Silver Chips Online

The official NCAA Final Four preview

George Mason, Florida, LSU and UCLA fight for the national title

By Ethan Kuhnhenn, Online Managing Editor, Abe Schwadron, Online Managing Editor and Josh Zipin, Online Managing Sports Editor
April 1, 2006
March Madness is in full swing, and with most people's brackets entirely in shambles, it's time to sit back, ignore your bracket and just watch. Speaking of watching, there are some very interesting match-ups this weekend. In a year with an unusually large amount of upsets, and the Cinderella of all Cinderella's in George Mason, the SCO sports experts give you team-by-team breakdowns and does its best to predict (very humbly) the future.

Team: UCLA Bruins

Road to the Final Four: The Bruins crunched overmatched #15 Belmont in round one and scraped out a win over #10 Alabama in round two. UCLA then used a furious final five minutes to topple #3 Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen and then beat #1 Memphis in the Elite Eight. The Blue and Gold reached the Final Four with great defense and clutch play.

Strengths: UCLA's greatest strength is their ability to shut down opponents on the offensive end. In their first four NCAA tournament games, the Bruins gave up no more than 71 points in a single match-up, and even held a high-scoring Memphis squad to just 45 points. UCLA's style may not be pretty, but the Bruins have intangibles and chemistry on defense and will make teams earn their points at the free throw line. UCLA's depth enables them to stay fresh and keep pestering their opponents (6 steals per game as a team); ten players average at least 14 minutes per game for the Bruins.

Weaknesses: Though UCLA can make teams work for points, their glaring weakness is their virtual inability to score some of their own, and their poor free throw shooting as a team does not help in that regard. For UCLA to succeed in the Final Four, they will have to rely on the scoring of their big three — Jordan Farmar (13.4 points per game), Arron Afflalo (14.2 ppg) and Josh Shipp (11.3 ppg). The team shoots a combined 69 percent from the free throw line, however, and 48 percent from the field, adding up to an average of fewer than 70 points per game.

X-Factor: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute Not only does this guy have an amazingly cool name, but he has an equally sweet game to match. Mbah a Moute gives the Bruins an intimidating low-post presence and a spark on offense. Averaging nine points and eight rebounds a night, Mbah a Moute is the beneficiary of slick passes from Farmar and company. If the 6-foot-7 freshman can stay levelheaded and finish with authority, the Bruins will cruise through the Final Four. Plus, Mbah a Moute will give defenders a mental cramp as they try to pronounce his name correctly.

Team: George Mason Patriots

Road to the Final Four: The 11th seed Patriots, who tied 1986 LSU for the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four, led off their unexpected streak with a pronounced 10-point victory over number seven Michigan in the first round. They used their experience, suffocating defense and three balls to sink the defending national champion Tarheels and then took down Wichita State in the battle of the mid-majors. The Patriots' unprecedented streak culminated with a nail-biting overtime thriller in which a last second miss by UConn sent George Mason and the CAA to the round of four.

Strengths: The Patriots biggest asset is their team balance. Offensively all five starters, led by Senior guard Lamar Butler who dropped 19 in GM's win over Uconn, average in double figures. The balance is not only in the scoring per player but also in the ways the team puts points on the board. The Patriots shoot just under 40 percent from behind the arch but also can bang it down in the paint with their two 6-foot-7 forwards, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas. The Patriots also benefit from having three starting seniors that can calm the game down before it gets out of control. George Mason also runs a stifling defense with a mostly man-to-man pressure system that can be adjusted into a 2-3 zone to give opposing offenses different looks. Earlier in the tournament they could cite other teams' underestimation of their ability as a major advantage but now in the Final Four they've earned a little more respect

Weakness: The Patriots have yet to be seriously exposed in their run for the national championship but a look a little farther back into their season reveals two significant flaws. First, they have a tendency to tire easily, as demonstrated by their missed free throws at the end of the UConn game. A team like Florida that can run up and down the court may be able to exploit their lack of conditioning. Without argument George Mason has a fantastic starting five, but so far in the tournament they have lacked significant help from the bench. If they fail to score while the starter rest, the Patriots may end up missing their shot at a title. Though they keep refuting this point, the team is undersized. Yes, the 6-foot-7 forwards have talent and athletic ability, but they'll still have difficulty shutting down 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah.

X-Factor: Folarin Campbell The Patriots live and die by their sophomore swingman Folarin Campbell, who led the team with 16 points against Wichita in the Sweet Sixteen. Campbell is versatile; he can post-up down low, cut through the middle and even run point. Campbell's positions include point guard, shooting guard, small forward and defensive stopper. The other component necessary to the Patriots success is big Jai Lewis, whose power and girth helps to replace what he lacks in natural height. He has a variety of inside moves to score, but his real contributions occur on the other side of the ball where he averages just under two blocks a game but changes countless other shots with his constant lane presence.

Team: Florida Gators

Road to the Final Four: The Gators disposed of #14 South Alabama in round one and beat the NCAA-experienced #11 UW-Milwaukee in round 2. Florida pulled away from #7 Georgetown late to advance to the Elite Eight and surprised a lot of people by dominating the skilled and experienced #1 seeded Villanova Wildcats to advance to Indianapolis.

Strengths: The Florida big guys have been the key to Florida's success in the tournament so far. Joakim Noah has been huge for the Gators averaging 17.3 points per game along with 10 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game. Noah has been supported by his frontcourt teammate Al Horford, who has been averaging 12.8 points and 10 rebounds a per game. Against Villanova Horford and Noah seemed to own the paint, combining for 30 rebounds and 7 blocks. The Gators are also a very quick team, able to get steals and play in transition with anybody. Point guard Taurean Green directs the Gators'offense, and his quickness leads to easy points for Noah and Horford.

Weaknesses: Youth and experience could plague Florida in the end. It hasn't affected them yet, but as teams go deeper into the tournament, there are usually moments when having Freshmen and Sophomores on the floor can hurt a team's chances of winning. They haven't looked it yet, but Billy Donovan's club is so youthful that they are bound to make some rookie mistakes. Their challenge will be to minimize these mistakes and play through their dry spells. A lack of depth could also be a problem for the Gators. They have a nine man rotation but their bench only produced four points in the Regional Final. If they expect to win the tournament they are going to need more bench production.

X-Factor: Al Horford With teams focusing more and more of their inside attention on Joakim Noah, Horford should have more open looks at the basket than usual. It will be up to him to step up to the challenge in these big time games and produce. If Florida can get production out of Horford and Noah they should be able to overpower George Mason's big guys. The game will be won and lost in the paint with Will Thomas and Jai Lewis matching up against Noah and Horford. Horford could decide which team wins the battle of the bigs.

Team: LSU Tigers

Road to the Final Four: Looking back on their last four games in the NCAA Tournament, the LSU Tigers should be shaking their heads. The Tigers knew their road to the Final Four wouldn't be easy, with tournament juggernauts Duke, Texas and West Virginia in their Atlanta bracket. However, it wasn't second-seeded Texas, or top-seed (and heavily favored) Duke who posed the biggest threat to the young Tigers team; it was 12th seeded Texas A&M. After defeating Iona in the first round, fourth-seeded LSU found themselves down two points with 19 seconds left to an A&M team that had just made an 11-2 run in a little over a minute and a half. Darrell Mitchell saved the Tigers from an early exit with a three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in the game and LSU used the momentum from that dramatic finish to propel them to victories against Duke and Texas — both of which ended in overtime.

Strengths: LSU's strengths lie in their inside game, defensive pressure in the lane and dominance on the boards. Center-Forward duo Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas provide most of that for this young Tigers team. Davis leads his team in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and scoring (18.7 ppg). His 310-pound frame also makes a formidable presence on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Thomas, a freshman, has also steadily improved his game over the course of the season and leads his team with close to three blocks per game and 9.3 rebounds. Both big men have effectively shut down opponents' scoring in the lane in the past four tournament games, while at the same time dominating the glass and getting second-chance points on the offensive end. As testament to their solid defense, the Tigers limited Duke to 54 points and Texas to 60 points in overtime. LSU also held a 38-10 advantage in the lane over Texas in the round of eight.

Weaknesses: So far, LSU has shown no major flaws its game, though maybe a little inconsistency with its trouble in penning down Texas A&M. LSU has proved that it can play with the big boys but has a little tougher time with the underdogs, so a match-up against 11th seeded George Mason in the finals (if they get there) should be interesting. Otherwise, the Tigers should focus on reducing their turnovers (15.6 tpg) and getting more out of converted point guard Darius Mitchell, especially from long-range where he's four for 16 in the past three games.

X Factor: Glen Davis The Tigers' X-Factor is how much productivity they can get from Big Baby — in the paint, on the boards, block-wise and maybe even from behind the arc. If Davis plays like he played against Texas, with 26 points and nine rebounds, and walks onto the court with the same charisma that he has had all season, than his energy and leadership should propel the Tigers to victory.

Predictions:

Semifinal #1:

Josh's Pick: FLA over GMU
It has been a great run. Really it has. Unfortunately the fairy tale ends now for George Mason. No one knows exactly what George Mason did to get to Indianapolis, but Florida should be able to send them packing. George Mason was able to slow down the UConn big men, but they haven't faced a big man as quick as Florida's Joakim Noah yet. GMU could have a problem because they only play a seven- or maximum eight-man rotation. George Mason did not make a single sub from 10 minutes left in regulation all the way through overtime against Connecticut. Taurean Green and Lamar Butler will have an interesting match-up, but if Green wins it, Florida will definitely have an even bigger edge. The bottom line is that George Mason will have a tough time matching Florida's team quickness and speed with such a short bench.

Phil's Pick: GMU over FLA
After knocking off the defending champs, Michigan State, Wichita State and the tournament favorites the Patriots have proven they can beat anyone. Still Florida may prove to be their most difficult test yet because of the nightmare of match-ups the Gators present. With three starters over 6'8" and arguably the most talented point guard left in the tournament in Taurean Green, the Gators will put up a good fight. Yet in the end the Patriots' balanced scoring and defensive pressure will keep the time from running out on their Cinderella story.

Abe's Pick: GMU over FLA
George Mason has been called a Cinderella team for far too long. It's time the Patriots get some well-deserved R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The all-Maryland starting five of Jai Lewis, Folarin Campbell, Tony Skinn, Lamar Butler and Will Thomas has beaten the odds time and time again but has been called a fluke in the process. Florida comes in riding high, but they — like Michigan State, North Carolina and U-Conn before them — will overlook GMU and be hit by a train they didn't see coming. The most improbable run in NCAA tournament history continues against the Gators. Jaokim Noah slows his roll against the fired-up Patriots.

Ethan's Pick: FLA over GMU
The key to this game is George Mason's defense. I don't feel that they can keep up with the high-powered offense of the Florida Gators. If the Gators can shoot high-percentage shots, they will have the upper hand in this battle. George Mason's Cinderella story ends here. Plus, my favorite animal is a Gator.

Semifinal #2:

Josh's Pick: LSU over UCLA
This could be an interesting match-up because LSU gets most of their scoring from their frontline and UCLA gets most of their scoring from their guards. The team that wins will be the team that gets the most support from their role players. The stars — Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tyrus Thomas, Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo — will all get their points, but it will be up to the role players to make the difference in this game. LSU should be able to win the battle of points in the paint being that the Davis, Thomas tandem has not been stopped yet during the tournament. Garrett Temple has been the defender of the tournament so far, shutting down J.J. Redick and P.J. Tucker in succession. UCLA won't be able to play another slow game like they did against Memphis against a LSU team that doesn't give up easy baskets. Look for a Davis and Thomas show and an LSU victory.

Phil's Pick: LSU over UCLA
The Bruins' time was over 20 years ago and its not coming back any time soon. LSU has two NBA prospect centers in a Final Four where any NBA quality individual talent is hard to find. Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas average a combined 32 points and 20 rebounds a game. Can anyone remember the last great big man at LSU? These two aren't quite as big as Shaq Daddy but they may be as good. UCLA won't know what hit them.

Abe's Pick: UCLA over LSU
UCLA will not be intimidated by LSU's high-flying dunks, out-of-this-world athleticism and offensive firepower. In fact, the Bruins will make the Tigers feel inferior as they continually shut down Glen Davis, Tyrus Thomas and the rest of LSU on the offensive end. Jordan Farmar and UCLA will use their teamwork, defensive stinginess and good coaching to lead them to the national title game. Davis will be cry like a "Big Baby" after LSU drops this one to the Bruins.

Ethan's Pick: LSU over UCLA
It's going to be ugly, but no one said ugly didn't win games. In a battle between two defense-minded squads, the team that can execute the best on the offensive end of the floor should prevail. UCLA defeated Memphis with scrappy defense, but Memphis isn't as offensively capable as teams like Duke and Texas, which were held to sub-par performances in their losses to LSU. Furthermore, the Tigers proved that they could shut down shooters (Redick) and the opposing team's inside game. UCLA has yet to face a team with the inside force of LSU, and even if they can contain Davis, Mitchell and Thomas, the Tigers' offense is still better than UCLA's, which managed only 50 points against Memphis.

National Championship:

Josh's Pick: LSU over FLA
With better big men in Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis, LSU ignores the jumpshot and rides their two studs to an NCAA title, bringing some hope to the victims of Katrina and boosting the morale of New Orleans. It seems like LSU really is playing for more than just an NCAA title, and when teams have outside motivations like that — especially one as big as the victims of Katrina — they can be very dangerous and hard to beat. Glen Davis should overpower the much slimmer Joakim Noah and negate the guard domination by Florida. A title comes just at the right time as LSU shows their character and heart and delivers the goods to the place in America that needs it most.

Phil's Pick: GMU over LSU
The Patriots cap the biggest surprise in modern sports history with a victory in the National Championship. Jai Lewis keeps the Big Baby in check and Will Thomas shows off his left hook to secure a spot for George Mason in the history books.

Abe's Pick: UCLA over GMU
The formula is simple: defense wins championships. Though GMU's heart will bring them to the brink of the most improbable run in tournament history, UCLA will ensure that the Patriots' streak does not culminate in a national title. Arron Afflalo and his teammates will suffocate Mason on offense and muster just enough courage and points from the free throw line to deliver a championship to UCLA once again. Just listen to that fight song…

Ethan's Pick: FLA over LSU
The Gators bear striking resemblances to the LSU Tigers. Both teams are young, with only one starting senior between both squads. Both teams also rely on their inside game, and their big guys are the go-to players. Joakim Noah and Glen Davis should provide an interesting match-up down low. Both players are the leading scorers on their team, are charismatic and have made big plays down the stretch. Overall, though, Florida has more consistent shooting, has two players who shoot over 40 percent from downtown and are a more cohesive unit. And that's what it's gonna come down to in the finals.

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