Coach: Roy Williams
Just like last season, Williams was expected to get the Tar Heels to this point. One major difference is that it may be perceived as an enormous failure if North Carolina doesn’t win the national championship this time around. When Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Deon Thompson all decided to come back to school the goal for this year was clear. The Tar Heels still could be remembered as one of the greatest teams in the history of the NCAA. They aren’t pursuing a perfect season, however. This is the seventh Final Four appearance for Williams. Only UCLA’s John Wooden (12), North Carolina’s Dean Smith (11) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (10) have been to more. Last year’s Final Four visit was short and painful for Williams. The Tar Heels were blown out in the semifinals by Kansas, the school where Williams began his career. Williams then showed up as a fan for the championship game between Memphis and Kansas, wearing a Jayhawk sticker.
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Key supporting player: Senior guard Danny Green
CBS analyst Clark Kellogg has labeled Danny Green as the “baking soda.” What a great description. Green is North Carolina’s multi-purpose guy. While the focus and stardom on this North Carolina falls to Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, Green is a swingman with experience, athleticism and length. He scored 18 points in North Carolina’s regional championship victory over Oklahoma and had 13 the game before that against Gonzaga. Green also had seven assists and four steals against the Zags. Green has elevated his scoring average from 11.4 last year to 13.2. He is averaging 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.9 steals. Like baking soda, Green can be used everywhere.
The Tar Heels cannot come out flat the way they did against Kansas in the 2008 semifinals. North Carolina fell behind 40-12 in that game last year. The Tar Heels battled back but put so much energy into make up the deficit, they couldn’t finish off the comeback. It would seem Carolina has learned from that lesson. The other area of concern is Lawson’s toe. But with each passing game that seems less of a concern.
Will win if:
All North Carolina really has to do is keep doing what it has been doing the first four tournament games. The Tar Heels have the best talent in the field. With a healthy Ty Lawson, the trophy should go to the Tar Heels.
Coach: Jay Wright
He looks like George Clooney and is already known as one of the best-dressed coaches in country. But talk about his coaching ability is really way overdue. Wright has directed Villanova to an 11-4 record over the last five NCAA tournaments. Three of those losses were to the eventual national champions — North Carolina (2005), Florida (2006) and Kansas (2008). Now he has Villanova back in the Final Four for the first time since 1985. Wright, much like Kansas coach Bill Self, is one of those younger coaches who has all the tools a modern coach needs. He recruits well, is a cool character on the sideline, enjoys his relationship with his players and smiles a lot. He knows how to handle boosters and alumni groups, has a great relationship with the media and is a family man. Wright is a Philadelphia guy, who graduated from Bucknell and attended Rollie Massimino’s basketball camp at Villanova. Wright was in Lexington when the Wildcats beat Georgetown for the national championship in 1985. He really understands what basketball means to people on the Main Line.
Key supporting player: Sophomore guard Corey Fisher
The Wildcats are so balanced, everyone seems to be playing a supporting role. Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham have emerged as the top two players but Wright gets steady contributions from the eight top players in his rotation. Fisher played 18 minutes in the East Regional final and scored nine points. The fact that he was 1-for-7 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range illustrates his value. Wright left him in the game during an off shooting night and Fisher still contributed by grabbing four rebounds, handing out two assists, and most importantly, going 7-for-7 from the free throw line. Villanova missed only one of 23 free throw attempts in that winning effort.
Wright said it so well the other day. Every coach would love to have a 7-footer who blocks shots and controls the lane. That’s not possible. So the Wildcats have to find a way to play — and find a way to win — with a four-guard lineup. Cunningham and Antonio Pena are Villanova’s big guys at 6-8 each. They are going to have a hard time handling Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina in the national semifinal.
Will win if: Villanova has to continue executing its game plans. The Wildcats could be called the hottest team in the tournament and that’s because they keep it simple. Wright has an experienced team with tournament experience. The Wildcats have been able to spread the floor and create matchup problems at every position. That will be much harder against North Carolina. But if Villanova maintains its aggressive, intelligent play, anything seems possible.
Coach: Jim Calhoun
He has won two national championships and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but Jim Calhoun arrives at this Final Four at odds with the organization that runs the event. There will be NCAA logos all over the floor at Ford Field and the NCAA is currently investigating allegations of possible recruiting violations by Calhoun and the UConn coaching staff in light of last week’s Yahoo! Sports article. Calhoun and his players had to answer questions about the story throughout the West Regional in Glendale, Ariz., but it didn’t seem to be a distraction as the Huskies defeated Purdue and Missouri to reach the Final Four for the third time in school history. Calhoun, now 3-5 in regional finals, has the unusual distinction of being undefeated in Final Four play. UConn won the national championship in 1999 and 2004. Both of those times, the Huskies advanced out of the West Regional, playing games in the Phoenix area. During the regular season, Calhoun became the seventh Division I coach to win 800 games. He now has 805, trailing only Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Phelan.
Key supporting player: Junior forward Stanley Robinson
Stanley Robinson started 32 games for the Huskies in 2007-08 but he didn’t join the Huskies until Dec. 14 after missing the first semester on a personal leave of absence. Known as Sticks to his teammates, Robinson can make a huge difference for the Huskies in several ways. But his role has become magnified since forward Jerome Dyson injured his knee Feb. 11 against Syracuse. Robinson isn’t the lockdown defender Dyson was, but Robinson is the most athletic player in UConn’s lineup. UConn needs him to rebound, defend and score. Robinson is capable of cleaning up around the basket and his high-flying dunks can serve as momentum builders for UConn. Robinson is averaging 17.4 points in the last five games and UConn needs that production.
Hasheem Thabeet, UConn’s 7-3 center, has been the defensive player of the year in the Big East the past two seasons. His list of contributions begins with blocked shots, altered shots and his incredible presence inside the lane. But without Dyson, Thabeet’s offensive role has changed. UConn has played best recently when Thabeet gets touches inside. Even if he doesn’t score, he can kick the ball out to open jump shooters. It’s important for Thabeet to get those touches early, as a way to build his confidence. If the Huskies don’t look to exploit his size, they are wasting a big advantage.
Will win if:
A.J. Price and Kemba Walker continue their productive play on the perimeter. Since Dyson’s injury, Price has provided the type of point guard leadership required in Calhoun’s system. Walker can change the pace of a game with his quickness and UConn would have been in trouble without his 23 points against Missouri. Calhoun’s best teams have always had two excellent ball handlers.
Coach: Tom Izzo
After the Spartans defeated Louisville in the Midwest Regional final Sunday, Izzo commented on looking forward to heading home for the Final Four in Detroit. Why not? The last Final Four team to appear in its home state was Duke in 1994. The Blue Devils didn’t benefit fully from that advantage, losing to Arkansas in Charlotte finale. But Izzo seems determined to use every advantage he has and there should be a sea of green in Ford Field. Perhaps the weekend will turn into a tribute to Izzo, who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves nationally. Since the tournament field expanded to 65 in 1985, the Spartans are 5-1 in the Elite Eight and all of those games have come under Izzo. After defeating Louisville, Michigan State is 14-2 in the second game of a weekend in NCAA tournament play under Izzo. And the only two losses came when playing a top seed in the opponent’s home state. Michigan State fell to No. 1 Texas in San Antonio in 2003 and to No. 1 North Carolina in the second round at Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2007. If you’ve paid any attention in recent years, you would know Michigan State is going to its fifth Final Four in 11 years. Izzo is a terrific preparation coach and he proved it again last weekend against Kansas and Louisville.
Key supporting player: Sophomore guard Durrell Summers
His hometown is Detroit. How pumped do you think Summers will be, playing in the Final Four as a home game. It doesn’t get much better than that. Summers has come off the bench to score 32 points in the last three tournament games. And he is efficient. Summers is 11-for-15 from the field in those three games, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range. At times, Summers can put up big numbers. He had 26 points at Ohio State, and two other 21-point games. Summers is only 6-4 but he hits the boards as well, with 16 rebounds in those three games. With productive minutes like that, Summers is certain to make an impression on the hometown crowd.
The Spartans can’t afford to let their offense drop off. After a 39 percent effort in the come-from-behind effort against Kansas, Michigan State improved to 46.2 percent in the dominating win over Louisville. The Spartans were 8-for-16 from 3-point range Sunday. When Izzo’s team is making baskets it allows the Spartans a chance to set up their defense — and that’s when Michigan State is tough to beat. Just ask Louisville.
Will win if:
The Spartans can win it all if they control tempo and continue to defend the way they have so far in the tournament. Michigan State has all week to prepare for UConn and possibly one more opponent. Izzo and his staff have been here before and they get the job done. Guard Travis Walton was the Big Ten’s top defender and he sets the tone as the Spartans get in the face of opponents and use their physical style.