FINAL FOUR PREVIEW | March 31
I can't wait to head down to Bourbon Street! It will be really special down in the Big Easy. It will be a fantastic setting as we have four solid teams battling for the national championship. All four coaches are going for their first gold trophy.
Rick Barnes, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Tom Crean are trying to get that prestigious championship for the first time.
Let's look at the semifinal match-ups:
MARQUETTE VS. KANSAS
It certainly was a shock that the Marquette Golden Eagles beat both Pittsburgh and Kentucky. Not to be disrespectful to Crean and his hard-working team, but the Panthers and Wildcats were outstanding teams, and to beat them in consecutive games is difficult. What was a shock was the way Marquette beat Kentucky. The Wildcats had won 26 in a row; I'm talking about the elite program in America.
The Golden Eagles totally dominated from wire to wire. I know Keith Bogans had the ankle problem, but I don't think that mattered the way Crean's team performed right out of the gate. It was never a contest as Dwyane Wade was outstanding from the opening bell. Robert Jackson set the tone inside, motivated for his battle against Marquis Estill. His post-up ability sent a message to Estill that the Kentucky big man wasn't going to have a game like he did against Wisconsin when he had a career-high 28 points. Marquette shut Estill down big time.
Wade showed why he's the most multi-talented player in the nation. An explosive, unselfish high-riser, he is a total team player and a winner.
And don't forget what Travis Diener has meant to that team throughout the tournament. He has hit three-pointers and done a super job passing the rock.
Now Marquette faces the best tandem in the game in Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison of Kansas. Roy Williams did an amazing job despite adversity. The Jayhawks opened 3-3 and also lost the services of power forward Wayne Simien to a shoulder injury. Kansas had a phenomenal run and responded in a positive way. It won the Big 12 regular season championship and it has succeeded because it plays together, representing the jersey that has so much tradition behind it.
Aaron Miles is underrated; he does a great job defensively and distributes the ball effectively. Keith Langford can put points on the board quickly and Jeff Graves has become so significant after taking over for Simien. Graves, who lost over 30 pounds, has bought into the system and motivation of Williams.
There is such great talent in this game with Hinrich, Collison and Wade. I give the slight edge to the Jayhawks. Kansas is the only team returning to the Final Four this season, and that experience can be a major factor. Until you are there, you can't understand the pressure, the media hype, the bedlam involved. It is special, intense and different.
TEXAS VS. SYRACUSE
Both Texas and Syracuse took advantage of a golden opportunity, playing their regional semifinals and finals close to home. Syracuse's 2-3 zone stymied Oklahoma and Jim Boeheim's club is 2-0 versus the Big 12 in the tournament with wins over the Sooners and Oklahoma State (3-0 overall if you add a regular-season win over Missouri). The Orangemen could be 5-0 if they beat Texas and Kansas in New Orleans.
Now the Orangemen battle T. J. Ford and his buddies. Ford's penetration and the shooting ability of Brian Boddicker, Sydmill Harris and Brandon Mouton were the difference in the regional final victory over Michigan State.
Syracuse is led by Carmelo Anthony, the best diaper dandy in the school's history, in my opinion. That's strong praise when you consider the likes of Pearl Washington, Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens. King Anthony can do it all, and he has the poise of a senior as displayed early against Oklahoma.
Hakim Warrick has improved and he gives them great length in the 2-3 zone. Jeremy McNeil can block shots in the middle.
Syracuse will battle and battle in the same city where Boeheim almost won it all in 1987, before Keith Smart hit the game-winning shot for the Indiana Hoosiers.
In this battle, Ford penetrating the gaps of the zone and then pitching out to open shooters will be the difference. Texas can hit the long-range jumpers with Boddicker, Harris, Mouton and company.
I see a Kansas-Texas showdown for the national championship. If it is anything like their first meeting during the regular season, it will be an absolute classic. Nick Collison had a huge game in that first meeting, with 24 points and 23 rebounds. I gave him a standing ovation after that performance and I expect another strong showing from him.
I am predicting Roy Williams will be cutting down the nets on Monday night and the fans will be chanting Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, baby!