This year's Final Four has the makings of something special. Four superb teams are ready to do battle in Minneapolis, and any of the four is capable of winning. It's so tough to pick winners in these two games; they should both be Maalox Mashers!
All four of the teams were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, so expectations were high.
Let's break down the national semifinal matchups (in the order the games will be played):
Arizona vs. Michigan State (5:42 ET tip-off Saturday)
Arizona has lots of balance with its inside-outside game. The Wildcats have had at least four players in double figures in each of their NCAA Tournament games.
|Michigan State needs the inside presence of diaper dandy Zach Randolph against Arizona.|
Gilbert Arenas has been brilliant, especially in the first half against Illinois. Jason Gardner can handle the rock and hit the clutch shot, as he did against the Illini with two huge threes in crunch time. The 'Cats contained the penetration and scoring ability of Frank Williams, and that was big in the regional final.
Michigan State's front line can be dangerous in transition, especially Jason Richardson in the open court. Andre Hutson and Zach Randolph can pound the glass inside and must be neutralized.
The Spartans have a Flintstone really wanting to win in Charlie Bell. The kid has a winning attitude and mentality. It is so special that it becomes contagious. Bell does the job on both ends of the court, handling the ball when necessary, shooting the jumper and playing solid defense.
Bell and Hutson have been part of four consecutive Big Ten champions and three straight Final Four teams. That's what I call a winning edge, knowing how to get it done. That's an intangible you can't measure. This dynamic duo for Tom Izzo knows how to handle the pressure -- and that experience of being there before is a definite plus.
Michigan State is the best rebounding team in America, sporting an incredible plus-74 so far in the tournament. Fresno State and Temple came the closest on the boards, and they lost on the glass by 16 each.
Loren Woods will have to be at his A-level best to neutralize the Spartans' rebounding machine. His size inside can help offset Michigan State's big bodies. Woods was solid down the stretch against Illinois, blocking shots, rebounding, converting inside and hitting clutch free throws.
Michael Wright will have to come up big inside for the 'Cats. He's experienced and one of the best power forwards in America. Richard Jefferson has to come through as well.
Arizona also has to do a better job handling the ball. The 'Cats are averaging 17 turnovers a game in the tourney. Michigan State is capable of turning those mistakes into easy baskets in transition, so Arizona must cut back on errors.
Both of these teams have positive experience. Bell, Hutson and Jason Richardson have taught the young kids how to win. Arizona has veterans galore, and the starting five has played together for two seasons now.
I am so happy for Lute Olson. He went through so much with the passing of his wife, Bobbi. Arizona was 8-5 at one point, and it was Struggle City before the Wildcats went on a big-time run.
This should be an excellent matchup: 'Cats vs. Spartans, Pac-10 vs. Big Ten. I can't wait -- I wish they would toss up the ball right now, baby!
Duke vs. Maryland (half-hour after the end of the first game)
This game comes down to a couple of key factors.
|Jason Williams passed on a shot at the NBA to remain with the Blue Devils.|
First, can Duke neutralize Maryland's power inside? Lonny Baxter has been dominating on the interior, totaling 50 points in the Terps' wins over Georgetown and Stanford. Remember, those two teams have big men inside, yet Baxter was aggressive and tough on the baseline, establishing position and post presence.
That's the one area Duke has a problem with, especially with Carlos Boozer not quite back to his old form following his foot injury. Can the Blue Devils rebound with Maryland?
For the Terps, the big question comes on defense. Can Maryland contain Jason Williams and Shane Battier, the best 1-2 punch in America? All Battier has done is score at least 20 points and grab at least 10 rebounds in every NCAA Tournament game. Williams is averaging 10 field goals per game in the tourney.
Gary Williams' team has to shut down the lethal 3-point shooting of the Dukies. The Blue Devils have averaged an incredible 30 3-point attempts per game in the NCAAs. They have made 44 in four games, an average of 11 trifectas per contest. If Mike Krzyzewski's team can hit 11 threes Saturday, it will be lights out for the Terps.
One more plus for Duke is its recent foul shooting -- 59 of 70 in the last three games, including 14 of 15 vs. USC in the East regional final.
But there's a big plus for Williams as well: Maryland is not intimidated facing the Duke jersey. The one great asset they have is two wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium the last two years. And Juan Dixon has given Coach K nightmares in the past. He was phenomenal in the two wins at Duke the past two seasons.
As ACC rivals, these teams know each other well. They know the other's tendencies and should be comfortable with each other.
The Terps flat-out believe they are better than Duke. Come Saturday, we'll find out if they're right. If this is as good as the ACC tournament semifinal game was (an 84-82 Duke win), people will talk about this one for years, baby!