Saturday, April 2, 2011

Final Four Predictions

Yesterday, I was going to write an April Fool's article on how Kentucky will have to vacate this year's Final Four after the NCAA found improprieties into UK's recruiting of various players including Enes Kanter.  But since there have been two John Calipari teams having vacated their Final Four standing already (UMass and Memphis), I might seriously have the NCAA contacting me as a result (as in where I got my info).

Congratulations to Wichita State as they won the 2011 NIT defeating Alabama (coached by former VCU coach Anthony Grant) Thursday night 66-57.  The Shockers were quite impressive at MSG, having defeated Washington State by 31 on Tuesday night.  The Shockers shot 48.6% from the field, which was above their 46.4% FG shooting for the season, which was 43rd in the country.  Wichita State finished 29-8 on the year.  The Shockers have played two teams that are in this year's Final Four.  UConn rallied to defeat Wichita State 83-79 in nationally televised game at the Maui Invitational.  VCU defeated Wichita State 68-67 in a nationally televised BracketBuster game.

Creighton tried to make it to two Missouri Valley champions but barely lost to Oregon 71-69 in the third and deciding game of the CBI Championship series.  As I was watching the game on HDNET last night, I didn't realize/see the midcourt line.  The rocket scientists who designed the Oregon basketball court floor made the halfcourt line barely visible.  And the Bluejays' Antoine Young, their leading scorer, who had received the inbounds pass with 26 seconds left, didn't see it either.  He stepped backwards over the line and was called for the over and back violation.  Then E.J. Singler hit a jumper with two seconds left for the victory.  In a season full of ironies, Ducks coach Dana Altman defeated his former team, the Bluejays, coached by Greg McDermott, former arch rival of his at Northern Iowa.

So today, it's the Final Four, one of the most unique Final Fours ever.  No number one seeds.  Two storied Power Six conference programs - UConn and Kentucky, an unlikely but talented returning Final Four team, Butler and a team, VCU that was one of the last at large teams in the tournament, a team that has set the new standard for most games won to make a Final Four (five).  The first game is the battle for the Mid Major Championship between Butler and VCU.  And the second game is between two coaches who have had recent NCAA violations in their program (Jim Calhoun) or past programs (John Calipari).

Let's start with the second game, which is a rematch of the Maui Invitational championship game.  Now I don't write much about Power Six conference teams, because they already get a lot of coverage, but I watch a lot of Power Six conference games on TV (plus I went to seven Power Six conference games during the season).  When I first saw Kentucky in the Maui Classic, I was really impressed with their transition game.  They were exciting to watch.  When they got throttled by UConn in the championship, I saw the Wildcats struggle in the half court game.  Josh Harrelson struggled in that game as Alex Oriakhi had a double double while Harrelson had a goose egg in his 25 minutes.

UK has improved greatly in that facet as they have the ability to work the ball for the open three and they have got Harrelson much more involved lately than for a good part of the season.  Through 23 games, Harrelson only had six games where he scored in double figures.  In the last seven games, Harrelson has had six double figure scoring games and three of those games were double doubles.  The Wildcats now have an inside game.

Meanwhile, UConn was mostly Kemba Walker all the time for a good part of the season.  And it worked for the most part as the Huskies were at one point 17-2 and 5-2 in the Big East.  But once into the teeth of the conference season, UConn struggled.  They lost seven of their last eleven conference games and finished at .500 in conference.   They ended up playing on the first day of the Big East Tournament.  And we all know what happened, the Huskies set a Big East record by winning five games in five days to win the Big East Championship.

A lot of that was due to the fact that UConn somewhat diversified their offense.  And Jeremy Lamb's consistency has been a key during their nine game Big East and NCAA Tournament winning streak.  At the beginning of the season, the freshman was streaky.  After scoring double digits in his first game against Stony Brook, here's what Lamb did as far as scoring;

Nov. 17 - Nov. 30 - Zero games in double figures.
Dec. 3 - Dec. 22 - Four games in a row in double figures.
Dec. 27 - Jan. 11 - Zero games in double figures.
Jan. 15 - Feb. 10 - Eight games in double figures.
Feb. 13 - Mar. 5 - Only double figure scoring game in seven games.
Mar. 8 - present - Nine straight double figure scoring games.

Talk about streaky.  But Lamb has saved his real hot streak for a good time.  In the past nine games, Lamb has averaged nearly 16 points per game while shooting 53 of 107 from the field (obviously just about 50 percent). In his last four games, Lamb is 11 of 15 from beyond the arc.

So, there are a couple of keys to this game - Harrelson and Lamb.   Harrelson simply must have a better game against Oriakhi than he did in the first game.  And UK must especially limit UConn's second chance opportunities as the Huskies are the 11th best rebounding team in the country and average over 14 offensive rebounds per game.  Meanwhile, Lamb must continue his torrid shooting to keep UK honest in their defense against Walker.

Now for the first game.  It's a game where no one expected either of these teams to be here.  Yes Butler made the finals last season.  But with their best player, Gordon Hayward leaving school to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft,  despite having most of last season's National Runnerup Team intact, a Sweet 16 would have been a great follow up to last season.   Yet Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have willed their team to their second straight Final Four with the trademark "Butler Way" - hard nosed defense, good ball possession, clutch play at the end of games and a will not to lose.

Meanwhile, VCU, one of three CAA team in the NCAA Tournament this season, was raked over the coals by so-called experts for being one of the last teams selected as an at large bid.  They had to play in the one of the first ever First Four games.  So what did they do.  The Rams simply went out and throttle their opposition. With the exception of a one point Sweet Sixteen win over Florida State in OT, VCU has won every other game by double digits including their stunning ten point win over #1 seed Kansas in the Southeast Regional Final.   Yes, their three point shooting has been superb, but as I noted in a previous article, it's their much improved half court defense that has made the difference.

When I look at this game, I expect a rock fight, a slug fest half court game.  Now normally, you would think this favors Butler in a big way.  But this isn't the case.  First, VCU comes from the CAA, the conference of the rock fights.  The Rams have had their share of rock fights vs. ODU and especially Drexel.  They will be used to this style of play.

Also, I read somewhere in the past day or two that Butler has more depth than VCU.  Sorry folks, I know both these teams very well and I think VCU has more depth than Butler.   The Bulldogs only really go eight deep with Ronald Nored/Chase Stigall, Zack Hahn, and Khyle Marshall coming off the bench.  Garrett Butcher plays a f ew minutes and you might have a Chrishawn Hopkins sighting, but it's really eight deep. VCU has nine players who average about ten minutes and another players who averages eight minutes (D.J Haley).  This depth comes in very handy for their relentless press which basically winded Kansas in their regional final game.

It's easy to say the keys to the game are Jamie Skeen and Matt Howard.  And those two players are major figures in this.  But I think you need to dig deeper for this game.   I think the first key for Butler is Ronald Nored.   Nored will likely be responsible for guarding Joey Rodriguez.  Rodriguez has torched every Power Six conference team in VCU's way in the tournament with 33 assists and only 10 turnovers in five games.  Nored must limit Rodriguez' ability to drive into the lane where he kicks it back for the open three.

As for VCU, look for Juvonte Reddick to play an integral part.  Reddick's play so far in the NCAA Tournament has been spotty at best.  He was huge against Purdue with 12 points,  but has only played more than ten minutes in three of the five games.  He needs to use his 6 foot 9 frame to keep Butler's Andrew Smith off the glass today.  If Reddick can give them fifteen quality minutes and keep Smith at bay, VCU has a really good chance to win.

So as for predictions, well let's get to the second game first.   I think Lamb will have another big day for UConn and though Harrelson will do better against Oriakhi, Oriakhi will limit him more than other teams have so far in the tournament.  And then it comes down to Walker vs. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight.  As much as Jones and Knight have been huge at the end of games, Walker is the best player on the floor.  Walker will be the difference at the end of this game as UConn prevails in a nail biter.

As for our featured first game, well toss a coin in the air and decide it.  Yes Butler has the experience advantage with this being their second Final Four in a row.  But the team is not as deep as last year's team.  Plus VCU is not 2006 George Mason.   With the exception of the Seminoles game, they have throttled their opponents and have simply no fear in them right now.  Plus the Rams style of play I think is really conducive to wearing the Bulldogs down.   The Bulldogs will have an advantage on the boards, but I think VCU's length will give them fits.  In a very close game with Bradford Burgess hitting a huge three down the stretch, VCU takes it.

However, this is why they play the games.  It should be a great day of basketball games.  And I can't wait. I bet neither can you.  Enjoy.

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