Alamodome (San Antonio, TX)
Matchup: #1 Seed UCLA (35-3, 16-2 Pac 10) vs. #1 Memphis (37-1, 16-0 Conference USA), 6:07, CBS
Rankings: UCLA, #2 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 10 in Pac 10); Memphis, #3 (1st of 12 in C-USA)
Pomeroy Prediction: UCLA, 68-67 in 68 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 49%
Prospectus: It doesn't get any better than this. For all the legitimate agita over four No. 1 seeds making the Final Four--and it is indeed in many respects a sad day because of the lack of any underdogs--there is something purely awesome about the unquestioned four best teams locking horns to decide the national champion. Compare the NCAA tournament this year to the BCS, where there is no opportunity for an underdog squad to sneak into the title game via postseason upset, yet often there is still legitimate griping over who should be playing for the national championship. Once again, college basketball has proved itself far superior.
Saturday's semifinal opener promises to be the closer of the two games, per the Pomeroy Ratings. UCLA ranks seventh in adjusted efficiency on offense, and second on defense, while Memphis is fourth and fifth, respectively. The Tigers have silenced their doubters by turning in back-to-back dominant performances over very strong teams. UCLA, after eviscerating Mississippi Valley St. in its tournament opener, struggled through wins over Texas A&M and Western Kentucky, before turning in a dominant performance of its own in a 76-57 win over a very strong Xavier squad to reach the Final Four, so both of these teams enter this evening's game off of blowout victories.
The Memphis offense is churning along at full bore, having put up 1.38 points per possession against Michigan St. and 1.25 against Texas. As Ken Pomeroy mentioned on the site yesterday, the Memphis offense during the tournament has to a large extent been powered by getting to the free throw line, having put up free throw rates (FTs shot per 100 FGs shot) of 64.8, 50.8, 51.4, and 69.2. This is a curious development considering that the Tigers rank just 193rd in the nation in free throw rate, with an average of less than 25 free throws shot per 100 field goal attempts. In addition to that, coach John Calipari has thus far been right about his team's free throw shooting--Memphis has stepped it up in the postseason, with a 56-of-71 showing (79 percent, compared with a seasonal average of 61). Is that the result of clutch ability, or simply of doing a better job getting the ball to its best free throw shooters (Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose, who shot a combined 21-of-25 from the line against Texas and 17-of-19 against Michigan St.)? Or is it just plain old luck?
Of course, Memphis' free throw percentage is not nearly the issue that it has been made out to be. A far bigger problem for Memphis was pointed out by Ken Pomeroy in yesterday's back-and-froth with John Gasaway--opponents have found it extremely difficult to earn trips to the free throw line against UCLA. The Bruins have allowed just 25 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts, the eighth lowest rate in the nation, and the highest free throw rate UCLA has allowed in its four games was the 36.1 that Western Kentucky put up. Simply put, the Bruins play outstanding defense without fouling, so Memphis is not going to be able to count on going to the line 30+ times, as it has in each of its four tournament games to date.
If not from the free throw line, where can the Tigers get their points? Memphis has been outstanding on the offensive glass this season, as the specialty of forwards Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier, and Shawn Taggert has been scooping up misses and depositing second-chance opportunities. Again, however, Memphis could be stymied in this regard by UCLA's defense. The Bruins, led by freshman center Kevin Love, are seventh in the nation in defensive rebounding. Memphis has not faced a team that has rebounded as well as UCLA, and the results could be extremely disruptive for the Tigers' offense, which depends on getting multiple looks per possession.
The battle then boils down, essentially, to whether or not the Dorsey/Taggert/Dozier trio can maintain its rebounding acumen in the presence of Love. If Love and the rest of the UCLA rebounders win out, and Memphis is taken away from the free throw line and the offensive glass, then it will likely have to rely on three point shooting, which is certainly not its forte. The Tigers rank 160th in the nation with a long-range percentage of 35.1. UCLA holds opponents to 32.9 percent from deep, and also does an excellent job at limiting attempts (27.8 percent of field goals taken against the Bruins come from deep, the 16th lowest rate).
Besides the critical battle inside, this game will also feature a meeting of two of the best point guards in the country. Memphis' representative, freshman Derrick Rose, has played remarkably well in the past three games. After coming close to a triple double against Mississippi St. in the second round, with 17 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, Rose scored 27 points and dished five assists versus Michigan St., and then followed that up with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the win over Texas, to go along with six boards and nine assists. Rose teams with 6'6 junior swingman Douglas-Roberts on the perimeter to form a deadly one-two scoring punch that the Bruins cannot match. UCLA point guard Darren Collison has an offensive rating of 121.2, second best on the team to Love and higher than all Memphis players, but the team's second-leading user of possessions, junior swingman Josh Shipp, has shot just 35 eFG% from the floor and averaged 6.25 points in the four tournament games. Sophomore guard Russell Westbrook scored 17 points on 68 eFG% against Xavier, and the Bruins will likely need him to step up again if Shipp continues his struggles, in order to relieve the pressure on Love down low.
This game is a rematch of the 1973 national championship game, won by the Bruins 87-66. UCLA's last championship game appearance was two years ago, when it fell 73-57 to Florida.
Matchup: #1 Seed North Carolina (36-2, 14-2 Atlantic Coast) vs. #1 Kansas (35-3, 13-3 Big 12), 8:47, CBS
Rankings: North Carolina, #4 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in Atlantic Coast); Kansas, #1 (1st of 12 in Big 12)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas, 82-78 in 75 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 35%
Prospectus: Kansas faced the easiest path to the Final Four of any of the No. 1 seeds, and struggled in its Elite Eight matchup more than any of the other three, needing a last-second stop of Stephen Curry to sneak past Davidson 59-57 and into the final weekend for the first time in Bill Self's five years leading the Jayhawks. Now that the coach and his players have that monkey off their backs, and are entering a game in the tournament as an underdog for the first time in quite some time, will Kansas play the way it is capable against North Carolina? The Jayhawks will have to in order to advance, because North Carolina has been the most unstoppable team in the tournament to date. After holding Washington St.'s offense to 0.71 points per possession in a 66-possession, 68-47 win, the Tar Heels ripped Louisville's defense, ranked fourth in the country by adjusted efficiency, for 1.22 points per possession in their 10-point East regional final victory.
Kansas is one spot ahead of Louisville in the defensive efficiency rankings, making the Jayhawks the toughest test to date for North Carolina's offense, which has assumed the top spot by adjusted offensive efficiency. Kansas has scored 1.179 points per possession this season to North Carolina's 1.177, but the Jayhawks rank second in adjusted efficiency, at 1.25 PPP to the Tar Heels' 1.27.
The Kansas defense would appear to be a good match for North Carolina's offense, as the Jayhawks' weakness on defense lies on the perimeter. Kansas has allowed opponents to shoot 38.5 percent of their field goal attempts from three-point range--which ranks them in the bottom 60 teams in the country in that category--and convert on one third of attempts. North Carolina, however, has shot a lower percentage of three-pointers this season than all but one other Division I school, having fired from deep on just 22.3 percent of its field goal tries. Kansas also shoots infrequently from long range (29.7 percent of field goal attempts), so this game, as mentioned yesterday by Pomeroy and Gasaway, should not feature much three-point shooting. The Jayhawks, however, are deadly when they do jack it up, with a 40.1 three-point percentage, the eighth best in the country.
Kansas also ranks sixth in two-point field goal percentage, and the opportunity is there for it to score on the Tar Heels inside the arc. While North Carolina is a good defensive rebounding team, and is even better at preventing opponents from getting to the line, the team's interior defense is not the strongest, for the Tar Heels have allowed opponents to shoot 47.5 percent on two-pointers. With the 6'8 Darnell Jackson, 6'9 Darrell Arthur, and 6'11 Sasha Kaun, Kansas has three highly efficient players it can throw at North Carolina's frontline of 6'9 Tyler Hansbrough and 6'8 Deon Thompson. The Jayhawks also have several perimeter slashers, in Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Sherron Collins, who can all effectively take the ball to the basket.
When North Carolina is on offense, the Tar Heels will look to take advantage of the offensive boards, as well as the free throw line, to score against Kansas' extremely stingy defense. The Tar Heels are first in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, thanks primarily to Hansbrough, as well as the 6'8 Thompson and 6'5 swingman Danny Green. North Carolina's offense is also powered by the ability to reach the foul line of Hansbrough, who has shot more free throws than anyone in the nation, and more free throws than any player in North Carolina history. Kansas ranks 24th in defensive rebounding percentage, and 67th in free throw rate defense.
North Carolina enters having played three straight tournament games under 70 possessions, which is far below the pace that the Tar Heels like to play at, but that slower tempo has not bothered the team in the least. This game, however, should be a speedy one, as Kansas also enjoys getting out in transition. A key aspect to watch related to the tempo of the game will be whether Kansas can take advantage of North Carolina crashing the offensive glass so hard by getting out and scoring on the fast break, as John Gasaway discussed yesterday. If Jackson, Arthur, Kaun, and Rush can do a decent job securing the defensive boards and holding Hansbrough at bay, there could be plenty of opportunities for quick outlet passes to let Chalmers, Collins, and Russell Robinson try to beat the Tar Heels defense back down the floor to create easy scoring chances. If that happens early on and North Carolina coach Roy Williams consequently tells his players to fall back after a miss, then the game could turn into a defensive struggle.
Williams will be facing his former team for the first time since he left the Jayhawks to coach North Carolina after the 2003 season. Williams won a title two years later with the Tar Heels, while Kansas is hoping today to get back to the final game for the first time since that 2003 season, which ended with an 81-78 loss to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in the national title game.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.