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April 6, 2008
Bracket Breakdown
The National Semifinals

by Ken Pomeroy

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Memphis 78, UCLA 63 [69 possessions]

We saw this script play out in Memphis' games against Michigan State and Texas to get to the Final Four. It was another steady performance in which the Tigers never seemed in jeopardy of losing. Memphis' three guards outscored UCLA on their own (65-63) while their frontline, specifically Joey Dorsey, limited Kevin Love to 12 points and nine rebounds. The only UCLA player who was effective offensively was Russell Westbrook, who also happens to be the only UCLA player with the kind of athletic ability that might impress a member of the Memphis backcourt.

UCLA's half-court defense was good enough for them to stay with Memphis, but they allowed far too many transition opportunities. Had UCLA better prevented the fast break baskets, they could have followed a low-scoring roadmap to a victory even by scoring just 63 points. Instead, the Bruins relied solely on Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook to defend the Memphis run-outs. Given Derrick Rose's and Chris Douglas-Roberts' ability to finish, Memphis was able to exploit the transition D not just off of turnovers (the Bruins only had 11) but equally as frequently off of defensive rebounds or blocked shots.

Even though Memphis won going away, they made less than a third of their 33 long two-point attempts. Their offense survived off of fast break points and a 20 of 23 performance at the line. It helped that CDR and Rose, the Tigers' two best free throw shooters, took all of the attempts.

A footnote to the game is the future of Kevin Love. Love got as good of a simulation of an NBA defense as exists at the college level and the results weren't encouraging. The broadcast crew wondered why Love didn't get more touches but Love was rarely available to get the ball. Repeatedly, a UCLA half-court set would begin with Love wrestling Dorsey for position for five to 10 seconds, followed by Love resigning his fate and attempting to set a ball screen for Collison, Westbrook or Josh Shipp. It was widely thought that Love was headed for the NBA, but based on this game, I wouldn't assume it's a slam dunk.

Kansas 84, North Carolina 66 [79]

The margin was as lopsided as the opening game in the Alamodome, but this game had a tinge of drama well into the second half. The contest featured three extended stretches in which one team dominated the other. The Jayhawks were the dominators in two of those, and hence won convincingly. It took a while to get there, though.

In the first half, Kansas scored 29 points over a 16-possession span at the same time the Tar Heels were managing just four points. This turned an 11-8 Kansas lead into a 40-12 game. Equally as astonishing was the Kansas drought that followed. They'd score just a single Mario Chalmers' two-pointer over their next 14 times with the ball. A Sherron Collins lay-up on the half's 42nd and final possession gave the Jayhawks a 44-27 advantage at the break.

This game was expected to be fast-paced, but mainly because Roy Williams was coaching one of the teams. Kansas isn't afraid to play as a faster tempo, but their average pace on the season was just one possession faster than the national average. Yet Kansas was as responsible for the breakneck pace of the first half as Carolina was. The average Jayhawk possession lasted 14.8 seconds, just a smidge longer than UNC's 13.9. Quite a few of those UNC possessions were shortened not by quick shots, but by the Kansas defense, which had seven steals in the first 20 minutes.

Even with Kansas up 17 at intermission, the potential for another 40+ possession half indicated that the lead wasn't insurmountable. With a 54-37 lead early in the second half, Kansas went on an 11-possession scoring drought, while the Tar Heels cut the lead to four. UNC had the ball down 58-53 and had a Danny Green three-pointer do a 360 around the rim and spin out. That was the last UNC threat. The weak spot of the Tar Heels--the lack of ability to score three points at a time--prevented them from finishing off what would have been an historic comeback. A team that took under a quarter of its shots from beyond the arc this season attempted 24 threes in this game, making just five.

The takeaways from this game were the Kansas defense and Cole Aldrich. The defense was excellent, especially in keeping the best offensive rebounding team in the country from getting many second shots. UNC didn't get an offensive board until the 8:42 mark of the first half, by which point KU had built a 23-point lead. Aldrich got some quality minutes when Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur picked up two fouls in the first half, and looked like someone who won't be intimidated by the Memphis front line should he be called on Monday night.

So what to expect for Monday? For starters, it seems pretty conclusive that these are the two best defenses in the nation. However, don't forget that their offenses are solid as well. Together these teams have produced just one game below a point per possession in March and April, and that was Kansas' 59 point/60 possession game against Davidson.

Kansas should be a little more focused on preventing Memphis transition baskets than UCLA was. Despite the speedy pace of the Kansas/UNC game, Carolina scored a mere 14 points off the fast break and just two fast break buckets came after a missed Kansas shot. I'm wondering about the quality of shots each team will get. Rose and Douglas-Roberts are going to have to get points against a set defense more often. KU's leading scorer Brandon Rush will have to find a way to make shots with Antonio Anderson all over him. All in all, the ingredients are in place for a spurt-proof game that should come down to the wire. To some extent, we thought that would be true about Saturday's games. Here's hoping that two weeks of lopsided games pays off Monday night.

Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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