Since its 1939 inception no Final Four has ever featured four number one seeded teams. That is, until now. This past weekend, top seeds University of North Carolina, Kansas, University of California-Los Angeles and Memphis all clinched a spot in the Final Four. When the four teams take to the court this weekend it will mark the first time in the history of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament that such a feat has been realized. The colossal match-ups have the making for one of the most competitive and thrilling Final Fours in recent memory. The teams will all enter San Antonio with intriguing storylines, high expectations and the desire to leave as the best team in the nation.
Take for instance UNC head coach Roy Williams, who will be faced with the emotion driven task of coaching against a Kansas team that he led to four Final Fours before becoming a Tar Heel in 2003.
Asked in a 2003 Sports Illustrated interview if he would ever schedule a game against his former employer, Williams said, “Nope. And if we do make the tournament and someone were to schedule us in a first-round game — just one of those ‘miracles’ that happen in the tournament — then I’d strangle everybody on the committee.”
Then the UCLA versus Memphis match-up has both teams with something to prove. UCLA may as well refer to the Final Four as their second home, this year making it three years straight, but leaving each year with disappointment rather than championship hardware. On the opposite bench will sit undisputed Conference USA Champion Memphis, a team that has had to prove critics wrong all season as well as through the tournament. Predicted by many to be the first number one seed to go down, the team will no doubt be looking to continue to defy the odds by bringing their up-tempo play against a consistent UCLA squad.
Each team has made a remarkable journey to reach the plateau upon which they currently sit but only one team will leave San Antonio fulfilled by capturing a national championship. Each of the four team’s journeys, outstanding players and keys to capping off their season with a championship are highlighted below:
The North Carolina Tar Heels season and tournament experience can be summed up by two words. Tyler Hansbrough. The junior forward’s performance in the Tourney, as well as all season, has been marked by his steadfast work ethic and tenacious play. Earning the nickname, “Psycho T,” Hansbrough finds himself averaging 21.0 points and 9.5 rebounds throughout tournament play. The forward’s determination and passionate play helped guide the Tar Heels to victory over Mount St. Mary’s, Arkansas, Washington State and Louisville. In the previous Elite Eight game against a Louisville team noted for their defense, Hansbrough hit four deep jump shots and scored 28 points. Hansbrough will have to set the tone early on in an emotion filled game for UNC, the best transition team in basketball, to be able to pull away from Kansas.
Taking on North Carolina will be an overly athletic Kansas Jayhawks team coached by former Illinois head coach Bill Self who is making his first Final Four appearance. The Jayhawks are led in scoring by guards Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush, each player averaging roughly 15 points a game. But it was center Sasha Kaun who came through for Kansas in their two-point victory over Cinderella Davidson in their preceding tournament game. The big man came up with huge baskets down the stretch as KU dispelled bracket-busting Davidson’s dream run. The team also defeated Portland State, University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Villanova. Perhaps the criticism of Kansas to this point has been the lack of competition they have faced throughout the tournament playing their hardest game against a 10 seed. Although the team is not to blame, this still may leave them somewhat unprepared for a quick and physical North Carolina team. If they can play up to their competition, the agile Jayhawks could very easily capture a Final Four victory in this toss-up of a game.
The other game on docket for Saturday features number one seeds UCLA and Memphis. With the high amount of turnovers in college basketball it has become harder and harder to maintain a consistent level of success. That is why the Bruins are a bona fide rarity; making it to the Final Four three consecutive years under third-year coach Ben Howland. The team is led by freshman superstar Kevin Love who enters the game averaging 21.8 points and 11.0 rebounds a game. Possibly the most NBA ready talent, Love’s repertoire consists of a consistent jump-shot, intense rebounding ability and sound passing skill.
Said Xavier coach Sean Miller of Love, “getting to the Final Four with a go-to player — maybe more so than UCLA has had in the past — could allow them to win the national championship.” Along with Love, the Bruins have one of the nation’s most talented point guards in junior Darren Collison. Love, Collison, and a solid core of talent allowed the Bruins to defeat Mississippi Valley State, Western Kentucky, Xavier and barely pulled away from Texas A&M. The addition of freshman Love to the mix may be what finally gets the Bruins over the hump to bring a 12th national championship back to Los Angeles.
Taking on the Bruins will be a Memphis Tigers team that lost only one game all season. Due to the team’s lack of schedule strength, Memphis has undoubtedly been the most criticized number one seed in the tournament. The Tigers responded to the critics by defeating University of Texas-Arlington, Mississippi State, Michigan State and dominating over number two seed Texas. Memphis head coach John Calipari is making his return to the Final Four after a 12 year absence when he took a one loss UMass team to the land of four.
In tournament play, the Tigers have posted two 20 point scorers in All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts and freshman phenom Derrick Rose. Douglas-Roberts has taken much of the team’s criticism to heart as their leading scorer but responded strongly with a 28 point performance against the Longhorns. For Derrick Rose, this season and tournament has been a showcasing as to why he has to potential to be selected in the top several picks of next year’s NBA Draft, if in fact he declares. On Sunday, Rose’s stat line sure read like a top pro-prospect, dropping in 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds. If the Tigers can continue with the same consistent all-around performance they have exhibited throughout the year, expect them to send UCLA packing for the third consecutive year and bring a national championship back to Memphis.
Over the past several days critics have made the argument that the lack of a Cinderella team in the Final Four will hurt ratings and make for a boring set of games. But the fact is that such a high level of talent amassed on the court at once can only mean a more competitive and fierce contest.
A quote from Highlander says it best, “In the end, there can be only one.” Indeed. And the battle to determine the best in the nation will surely make for great basketball.