It's April, and I'm in the mood for clean slates. The shots that a player made or missed in November no longer interest me. Back then we had a different president, Kentucky had a different coach, and I was convinced the Snuggie was a really dumb idea.
Now I realize that the Snuggie is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. So in keeping with this spirit of a new Snuggie-blessed dawn, I'm looking at new measures of performance. On Tuesday I posted stats showing how each Final Four team has won their four games. Today I want to call upon those numbers, as well as my own tallying of individual player stats for this all-or-nothing season called the tournament.
(2) Michigan State vs. (1) Connecticut
6:07 PM ET
You may have heard that Goran Suton is having a good tournament. Indeed, of all the players you'll see in Detroit this Saturday evening, Suton has been easily the most potent force on the defensive glass over the past four games, rebounding 31 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. (Hasheem Thabeet is in second place, getting to 26 percent of the other team's misses in tournament play.) Even more surprising is how Suton has somehow turned into the second coming of Walt Frazier, posting a higher tournament steal rate than any other player heading to Motown. OK, so five of those "steals" came against turnover-happy Kansas. My point still holds: Suton is doing more than hitting the occasional three (5-of-10 in four games). Connecticut will want to plan accordingly.
The Huskies' plan will depend on who Tom Izzo puts on the floor. At this point in the season, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe are veering into honorary-starter status, as the key minutes go instead to Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Draymond Green. Summers has been a dagger in human form, shooting very rarely but missing even more rarely, while Green has been excellent far beyond his listed height on the defensive glass.
A scenario in which Thabeet guards Suton would bring some good things into play for MSU. Every Connecticut opponent does its level best on offense to draw Thabeet away from the paint, and Suton has shown he has the range to do so. If I were Calhoun I'd take a very long look at putting my big guy on a no-range assignment like Green instead, but I'll leave that to the Hall of Fame coach to figure out. I'll bet he can do so without too much help.
One sobering piece of news for Izzo's team is that they almost certainly won't draw fouls against the never-foul Huskies. (This year Big East opponents jacked up five shots from the field for every one free throw they pried out of UConn.) Free throws are important to a team like Michigan State, which doesn't light it up from the field even when they beat an overall one-seed by 12 points.
That leaves the offensive boards: Keep your eye on how Suton and Green fare on the offensive glass against Thabeet and Jeff Adrien (and against Gavin Edwards, who in tournament play has been a statistical Adrien clone on the defensive boards).
When Connecticut has the ball, the importance of Kemba Walker can't be understated. This is one instance where your eyes are correct: Walker has been phenomenal in the tournament. Never mind that he doesn't start. Walker is not only this team's best point guard on offense, he has also functioned during the tournament as Calhoun's best scoring guard. He merits more minutes and, particularly, he needs more shots in the minutes he gets. Walker is the one Connecticut player who can put stress on an opposing defense off the dribble. (Ask Missouri.)
Walker's emergence complicates matters for a superb Spartan defense. I trust that Travis Walton will be able to limit the effectiveness of A.J. Price. That's huge--Price's prominence in this offense during the tournament has rivaled O.J. Mayo's role in the USC offense last year--but it still leaves Walker being guarded by Kalin Lucas. The sophomore is a very good defender, one who's been particularly adept at recording steals in the tournament. We've reached the point in the season, however, where even very good defenders can be exploited. Also note that someone here--Summers, Allen, Morgan--is going to have to guard Stanley Robinson who, as usual, figures to be quicker than anyone big enough and bigger than anyone quick enough.
In short, it promises to be a collision worthy of the Final Four. Connecticut is about to face the best half-court defense they've seen this year. Michigan State's defense is about to receive a test that Robert Morris, USC, Kansas and Louisville could not provide.
(3) Villanova vs. (1) North Carolina
8:47 PM ET
Congratulations to Villanova for breaking a tempo-free taboo. No team in recent years had reached the Final Four after outscoring their major-conference opponents during the regular season by less than 0.10 points per trip. The Wildcats snuck in anyway, having bested the Big East this year by a mere 0.09 points per possession.
This was one taboo that was bound to be broken by a tournament team that improved markedly on their regular-season performance, a la Florida in 2006 (which posted an efficiency margin of 0.10 in the SEC that year). Villanova is such a team. From the point at which they trailed American by 14 points with 19 minutes remaining in their first-round game, the Wildcats' defense has been outstanding, far better than anything they showed during the regular season. On Tuesday I noted that their work on the defensive glass in particular has been extraordinary. Those results have been a team effort, though Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson have clearly been first and second among equals on this front.
As often happens in the tournament, however, the reward for having a much improved defense is a date with the best offense in the country. A reader e-mailed me this week and described North Carolina's offense as "amoeba-like." He meant it as a compliment: Carolina's possessions flow to wherever they're achieving the best results. Roy Williams can indulge in this kind of spread-the-wealth philosophy because he's blessed with a wealth of highly-efficient options on offense. In fact, with the exception of Deon Thompson (who's needed 29 shots to score 27 points in the tournament), any North Carolina player on the floor has been a good choice over the past four games.
That makes the point guard's job easy. Truth be told that job is even easier for Ty Lawson because often his best decision is to feed the ball to himself. He missed the Radford game with a bum toe, but over his three tournament games Lawson has made a good case for putting his picture next to "Point Guard, Offense" in the dictionary. He has quite simply done it all: Racking up assists, holding on to the rock, finishing inside, hitting his threes (7-of-11)--everything. To put this player on the same offense with Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green is surely an antitrust violation.
Not that Carolina is going to waltz into the national championship game, of course. Just because I'm ready for a clean slate doesn't mean I have amnesia. Remember back in January when the Heels were 0-2 in the ACC and everyone was saying that opposing guards were killing this defense with penetration? I do, and Villanova has multiple players who can break you down off the dribble. In the final minute of the Pitt game, Jay Wright was substituting Corey Fisher for Shane Clark on an offense-for-defense basis, precisely to run clear-outs for Fisher.
Indeed, one troubling thought for Carolina, or anyone about to face the 'Cats, is that Wright's team has made it this far without shooting threes as well as they "should." Given that UNC isn't exactly lock-down tough on the perimeter (ACC opponents made 37 percent of their threes this year), you could be forgiven for expecting some shots to fall for the likes of Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes.
One final note on dictionaries and pictures: Pencil in Reggie Redding for the "Glue Guy" entry. He never shoots and, yes, I realize he sprang that whole full-court pass trauma on 'Nova Nation in the closing seconds against the Panthers, but Wright clearly values his contributions. Redding has been on the floor for more tournament minutes than any of his teammates, more even than Reynolds.
Alas, Wright may wish his glue guy, and indeed his entire team, were a smidge taller, for Carolina will enjoy a decided size advantage. A warrior like Cunningham is used to that, granted, and for reasons outlined here I don't see that as a particular problem for Villanova when they have the ball. When the Heels are on offense, however, that size will help them attack 'Nova where they're most vulnerable, in the paint. I expect the Wildcats to be able to score in this game, but I also think they'll need to.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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