by Trevor Whenham - 03/28/2006
I don't know you, but if you try to tell me that you picked all four teams in the Final Four, I'm going to have to call you a liar. Lots of people had UCLA, a few even had LSU and picking Florida isn't outside the realm of possibility. It would have taken some real psychic foresight, though, to pick all three. The only way you picked George Mason is if you went there, you're trying to impress someone who went there or you were drunk when you filled out your bracket.
That being said, all four of these teams have been, in their own distinct way, very impressive. What makes this perhaps the most interesting Final Four in recent memory is that there is no clear-cut favorite. In fact, a compelling case can be made for all four teams to be the one cutting down the net next Monday.
UCLA - If you didn't buy into the Ben Howland hype before this tournament, you have no excuse not to now. He has done a miraculous job of coaching the Bruins. The Pac-10 has long been known for fast and loose offensive basketball. Howland has turned that on its ear and instilled a defensive responsibility and commitment that is remarkable.
It can't be easy to convince an incredibly talented player like Jordan Farmar that he should think defense first, even though it means it won't be flashy and he won't be showing up on SportsCenter. He has made these players gamble on playing team-first basketball and it has paid off.
They have smothered their opponents. It hasn't always been pretty (the Memphis game was almost unwatchable), but they have gotten this far. Besides defense, the biggest thing they have shown is heart. The comeback against Gonzaga should have been impossible, but the team didn't give up, despite playing a terrible first half. The defense, the heart and the unlikely emergence of big man Ryan Hollins could be enough for them to win it all.
Their potentially tragic flaw - they are cardiac kids. They barely overcame an inferior Alabama team, they were ice cold in the first half against Gonzaga and they never found their shooting groove in the Memphis game. They have found a way, often a miraculous one, to get out of their holes, but they may not be able to again.
Florida - World, meet Joakim Noah. You'll be hearing his name a lot in the coming years. You might remember his dad, Yannick, from his tennis glory days. Yannick was good, but Joakim looks like he has the tools to be great. He's huge, he has amazing court vision and he gets better every time he takes the court. He's joined in the frontcourt by a couple of other studs - Corey Brewer and Al Horford. Those three have carried the team through the first four games with barely a scratch. Only the Georgetown game was at all close, and the final score was kind to the Hoyas.
The most impressive game was against Villanova. The Wildcats had looked very good in the tournament, led by their incredible guard depth. The Gators completely shut them down and controlled them from the opening tip. There is no good reason to believe that they can't do that against any of the other teams in the Final Four.
Their potentially tragic flaw - guard play. As consistent and impressive as the forwards have been, the guards have been equally inconsistent. At times they look great, while at others they have been a liability. It could be a real problem if you can't rely on your guards in crunch time.
LSU - I have the hugest man-crush on Tyrus Thomas. I had seen him play before and had read all about him, but I have been completely stunned by his play in this tournament. He is an athletic super-freak. One of these days he is going to jump right over the backboard. In one stunning sequence against Duke he pulled down a rebound, blew past the guard on the way down the court, slammed it home uncontested, then got right back down the court to shove the ball down a Dukie throat with a ferocious block. All in 15 seconds. He's a monster. So is Glen Davis. The Big Baby is a beast inside, but he can drain it from outside if he needs to. The best part about those two players, however, is their defense. You don't expect players like them to be so selfless. The Tigers completely shut down J.J. Redick and rendered likely top 3 NBA draft pick LaMarcus Aldridge almost invisible. There is no reason to believe that any of the three remaining teams will be able to handle the defense and mind-blowing athleticism any better than the four previous victims have.
Their potentially tragic flaw - chaos. At times things get out of control and they throw up crazy shots. For a few brief moments they look completely lost. So far it hasn't lasted long and they have been able to get it back on track, but they might not be lucky when it happens again. The added pressure of the final two games could really cause this young team to crack.
George Mason - The Patriots are one of the most incredible stories in tournament history. They are no longer a Cinderella. Cinderellas win a big game in the first round, maybe do it again in the second round, then get soundly sent home in the Sweet Sixteen. This team has never faltered, beating three monster programs and an upstart Wichita State team.
The most incredible part of the run, however, is that they have been the best team on the court in all four games. They have fought back from deficits of 15 and 12 points in different games. The moment I truly believed in this team was in overtime against Connecticut. I was positive that the Huskies were poised to play their game and swat away the pesky Patriots, but George Mason never flinched. On paper they were ridiculously outclassed, but they didn't seem to notice. They haven't been a one-trick pony, either. The Patriots shut down Tyler Hansbrough against UNC, they smothered Wichita State defensively, they matched Connecticut's run and gun. They have no huge star, but they play together and they are completely fearless. They shouldn't really be here, but they have already beat three teams that are as good on paper as any team that is left in the tournament, so why can't they do it twice more?
Their potentially tragic flaw - they're George Mason. It hasn't happened yet, but at some point they have to remember that. They are an at-large team from a lightly regarded conference. This dream run can't last forever. Can it?
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's college basketball picks service.