On Monday and Tuesday, I offered my projections for each of the brackets in this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. If all goes according to plan, here's how I see the Final Four and National Championship game shaping up:
(#3 South) Texas A&M vs. (#2 East) Georgetown - Nobody should be surprised that the Aggies reach the Final Four. Entering the tournament, their record of 25-6 (13-3, Big 12), was one of the best in the nation. Five of those six losses were on the road or neutral sites, and their last four losses have been by 2, 2, 2 and 1 point. In that span, they lost twice to Texas Tech, but interestingly, they beat conference champion Kansas in their only meeting this season.
Georgetown (26-6, 13-3, Big East), when on their game, can beat anyone, and they proved that in the latter stages of the Big East season, winning 15 of their last 16 and capturing the Big East tourney title in the process. In their run to the title, they hammered highly-touted Pitt twice, 61-53 on Feb. 24, and 65-42 in the tournament finals.
The Hoyas are led by Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green and their imposing center, 7'2" Roy Hibbert. Add to the mix starting forward DaJuan Summers at 6'8" and with the 6'9" Green, the Hoyas are huge up front and that's been the key to most of their wins. They control the paint and the boards and usually find their way to the foul line more often than their opponents. They also bring in 6'8" Patrick Ewing Jr. off the bench for even more muscle and size.
By contrast, the Aggies rely more on their guards and will often put three guards on the court at the same time. Acie Law is the team leader and top scorer at 17.9 points per game. Law and backcourt mate Josh Carter need to hit their threes to keep A&M close.
The Aggies will struggle to keep Hibbert and Green from dominating and eventually, the size advantage will work to Georgetown's favor as they advance to the finals. The score will likely be somewhere in the 60s as the Hoyas have continued to improve defensively all season.
(#1 West) Kansas vs. (#3 Midwest) Oregon - The Jayhawks are supposed to reach the Final Four; Oregon will be somewhat of a surprise to many as the Ducks are an undersized, but overachieving, bunch.
Kansas (30-4, 14-2 Big 12) has been one of the most consistent teams throughout the course of the 2006-07 season. They captured the Big 12 regular season and tournament title and may have the easiest path to the Final Four of any team. The next best team in their bracket is probably UCLA, Gonzaga or Pitt, and they wouldn't have to play any of them until the regional final as they are in the bottom half of the bracket. There is simply a shortage of quality in the West region. Last season, the Jayhawks were ousted in the opening round by Bradley. Don't expect any slippage this time around.
Kansas may have the best backcourt in the country. Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers can each light it up from 3-point range or slashes into the lane. They also distribute the ball very well and Rush is an adept rebounder (2nd on the team at 5.7 per game). What makes the Jayhawks tough is their balance. In addition to Rush and Chalmers, forwards Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur also average double figures in scoring.
Kansas does have two weaknesses which will show themselves in this semi-final game: turnovers and free throws. Rush's assist/turnover ratio is slightly under 1-1, Chalmers' is only 3-2. Against the lightning quick Oregon guards, that's going to be a problem. They are also not proficient from the foul line. Only Chalmers and sub Sherrod Collins shoot over 70% from the charity stripe. Missing key free throws in close games has doomed many a potential national champion and Kansas is certainly not immune.
Oregon (26-7, 11-7 PAC-10) is one team in the field that is downright scary. Following a stretch in which they were 2-6 (including 6 road games), the Ducks finished strong, winning their final six games and the PAC-10 tournament in the process. Their average margin of victory in their three PAC-10 tourney games was an impressive 20.3 per game, including an 81-57 win in the final against USC.
Oregon lives and dies with the outside shooting of Aaron Brooks, Tajuan Porter and Bryce Taylor. They'll put up as many as 30 3-pointers in a game, something they do with regularity. When they're on they win. If they shoot less than 40% from beyond the arc, they are suspect. But their five top scorers, the three aforementioned guards plus Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen, all average above 40% on threes.
Oregon is also one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the tournament. Porter hits at 92%, Brooks and Taylor at 83%. The only soft spot is Hairston, a 55% shooter. They are small, however. Leunen is the tallest starter at 6'9", Hairston and Taylor check in at 6'5", but Brooks is just 6' and Porter is a diminutive 5'6". The Ducks routinely are outrebounded, but what they lack in size, they more than make up with quickness and accomplished ball-handling. If allowed to run, they'll turn any game into a track-meet runaway.
Oregon's quickness, 3-point shooting and Kansas' inability to score consistently from the line will key a big upset in this semi-final as the Ducks race into the finals.
The finals matchup of Georgetown vs. Oregon is a replay of a November 29 meeting at Georgetown, won by Oregon, 57-50, despite shooting only 39%, including just 5-22 from 3-point range. Georgetown's big men were noticeably absent, though. Hibbert was 2-7 for 4 points, Green 2-4 for 5 points. Hibbert also had only 3 rebounds. That's unlikely to happen again.
Both teams have improved since that game of 4 months ago, but the Hoyas have probably improved more than any team in the country. Both the Ducks and Hoyas are peaking at just the right time and a game like the Nov. 29 meeting is unlikely. The Ducks will shoot better than 28% behind the line, and Hibbert and Green will certainly score more than 9 points between them.
The game is really one of contrast, pitting probably the tallest team in the tourney against the smallest. Georgetown wants to work the ball inside, while Oregon hopes to let fly from 3-point land. If these two do indeed reach the finals, expect a close game with plenty of lead changes. This one could go either way, but look for Hibbert, Green and Jonathan Wallace to make key plays down the stretch and bring another national championship back to Georgetown, 71-68.
Well, that's my best scenario and I'll be filling out my brackets in various pools along those general lines. Good luck to you in your bracket challenges and LET THE MADNESS BEGIN !!!
Niagara 77 Florida A&M 69 - On Tuesday, the Purple Eagles earned the right to play Kansas in the opening round on Thursday.