Role Players Will Decide National Champion
by Robert Ferringo - 04/04/2008
All this week ESPN has been re-running recent NCAA Championship Games. And, since I haven't been doing much other than changing diapers and watching baseball during the day I found myself rewatching some sweet games. As I observed these teams - specifically Connecticut in 1999, Michigan State in 2000, and Syracuse in 2003 - the thing that stuck out to me is how even though the money men all showed up and played fantastic championship games it was the way that the game was determined in the fringes by the role players on each eventual title team.
I know what makes a good basketball team. And I know what makes a champion. There are certain indicators and requisites that most title teams have had since I've been old enough to follow the NCAA Tournament. There are intangibles that you can feel. There are mismatches that you can see. And there are certain things that a title team needs to have. And besides a sharp coach, plenty of NBA talent, and an ice-in-his-veins go-to guy, the main thing that an NCAA champion has to have is role players. That's what makes winners. In that 1999 upset of Duke, it was Ricky Moore's defense on Trajan Langdon that secured the victory. In 2000 it was A.J. Granger's hot shooting that gave the Spartans confidence and helped them build a big first-half lead. And in 2003 guys like Josh Pace and Billy Edelin just made play after play on both ends of the floor to keep Kansas at bay.
You gotta have role players. Specialists. Unique guys that create mismatches or stock characters - the lockdown perimeter defender, the big white guy in the middle, the designated 3-point sharpshooters - are what make the difference in the Final Four, when talent levels are so close it's maddening. Here are five role players and a coach that I believe will be the keys to who cuts down the nets in Texas:
Joey Dorsey, F, Memphis
Role: Muscular bruiser, rebounder, enforcer on the inside.
Compared to: Chris Wilcox, Maryland, 2002
Last year Dorsey thought it would be a grand idea to call out Greg Oden before Memphis met Ohio State in the Elite Eight here in San Antonio. Bad call. Dorsey managed zero points and three rebounds in 19 minutes of a 92-76 loss, while Oden rocked out for 17-9, a trip to the Final Four, and was the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
This year Dorsey is again charged with a one-on-one matchup with the player being hailed as one of the best big men in the country and a potential lottery pick: Kevin Love. Dorsey is a huge X-Factor mainly because he is so foul prone. In fact, Dorsey played less than 20 minutes and either fouled out or had four fouls in each of Memphis' last four losses dating back to last season. Granted, a lot of this depends on how the officials decide to call this game. But if the senior forward doesn't have his head right then Love will own the offensive glass and set the tone for the Bruins.
Russell Westbrook, G, UCLA
Role: Defensive stopper and athletic sparkplug.
Compared to: Nate James, Duke, 2001
If he isn't the most improved player in the college game he is certainly on the First Team. Westbrook is a silly athlete that improved his scoring average from just 3.4 as a freshman to a solid 12.5 as a sophomore, good for No. 3 on the team. Westbrook will be key in part because he will likely end up spending time defending both Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Westbrook is an uber-athlete.
Westbrook isn't much of an outside shooter and, like so many of the Bruins, his overall contribution will likely depend on how well he is shooting and defending the 3-pointer. Westbrook was a non-factor in all three of UCLA's losses this season, shooting a combined 10-for-33 and averaging 9.7 points in those Ls. He needs to be an offensive threat if the Bruins are to advance.
Sasha Kaun, F, Kansas
Role: Big, bruising white guy that works around the basket.
Compare to: Jake Voskuhl, Connecticut, 1999
If the Jayhawks are going to win they have to contain Tyler Hansbrough. If they are going to contain Hansbrough they are going to need a big game out of the senior, Kaun. Over the past four years Sasha has banged bodies with some of the best big men in the Midwest. But he hasn't shut down anyone the ilk of Hansbrough.
Sherron Collins, G, Kansas
Role: Young, cocky, shooter providing offensive pop.
Compare to: Jason Terry, Arizona, 1997
Collins comes off the bench and splits time with Russell Robinson for the Jayhawks. He's had a relatively quiet NCAA Tournament but if Kansas is going to beat North Carolina it will need every one of its perimeter players to be in top form. That means the sophomore must bring his stroke.
My knock on Kansas this year has been their lack of a true go-to guy. I'm not a believer in Brandon Rush's ability in the clutch. And it is interesting to note that in one of Kansas's most important possessions of the year - up two with the ball and 36 seconds left against Davidson in the Elite Eight - Bill Self drew up a play to get Collins an open 3-point shot from the top of the key. He missed. He'll have to be sharper, and more clutch, than that in order to beat the Tar Heels.
Danny Green, F, North Carolina
Role: Athletic swingman and instant offense off the bench.
Compared to: Toby Bailey, UCLA, 1995
The 6-foot-5 swing forward has been instrumental in the Tar Heels' run to the Final Four. He's averaged 13 points in their two wins over Louisville and Washington State and he's managed to hit double figures in seven of UNC's last 11 games. Green is a matchup nightmare for Kansas because he runs like a deer and is more comfortable gliding around the perimeter as opposed to mixing it up on the inside.
Green's length and athleticism will be an asset for UNC on the defensive end of the floor. He can handle himself if he gets caught in a switch on a guy like Darrell Arthur or Sasha Kaun, and he could really bother any one of Kansas' guards on the perimeter. UNC gets praised for its contributions from the bench. But really, Green is the bench. He is the key guy and has to contribute quality minutes.
Ben Howland, Head Coach, UCLA
Most of the focus this week has been on the Roy Williams-Bill Self matchup on the opposite side of the bracket. And John Calipari has just been pimping himself and his team all week. But the coach that I feel should have the most pressure and is in the most intriguing position in Howland.
Ben has been good enough to get the Bruins to the Final Four in each of the past two years and scored them a berth in the championship game two years ago. However, both of his losses to end the season were complete blowouts. Some people have said that if it weren't for Florida he would have two rings right now. Well, Florida isn't around this year so Howland doesn't have any excuses. He loves to use his timeouts early and often, and if Memphis comes out firing and gets an early lead you have to wonder if the "here we go again" mentality will start to kick in.