Sunday, March 25, 2007

March Madness: and then there were 4

The Hoyas surprise the Tarheels and the Gators hold off the Ducks to join UCLA & Ohio State in the Final 4

JT III has got the Hoyas back in the upper echelon

Ohio State 92, Memphis 76
UCLA 65, Kansas 58
Florida 85, Oregon 77
Georgetown 96, N. Carolina 84 (OT)
2Georgetown vs. 1Ohio State
2UCLA vs. 1Florida

Who woulda thunk it: a pair of 1 vs. 2 matchups to decide which team is the best in all the land?

After many years of huge upsets, shocking collapses and double-digit seed party crashers the best team of this season will actually be culled from the best teams, without some feel-good Cinderella on a 3-week long ride of 15 minutes of fame that inevitably slides back to mid-major mediocrity (hello, George Mason) sneaking in to mess things up.

This year's pairing of two-#1s and two-#2s marks the most top seeds to make the Final 4 since 1993, when three 1s and a 2 played for the title, won by 1Carolina.
Speaking of Carolina, the Tarheels & Hoyas hooked up for what ended up being a classic rematch of their classic 1982 championship game, and the UCLA/Florida meeting will be a rematch of last year's championship, a blow out by the Gators.

Those are some of the more interesting stories to come out of the Elite 8; let's take a look back at how the four teams advanced to Atlanta next weekend.

-Hurricane Hoya slams Carolina as Heels go ice cold down the stretch
The debate is already raging- did the Georgetown Hoyas really win this epic Elite 8 matchup, or did the boys from Chapel Hill simply choke it away?

The answer, as it usually is nowadays, is a little of both. True, the Tarheels were cruising in the latter part of the second half, enjoying an 11-point lead with 12:00 to play, and then proceeded to lay enough bricks to start a new HG-TV show called Masonry Made Easy, a definite hallmark of a world-class choke job.

But the Hoyas didn't exactly lay down and allow the Tarheel Blue machine to roll over them and make them another patch in the Tobacco Road championship drive. Despite being grossly outscored at the free throw line (29-12) and out rebounded for most of the game, GTown never gave up, constantly pressuring Carolina until wear and fatigue caught up with them, and when it did the Hungry Hungry Hoyas were there to take full advantage.

By the time the smoke cleared Carolina had missed 22 of its final 23 field goal attempts including the first 12 of overtime and the Hoyas, who tied the game on a clutch trey by Johnathan Wallace with 31 seconds left, closed the game with a 30-10 run that left the crowd, the Tarheel faithful and the entire audience stunned and exhausted.

It was an epic game that was played just shy of the 25th anniversary (Mar 29) of that memorable title game, when John Thompson's Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing, lost to Michael Jordan's Tarheels, 63-62. The most memorable play of that one, other than Jordan's infamous game-winning corner jumper, is the steal by James Worthy off of Fred Brown in the closing seconds, as Brown threw the ball right to Worthy, apparently mistaking him for a teammate.

The 2006-07 edition of the Hoyas, led by Thompson's son and with Ewing's son playing a pivotal role, might have just returned the favor and put the choke collar around the Tarheels' neck.

-Gators survive (again) and advance to 2nd straight F4
This is called the "been here, done this" pose
Florida continued its march to a second consecutive national championship with a less-than-impressive win over the spunky Oregon Ducks. As in its previous three tourney victories, The Gators seemed to be either sleepwalking or plain disinterested with the proceedings early on, falling behind in the first half for the 3rd straight game and clinging to a two-point lead at halftime, 40-38.

But for the 4th straight time the Gators pulled away from a game opponent in the second half, backed by the sharpshooting of Lee Humphrey (23 pts, including 7-3s) and strong inside play of Joakim Noah (14 pts, 14 rebs.) For good measure underrated guard Taurean Green added 21 points and Corey Brewer chipped in 14 as well; all this offense made it okay that surefire lottery pick Al Horford only had 6 points

After winning its 10th consecutive tourney game it's become glaringly obvious that this is a confident, veteran team that doesn't get rattled when facing early deficits, instead laying in wait while the opponent throws everything they have at them and then, just like its reptilian namesake, waiting for the right moment before tearing the opponents throat out.

Now we'll see if UCLA will be able to learn from its last destruction at the hands of Florida last April and find a way to solve the puzzle of how to defeat the Gators in the postseason.

-Ohio State didn't need a 20-pt comeback to knock off Memphis
The Ohio State Buckeyes had been living life on the edge these past two weeks, barely squeaking by Xavier last weekend and then running down Tennessee in that aforementioned comeback on Thursday. But as a team anchored by two scintillating 18-year-olds, what else would you expect?

The young Bucks passed another freshman exam by advancing the team to its first Final 4 appearance since the heyday of Jim O'Brien in 1999 on the backs of two players of disparaging height differences but possessors of equally large game. Guard Mike Conley Jr., son of the Olympic gold medalist, sparked the Buckeyes with his solid all-around performance (19 pts, 4 rebs, 2 ass, 2 stls), and soon-to-be top 2 draft pick Greg Oden tiptoed around foul trouble to contribute 17 points and 9 boards.

Combine the power of youth with the stability of senior leadership, i.e. senior guard Ron Lewis' game-high 22 points, and you have a team that was able to knock off a decent but overrated Memphis team. The defense did its job as well, shutting down key Tiger contributors Joey Dorsey (he averaged 9 pts & 9 rebs in the reg season but had zero points & 3 rebs in this one) and leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts, who scored all 14 of his points between the final minute of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second, not exactly "crunch time."

So the Buckeyes move on to play the Bruins in the "Who Wants a Rematch with the Gators more? If the Florida/Ohio State BCS championship game rematch does come to pass, it will be interesting to see how the boldness of youth handles the calmness of experience.

And by interesting I mean probably as ugly as the BCS title game.

-Bruins have folks in Lawrence chanting "Rock, Choke Jayhawk" again
This was supposed to be the year. The year that coach Bill Self broke his personal 0-3 Elite 8 curse and the Kansas Jayhawks made it back to the Final 4 for the first time since 2003.
Wrong and wrong.

UCLA reminded everyone that it wasn't ranked in the top 5 in the country most of the season for nothing, dispatching the disappointing Hawks thanks to an efficient offense-UCLA shot 53% from the field- and a "rock" solid defense, holding the high-flyin' Hawks to 55 points on 41% shooting.

The Bruins were led, of course, by their all-everything guard Arron Afflalo. The junior tallied a game-high 24 points on scorching 10-15 shooting, including 3 of the Bruins' 8 treys, and was the glue that held the team together through the punishing defense the Jayhawks laid on them.

If this game were an album it would be the Stones' Sticky Fingaz because both teams combined for a mind-boggling 32 steals, 17 by the Hawks and 15 for the Bruins. Gooey-digited Kansas guard Mario Chalmers did his part to keep the Hawks' alive, nabbing an astonishing 6 picks, while two other players had 5 steals apiece and three pilfered at least 4 balls each. It was like every time one team tried to make a pass or a play, a defender was there to intercept it. Crazy to watch.
But it was the boys from LA who ended up on the winning end of this defensive battle, and now the Bruins will get their chance to avenge last year's humiliating title game loss to the Gators.

Let's hope UCLA brings its stick um.

No comments: