Dick Jerardi: Outrageous 4-tune

Final Four competition will be loaded with future NBA stars

Posted: March 26, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Saturday's two NCAA national semifinals at the Georgia Dome could be a preview of the NBA All-Star Game in a few years. Depending on how the players on the four teams progress, there could be as many as a dozen NBA types on the floor, and certainly a few All-Stars.

There is no George Mason, but if you want to see high-quality hoops and players with star quality, this Final Four has it all. The NBA rule that doesn't let high school players go directly to the league has given us Ohio State's Greg Oden trying for a national title to go along with those three Indiana high school state titles. And it has given us players on

every team who will eventually be playing for money with Oden.

In one semifinal we get a rematch of the last year's title game when Florida beat UCLA, 73-57, with almost all of the same players back. In the other game, we get the Buckeyes against Georgetown, another rematch of sorts. The Hoyas crushed the Buckeyes in last year's second round, 70-52. Of course, that was Ohio State without Oden and Mike Conley Jr.

Each of the four teams has won 30 or more games. They are a combined 127-19. In the 65-team "S" curve that the tournament selection committee uses to seed the teams, the first- (Florida), third- (Ohio State), fifth- (UCLA) and seventh-ranked (Georgetown) teams are still playing.

UCLA will make its record 17th Final Four appearance; it has won a record 11 titles. Ohio State will be in its 10th Final Four. Georgetown is making its fifth Final Four appearance, Florida its fourth. The latter three have each won a single title.

Game 1 is Ohio State-Georgetown at 6:07 p.m.; Game 2 is UCLA-Florida.

The Final Eight had the six tournament champions from the BCS conferences, along with UCLA (regular-season Pac-10 champ) and Memphis (Conference USA champ). There were no surprises. The best teams all season were the best teams at the end of the season.

In the East, it was classic - Big East vs. ACC. In the Midwest, it was SEC vs. Pac-10. The South was Big Ten vs. C-USA. The West was Pac-10 vs. Big 12.

They are back

All five Florida starters came back to try to get a second title. Each of them has scored 1,000 points. Most of them could already be in the NBA. Instead, they are 33-5 and, after yesterday's 85-77 win over Oregon, back in the Final Four.

The Gators have won an amazing 16 consecutive postseason games (10 NCAA, six SEC). They have not been dominant like last season, but they find a way. Yesterday, it was Lee Humphrey bombing in threes (seven, 11-for-24 for the Gators), beating Oregon (8-for-22) at its own game.

Florida is first nationally in scoring margin and field goal percentage, fourth in rebound margin. The Gators play like they know are supposed to win. And they do.

So are they

UCLA (30-5) does not have a senior on its roster, but all these players were here last year. They did everything right in the 2006 NCAA until that final game when Florida overwhelmed them.

This season, these Bruins are 11-1 against ranked opponents, which tells you how they did in big games. Their only loss was at Oregon.

Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are as good a wing trifecta as there is in college hoops. They are fast and fearless.

Bottom line, UCLA plays perfect, fundamental defense. They are always in the right spot. When they double the ball, which is often, there is no hole left uncovered. Coaches preach "help and recover." The Bruins teach it and they do it.

There were two ways to look at the 68-55 regional final win over Kansas. It was either really ugly basketball (45 turnovers, 32 steals) or some of the best defense you will ever see. I think it was the latter. The best athletic plays in the game happened to be on defense, but they were highlight plays nonetheless.

If UCLA can make Kansas look ordinary on offense, they can do it do anybody. In 10 NCAA games over 2 years, the Bruins have allowed more than 60 points just twice and fewer than 50 five times.

And, in a game against an opponent that did not allow a team to shoot 50 percent all season, UCLA shot 53.5 percent against Kansas.

The Buckeyes' story

Ohio State (34-3) has won 21 straight. Its only losses were at North Carolina (without Oden), at Florida (just as Oden was cleared to play) and at Wisconsin. They have no apparent weakness and the ultimate difference-maker in Oden.

OSU trailed Xavier by nine with 3 minutes left in the second round. And won in overtime. They trailed Tennessee by 20 just before halftime in the Sweet 16. And won in the final seconds.

Once they got rolling against Memphis, they blew the game wide open, winning 92-76 while making 20 straight free throws in the second half and giving fans a glimpse of what the future will look like with Oden. The big man showed some of his offensive repertoire and guarded the basket like it contained the Hope Diamond.

Despite Oden's constant foul trouble during the tournament, the Buckeyes commit fewer personals than any team in America, just 13.5 per game. When their three wing players shoot free throws like they did Saturday (Ron Lewis, Mike Conley and Jamar Butler were 25 of 26) and Oden is not in foul trouble, they are nearly unbeatable.

Conley and Oden have not lost a one-and-done game since their freshmen seasons at Indianapolis North High. They both have that look in their eyes, the one that says "we are not losing."

Been a long time

Georgetown (30-6) has not been in the Final Four since it was the other team in Villanova's perfect game. That 1985 championship game was the last played without a shot clock. These Hoyas are a throwback to the pre-shot clock era with a serious twist. They run patterns that would work in any era, but they run them at a speed that has never been tried before. And they make it work.

After a classic comeback, 96-84 overtime win over North Carolina (the seventh OT game in the last 14 regional finals), Georgetown is all the way back to its glory days of a generation ago. It is just quite different than it was back in the time of Hoya Paranoia. Everything about this team is pleasing.

These Hoyas have an incredibly unique big-man combination in Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert. You can look way back in college basketball history and never really see a pair quite like them. Seeing them deal with Oden will be one of the many highlights of a semifinal day that could be among the best ever.

Coming into the regional final, the Hoyas ranked fourth nationally in points allowed, fifth in field goal defense and fourth in field goal percentage. It is a combination that has helped them win 19 of their last 20 games. *

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com

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