Stop the Madness
The team that best keeps its collective head at the Final Four will take the NCAA title.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
It’s an earthquake of a voice created by some 6,000 smaller voices: “Threeee!” The UCLA-partisan crowd inside San Jose’s HP Pavilion is giving their favorite shooting guard, 6’5” junior Arron Afflalo, a shot-clock countdown. “Twooooo!” With a fluid fake, he crosses to his left and away from his now-off-balance Kansas defender, squaring his shoulders to the basket from behind the free-throw line. The crowd surges louder—“One!”—as Afflalo releases a shot from the peak of his leap. The ball crashes through the net. Kansas had just pulled within seven; the Bruin lead is now up to nine.
It’s one of six shots that the slender guard will take in the second half, most coming just as Kansas threatens to make a run. Three accompany that resounding countdown. On all six, Afflalo hits.
Relentless defense, and Afflalo’s clutch 24 points—on 66.7 percent shooting—carry the Bruins out of the West bracket of the NCAA tournament and to their second straight Final Four, which tips off this Saturday in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
There Afflalo and the two-seeded Bruins will find teams similar to their own: highly-ranked big conference powerhouses that have swept an NCAA landscape normally littered with upsets clean with their steady play. Like UCLA, Florida (a one seed), Georgetown (a two) and Ohio State University (a one) thrive on talent and tenacity, but it’s been their calm under pressure that has differentiated them from the field. Call it their anti-madness.
This weekend, the team that triumphs will be the same team that best retains that composure. Here, in order, those best equipped to do so, based on their performance thus far,:
1. Florida (33-5; the Weekly’s line: 2:1 to win it)
The humpdance that Florida poster-boy Joaquin Noah broke out on CBS announcer Billy Packer’s leg after his team qualified for the Final Four was far from cool. But the sublime calm the Gators have displayed in running their tournament win streak to 16 demonstrates why they are favorites to repeat as champs. It’s a cool born of experience, certainly, but also balance—the patient Gators can go inside with the lethal low-post combo of Noah and cucumber-cool Al Horford, or score from the perimeter with last year’s Final Four MVP Lee Humphrey and opportunistic Taurean Green. Moreover, the Gators play some toothy D—Noah set a NCAA tournament record in ’06 with 29 blocks. And their fans don’t have far to travel to reach Atlanta. It’s just enough for them to outlast Georgetown in the final.
2. Georgetown (30-6; 3:1)
A program doesn’t go from reeling and rebuilding to the Final Four in three years by losing their heads. If there was any doubt that the Hoyas belong back at the top, they erased it in the fourth quarter of the regional final, along with UNC’s 11-point lead, tying the game with a three from Jonathan Wallace with a half-minute left, and then torching the Tarheels with 14 straight points in OT. But the heady play is old hat for the Hoyas—they’ve won eight straight games decided in overtime or by 10 or fewer, including a one-point win in their Sweet 16 against Vanderbilt. They’ll lean heavily on their nimble bigs to continue their renaissance: ever-improving Roy Hibbard (7’2”) and Big East MVP Jeff Green (6’8”)—the cool hand who hit the game winner against Vandy with 2.1 seconds left—represent the toughest test that OSU manchild Greg Oden and Florida’s Noah and Horford will face all year.
3. Ohio State (34-3; 3.5:1)
College freshmen are not known for their tranquility. So how did a team led by two frosh (future NBA number one-draft pick Greg Oden and guard Mike Connolly) find the patience to come from behind to defeat both Xavier and Tennessee? They got an IV of icewater from an upperclassman—Bowling Green transfer Ron Lewis, who hit the clutchest shot of the tourney, a three with two seconds left, to force overtime against Xavier, while going flawless from the free-throw line all tourney. Clutch won’t be quite enough against GU, however, where Oden won’t play it cool enough to avoid the foul trouble that has nagged him all year.
4. UCLA (30-5; 4:1)
While these West Coast cats stay cool, their opponents become unglued. Through the regional semi-finals and finals in San Jose, the Bruins’ acrobatic defenders transformed Pitt and Kansas’ ball-handlers into clowns without the face paint, forcing a circus total of 31 turnovers and holding each team to just 55 points. Meanwhile, against Kansas, Afflalo hit clutch basket after clutch basket. While Florida represents a mean matchup for the team with about 10 more championships than Gator-proof big men, that doesn’t mean an upset—though atypical in this year’s tourney—can’t happen here.
THE FINAL FOUR tips off Saturday, March 31, at 3:07pm with Ohio State vs. Georgetown. UCLA vs. Florida follows. The final takes place Monday, April 2. See both games on CBS.