a 40-12 lead on the strength of an 18-0 run. The Jayhawks made the ultra-quick Heels look like they were running in quicksand, getting to every loose ball and getting any shot they wanted both in transition and in the half-court offense. On defense, they never let UNC establish a comfort zone, doubling Tyler Hansbrough in the post and coming up with weakside steals and blocks again and again. Keep in mind, this is a UNC team that entered the game at 36-2, and had won 15 straight games, yet they went over nine minutes without a field goal.
In the second half, the Heels mounted a valiant comeback, closing the gap to four behind Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Showing more effort on defense and more patience on offense, the Heels looked like they were on the verge of a historic comeback. But just as they got close, the Jayhawks found their second wind, pushing the lead back out and closing out the game on a 17-5 run. Guard Brandon Rush (25 points) was magnificent, as was the three-headed point guard tandem of Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins, as they limited Ty Lawson to just nine points and two assists. Inside, two and sometimes three defenders constantly swarmed Hansbrough, and he never got into the rhythm he found against Louisville. Carolina showed a lot of heart in battling back when it appeared nothing could go right, but in the end, Kansas was just the better team.
Looking Ahead: Kansas-Memphis
This one should be fun. Both teams run, defend and have a ton of depth to keep everybody fresh. Both coaches are looking for their first national title, and both have silenced some doubters along the way. Kansas' guards will be giving up size to Rose, CDR and Antonio Anderson, but their defensive prowess may make up for that. Robinson and Chalmers are outstanding one-on-one and help defenders; meaning Memphis can't get careless with the ball. Off the bench, Collins is fearless, attacking the basket and using his strength to finish around bigger players. Kansas also has enough inside to match up with the Tigers, between Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Aldrich. Look for them to go at Dorsey early and try to get him in foul trouble.
The key for Memphis will be handling the Jayhawk pressure and running their dribble-drive offense. The Tigers are a confident bunch right now, and they feel they're capable of beating anyone. Rose has been fantastic, and if he's on, there's no defender that can stay in front of him, even veterans like Chalmers or Robinson. CDR has been just as good, and his match-up with Brandon Rush should be great. The Tigers also bring an impressive collection of athletes off the bench in Shawn Taggert, Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp, guys who can continue pressuring the ball and pushing the tempo. If Memphis can continue to get contributions from Robert Dozier and Anderson as the defense focuses on Rose and CDR, they'll be tough to beat.
In the end, Memphis wins this game much they did against UCLA, getting out to a solid lead and maintaining it throughout. Kansas played brilliantly in the first 15 minutes against UNC, but it's doubtful they'll get open looks like that against Memphis. Additionally, after putting so much energy into holding off the furious Tar Heel comeback, how much juice do the Jayhawks have left in the tank? If they get down 10 or 12 early, can they come back? Look for an exciting game with plenty of action, but when it’s all said and done, it will be the Memphis Tigers watching “One Shining Moment” on the Alamodome floor.
Both UNC and UCLA had fantastic years, unfortunately marred by poor endings. On the bright side, both teams could return virtually intact next year, in addition to adding stellar recruiting classes.
If Love, Westbrook and Collision decide to stick around, they'll be aided by a great four-man class led by Jrue Holiday, a big point guard who gives the Bruins some much-needed size in the back court. The class also includes do-everything guard Malcolm Lee, and big man Drew Gordon, which should improve the Bruins’ depth. Shooting guard Michael Roll will also be available again, after missing the season with injuries, giving the offensively-challenged Bruins another weapon from outside.
For the Heels, its possible they’ll lose only back-up point guard Quentin Thomas heading into next year. If Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington come back, they'll join a three-man recruiting class that gives the Heels more size (Tyler Zeller), more athleticism (Ed Davis) and another shooter (Larry Drew). They'll also return a guard from injury, as Bobby Frasor should be back and ready to go.