Alamodome (San Antonio, TX)
Matchup: #1 Seed Memphis (38-1, 16-0 Conference USA) vs. #1 Kansas (36-3, 13-3 Big 12), 9:21, CBS
Rankings: Memphis, #2 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in C-USA); Kansas, #1 (1st of 12 in Big 12)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas, 73-70 in 71 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 38%
Prospectus: For the first time since Illinois and North Carolina squared off in 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings will play for the National Championship tonight in San Antonio. After two blowouts in the national semis, the basketball gods will surely smile on the hoops nation tonight and grant us all a thrilling finale to what has been a highly entertaining season.
To be fair, one of Saturday's blowouts was actually much more interesting than the final score indicated. Kansas was up 40-12 in the first half, but North Carolina clambered all the way back, improbably, to cut the deficit to 54-50 with 11:16 remaining in the second half. At that point, it seemed clear to everyone that Kansas was finished, but the team set aside its recent tournament history and resumed the domination it had displayed in the first 13 minutes to win going away. The Memphis game was not nearly as entertaining, with Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose completely manhandling UCLA's smaller backcourt, and Kevin Love being held to just 4-of-11 shooting by the excellent defensive positioning of Joey Dorsey down low.
Now Memphis faces off against the one team above it in the Pomeroy Ratings, looking to become the first college basketball squad to ever win 39 games in a season. As Ken Pomeroy mentioned in his breakdown of the semifinal games, this championship game will feature the two best defenses in the country. The Tigers have held Texas and UCLA, two top-10 offenses by adjusted efficiency, to below a point per possession in their past two games, while the Jayhawks' defenders came up with the performance of the year, keeping what looked to be an unstoppable force, the North Carolina offense, to just 0.83 points per possession, its lowest output of the season. Kansas acheived that remarkable feat in large part by swarming to the ball and turning over North Carolina en route to repeated easy buckets during their commanding first-half run. It will not be so easy to come up with steals against Memphis, which has the eighth lowest offensive turnover percentage in the country, and which has not turned it over on more than 12.9 percent of possessions in its four tournament games.
Another thing to take away from the Kansas-North Carolina game was the play of 6'11 rookie Cole Aldrich. In the discussion of the Jayhawks' interior threats in this space on Saturday, Aldrich was not even mentioned, but he was the most dominant defensive player on the court against the Tar Heels, coming off the bench to grab seven rebounds and swat four shots in just 16 minutes of play. Aldrich infused a tremendous amount of energy into Kansas, and seemed to be everywhere during the stretch where the Jayhawks ran way up on North Carolina in the first half. Aldrich could play a key role again tonight, as he is the most massive of the Jayhawks, and should be able to body up with the beasts down low for Memphis (the 6'9 Dorsey and Robert Dozier along with the 6'10 Shawn Taggart). Aldrich is Kansas' best defensive rebounder, as well, having grabbed 28.6 percent of opponents' misses while on the court, a figure that would rank him ninth in the nation had he played enough minutes to qualify. That defensive rebounding will be especially important against Memphis, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The Tigers grabbed 38 percent of the offensive boards against UCLA, a top ten team nationally in defensive rebounding. Aldrich and Kansas were able to hold North Carolina, the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country, to less than a 30 percent performance on the offensive glass, which bodes well for how they will handle the Dorsey-Dozier-Taggart trio down low.
On the perimeter, Memphis has the advantage in terms of length. The Tigers start the 6'4 Rose and 6'6 Douglas-Roberts in addition to 6'6 Antonio Anderson; with 6'4 senior Roderick Stewart getting injured before the North Carolina game, the Jayhawks will counter on the perimeter with the 6'6 Brandon Rush and three guards who are all 6'1 or shorter in Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins. Anderson is mostly a defensive stopper and three-point specialist, but assuming Rush takes Douglas-Roberts, it will be extremely interesting to see who the Jayhawks assign to Rose, and whether the freshman phenom can exploit that matchup. Guarded most of the game against UCLA by the 6'0 Darren Collison, Rose was unstoppable, slashing to the hoop repeatedly for 25 points on 7-of-16 from the floor and 11-of-12 from the line. Chalmers and Robinson were both named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team, but Rose will likely be their toughest cover of the season.
Sticking with the perimeter theme, will Memphis' offense revolve more around the three-point shot tonight, rather than the Tigers venturing inside to test a defense that ranks fourth in the nation in two-point field goal percentage (41) and block percentage (17.2)? Less than 20 percent of the Tigers' attempts against UCLA were from deep, as compared with their seasonal average of 35.3, but, as mentioned before, Kansas' main vulnerability on defense is from beyond the arc. The Jayhawks, however, did hold North Carolina to 5-of-24 shooting from three on Saturday. On offense, Kansas shoots 40 percent from deep, but has not yet faced a defense this season as good as Memphis' at preventing the long ball (30.3 opponent three-point percentage). Of course, the Tigers have the seventh best two-point field goal percentage defense (42.2), as well.
Rose vs. Chalmers/Robinson, Rush vs. Douglas-Roberts, Dorsey and his two cohorts vs. the Kansas four-headed beast down low (Aldrich, Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson)--this game has the exceptional matchups to make for a classic battle. It also has the history, with Memphis looking for its first-ever championship after losing to UCLA in the 1973 title game, and the Jayhawks seeking to reprise their 1988 glory after dropping the finale in 1991 and again in 2003. With so much going for it, and as much talent as both teams will throw at each other tonight, the last game of the 2008 season should be a truly great one.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.